Tuesday, May 21, 2013
2013 Cannes Marathon: Lenny
(Winner of the Best Actress Prize to Valerie Perrine at the 1975 Cannes Film Festival)
Directed by Bob Fosse and written by Julian Barry from his own play, Lenny is the story about comedian Lenny Bruce who pushed the envelope on the concept of stand-up comedy with obscenities as he rose high and later fell hard. The film is an exploration into the life of a man who tries to be outrageous to his audience only to succumb to drugs as the pressures of the authorities start to get to him. Also starring Valerie Perrine, Jan Miner, and Stanley Beck. Lenny is a riveting yet uncompromising film from Bob Fosse.
Lenny Bruce’s work in comedy wasn’t just shocking in the subjects he talked about also the way he talked about it where there was this sense of fearlessness in his work. While it garnered him praise from audiences as he is later considered one of the greatest comics ever. He was considered to be too obscene for his language as he would be arrested for these obscenities were the piling of arrests and legal issues along with his escalating drug abuse led to his downfall and his death of a morphine overdose in 1966. What this film does is tell Lenny Bruce’s story from not just his standup performances as he is also talking about his legal issues in one of his final standup shows. His story is also told from those who were closest to him in his life.
Julian Barry’s screenplay has a unique narrative that cross-cuts throughout the film where even though it is told chronologically from the time Lenny meets his future wife in a stripper named Honey (Valerie Perrine) to his death. Though the script would feature moments where Bruce is talking about his life in his last stand-up show, it is Honey as well as Bruce’s mother Sally Marr (Jan Miner) and his agent Artie Silver (Stanley Beck) that would talk about Bruce as they’re being interviewed. What they would reveal is just some of the attributes of Lenny that were good as he could be a kind, loving person who wants to do right while wanting to tell the truth to his audience. Yet, there are aspects about Bruce that is quite despicable as he is a junkie who can be cruel. He’s willing to sleep with other women and do all sorts of things while he can be very confrontational.
A lot of the story about Bruce’s life is told from Honey who would also endure her own trials and tribulation as she also became addicted to drugs where she would be in prison for two years forcing Bruce to take care of their daughter as he’s managed to do a good job. Still, the two struggle to be clean until Bruce finally becomes a success through his unique stand-up comedy as he’s getting paid lots of money but it also brings trouble. Notably in the third act in which Honey is released from prison as they both relapse where Bruce does a show that would mark the beginning of the end where his fall shows a man facing his troubles as he is desperate to do right again.
The direction of Bob Fosse is very entrancing for not just the way he presents the film but also give it an air of style where some of it is shot in nightclubs while having this feel where the film is sort of a documentary. While the look of the film as a whole is polished, there is an air of grittiness to the stand-up comedy scenes where things feel awkward at first but once Bruce finally finds his footing, there is something that is engaging where Fosse shows a reaction shot from the audience as well as Bruce himself. There’s an energy to the comedy act that occurs where it can be very risqué and confrontational but it’s also very funny since Fosse knows that Bruce is a satirist.
The direction maintains that air of risqué content in some parts of the film outside of the comedy with some striptease shows where if one was to see it from a present point-of-view, it’s really tame but it has an elegance that is lost in today’s stripping culture. There are also moments where Fosse shows that world of Bruce’s home life that is very dark where Honey is subjected into things that was considered taboo at the time while the drug scenes showcase that sense of detachment in Bruce’s life. The trial scenes have Fosse not only treat it with a sense of realism where sometimes it can be funny but also dramatic in the way Bruce tries to defend himself as the framing is quite startling to see Bruce on his own trying to prove to the court that he isn’t doing anything wrong. Overall, Fosse creates a very engrossing yet unsettling film about the life of Lenny Bruce.
Cinematographer Bruce Surtees does great work with the film‘s black-and-white cinematography to create a timeless look of the film as it is set from the 1950s to the 1970s in the interview scenes as it features some evocative lighting schemes in the clubs. Editor Alan Heim does excellent work with the editing to help structure the story by moving the interviews and the events back-and-forth while creating some rhythmic cuts for some of the audience reaction towards Bruce‘s act. Production designer Joel Schiller and set decorator Nicholas J. Romanac do amazing work with the set pieces from the look of the nightclubs to some of the look of the buildings from the 1950 and 1960s to play up a world that is unraveling through Bruce‘s act.
Costume designer Albert Wolsky does wonderful work with the costumes from the lavish stripper clothing of the 1950s to the more grimy, casual look that Bruce goes for in the 1960s. The sound work of Dennis Maitland is terrific for the atmosphere of the stand-up comedy scenes as well as some of the raucous moments in the trial scenes. The film’s music by Ralph Burns is superb as it is largely a jazz-based score with some up-tempo pieces to some more somber pieces for its drama as the soundtrack also includes some pieces by Miles Davis.
The casting by Marion Dougherty and Beverly McDermott is brilliant as it features some notable small roles from Rashael Novikoff as Bruce’s mother and Gary Morton as old-school entertainer Sherman Mort who tries to guide Bruce into what he should do. Stanley Beck is excellent as Bruce’s agent Artie Silver who tries to ensure Bruce’s financial future while being very loyal to him. Jan Miner is wonderful as Bruce’s mother Sally Marr who encourages him to succeed with his act while being troubled by his fall. Valerie Perrine is phenomenal as Honey Bruce as a woman who falls for Lenny and becomes a drug addict like him where Perrine just doesn’t exude sexiness but also vulnerability and a weariness as her character is being interviewed. Finally, there’s Dustin Hoffman in an incredible performance as Lenny Bruce where Hoffman brings a bit of sensitivity and vulnerability to the role but is also willing to be outrageous and confrontational as he captures all of the manic energy of Lenny Bruce.
Lenny is a remarkable film from Bob Fosse that features marvelous performances from Dustin Hoffman and Valerie Perrine. The film is definitely one of Fosse’s finest works as well as one of his darkest films that explores the world of humor and how one man was eager to push the envelope. The film is also an intriguing look into the life of Lenny Bruce and his reasons to create comedy with no rules. In the end, Lenny is a fantastic film from Bob Fosse.
Bob Fosse Films: Sweet Charity - Cabaret - Liza with a Z - All That Jazz - Star 80 - The Auteurs #56: Bob Fosse
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