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Lenny (1974) - Overview, Synopsis, Critique

bruce film starts wife

Principal social themes: censorship, addiction (drugs)

United Artists. R rating. Featuring: Dustin Hoffman, Valerie Perrine, Jan Miner, Stanley Beck, Gary Morton, Lee Sandman, Frankie Man, Rashel Novikoff, Guy Rennie, Susan Malnick, Phil Philbin, Clarence Thomas, Mark Harris; Written by Julian Barry based on his play Lenny . Cinematography by Bruce Sertees. Edited by Alan Heim. Music by Ralph Burns. Produced by Marvin Worth. Directed by Bob Fosse. B&W. 112 minutes.


Lenny Bruce (1926–1966) was a controversial nightclub comic noted for his acerbic wit and colorful use of obscenity. Because of foul language in his act, Bruce became a target for local officials who tried to censor him by applying archaic laws to have him arrested. His trials became landmark studies of First Amendment rights, and when convicted, he often won on appeal to higher courts. Due to his frequent arrests, he found fewer and fewer clubs willing to hire him, and he went into debt trying to cover his legal fees. Eventually Bruce died of a drug overdose. The film Lenny was an adaptation of a play by Julian Barry who obtained permission to incorporate many of Bruce’s routines into his script. Lenny was critically acclaimed and received a large number of nominations for the 1974 Academy Awards, but lost to Godfather II in most categories.


Lenny has a rather freewheeling structure, centering on interviews about Bruce by his wife, his mother, and his agent. Each individual is shown as they respond to questions, and their comments are recorded on an open-reel tape recorder. Sometimes their reflections overlap, and frequent flashbacks are inserted to portray Lenny’s career, not always in chronological order, although the usual emphasis is on his nightclub routines. In the early clips, Bruce is clean-shaven; he is bearded in his later performances. Some of the earliest scenes trace Bruce’s work at resorts in the Catskills, where his occasional off-color remarks get him into trouble until the comic, feeling too confined by this barrier, throws a tantrum and curses out his audience. Bruce then starts working at strip clubs, where he meets his wife, Honey. They have some small success working together, but Honey is injured in an automobile accident and becomes addicted to drugs due to her medical treatment. Later Honey is arrested because of her drug habit and imprisoned for eighteen months. Bruce’s career starts to take off while she is in jail, and he visits her frequently, bringing his record albums as examples of his success.

Lenny’s first arrest actually works in his favor. He is acquitted at a jury trial, and the publicity makes it “hip” to catch his routines. His gigs start drawing large crowds. Bruce starts to read up on laws about free speech as his arrests continue, and he starts reading transcripts of his cases during his performances. The tide turns, however, when the pressure drives Lenny to develop his own drug habit. Some of his performances become incoherent. He starts to get fewer engagements as the nightclub owners are threatened with loss of their liquor licenses if they hire Bruce. His debts mount up, and he dismisses his lawyers and tries unsuccessfully to defend himself. He is also arrested for possession of narcotics and fears going to prison. Finally, his body is discovered in his bathroom, dead of a drug overdose. His agent observes that Lenny’s use of language in nightclubs is now considered routine, and that Lenny was the target of an unjust vendetta. His wife and mother continue speak of him with affection as the interviews conclude.


Some critics of Lenny claim that the film tries inflate his significance. Nevertheless, the script is basically very honest in its approach, using the comic’s actual dialogue and text from his court appearances. In one of his monologues, Bruce states that he does not have a social agenda; he simply wants to make a buck as an entertainer. It is his political comments, however, that seem to be behind the move to censor him, not his dirty language. A number of the court cases present very rational arguments about the issue of censorship. When a policeman who arrests Bruce claims that he never used the obscene word spoken by the comic, he seems unbelievable and dishonest. He has to finally admit that he hears the language on a daily basis at the police station. Bruce also attacks the concept of “community standards” in defining obscenity. In the later cases, Bruce is denied the right to perform his act to illustrate the context of his remarks, to demonstrate that they are not obscene.

Individuals interested in learning more about Bruce might find it useful to see the authentic Bruce perform in a low-budget film he wrote and starred in together with his wife, titled Dance Hall Racket (1953). More important is The Lenny Bruce Performance Film , an unedited record of one of his last nightclub appearances. This film reveals the embittered, angry Bruce as magnificently captured by Dustin Hoffman in Lenny . If, on the other hand, you want to hear Bruce at his satirical best, you would have to track down his recordings, particularly his 1963 Carnegie Hall one-man show recorded shortly after the assassination of President Kennedy. It seems odd that this concert, in which Bruce performs before the largest crowd of his career, is not depicted in Lenny , but then it was not a controversial performance, and the film was basically concerned with the controversial aspects of his career.

Lenz, Heinrich Friedrich Emil [next] [back] Lennix, Harry J. (1965–)

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