Monday, November 10, 2014

Telling Lenny's Story

"Did you know that Eleanor Roosevelt gave Lou Gehrig the clap?"

Lenny (Dustin Hoffman)

Dustin Hoffman is probably one of the most prolific actors of his time.

He's been in so many movies in the last 45 years — and many of them were considered great when they were in the theaters and are still regarded as great today, like "The Graduate" and "Midnight Cowboy."

Hoffman has made so many great movies — I would be remiss if I didn't mention "Tootsie," and "Wag the Dog" is one of my favorite movies — that many equally deserving movies seem to get lost in the shuffle when the conversation turns to Hoffman's body of work.

The movie that premiered 40 years ago today, "Lenny," truly was one of his very best, yet I seldom hear it mentioned.

As nearly as I can tell, it was pretty faithful to the story of the life of comedian Lenny Bruce.

Unfortunately, that wasn't the way critic Roger Ebert saw it. He felt Bruce was deified as a "liberating martyr." Maybe it's a matter of perspective. Maybe it is different if you are old enough to remember Bruce when he was alive.

I can't think of a great comedian of the last 50 years who wasn't influenced by Bruce. George Carlin is and always will be my favorite comedian, and he was quite open about the influence Bruce had on him. I've heard other comedians speak of Bruce as well, but I never saw him perform when he was alive. In fact, I did not see a documentary on his life until after I saw the movie starring Dustin Hoffman — and that was nearly a decade after Bruce died.

When I finally did see a documentary, I can say I felt two things: (1) that Hoffman did a great job of portraying Bruce — it really must be a considerable challenge to play someone whose memory is still fresh in the public's mind — and (2) Bruce really was a pioneer.

Ebert disagreed. "Lenny," he wrote, was guilty of "playing fast and loose with the facts."

I don't know to which facts Ebert referred. He isn't alive to ask; neither is Bruce, who could only speculate, anyway. So any points in the movie that don't seem clear are likely to remain that way.

To understand Lenny Bruce, I guess it is necessary to have a certain amount of understanding about the times in which he lived because Bruce's humor almost seems tame compared to the acts of some modern comedians I have seen. Quaint, even. It's like reading Walt Whitman was for me when I was studying journalism in college. It was nice, but it dealt with principles that seemed so basic. That was true, but it is the same way in any endeavor, I suppose. The basic principles have to start somewhere, and they have to be articulated by someone. Precedents must be established.

No story about Bruce would be complete if it focused only on his jokes because his life inspired his art. When he was arrested for violating obscenity laws, he read the transcripts of his trials to audiences who came to hear his jokes, not lectures on the criminal justice system — and "Lenny" pulled no punches in dealing with that part of his life.

Nor did it pull any punches when it came to re–creating his early struggles and his troubled relationship with Honey Harlow (Valerie Perrine in the movie), a stripper whom he married in 1951 and divorced in 1957.

Through it all, Lenny had an interesting relationship with his mother (Jan Miner in the movie). She was responsible for giving him his start, but she was manipulative and controlling.

I thought Miner deserved a nomination for Best Supporting Actress, but she didn't get one.

Interestingly, the movie never really explored the influence that Hugh Hefner of Playboy fame had on him. Hefner helped Bruce in the early days of his career and published his autobiography in a serialized form.

"Lenny" was nominated for six Oscars but didn't win any. It was the year of "The Godfather Part II," and, like its predecessor, it swept the Oscars in the spring of 1975. Still, no movie or director or actor wins an Oscar by default. There must be a loyal opposition of some sort. And "Lenny" played that role in six categories — Best Picture, Best Director (Bob Fosse), Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Cinematography.