yesterday i watched dustin hoffman in bob fosse's "lenny" - the 1974 film about the life and times of comedian lenny bruce. i added it to my netflix queue earlier this month because it was the 43rd anniversary of lenny bruce's death from a heroin overdose - at the tragically young age of 40! i came to lenny bruce via the first amendment, rather than the typical route most people encounter him - via his comedy.
the 1950's and 1960's witnessed the incredibly repressive persecution of then cutting edge artists (mostly writers) and entertainers. by today's standards what lenny bruce was repeatedly prosecuted for under the guise of obscenity is considered tame stuff. within 10 years of his death, the play and movie versions of his life - both which incorporated his stage routines - were mainstream viewing (albeit the movie earned an "r" rating).
back to the film... with a dustin hoffman in his prime, it was a pleasure to watch. filmed in black and white, fosse weaved together a series of flashbacks to illuminate the three main interviews "conducted" with bruce's wife, honey (an ex-stripper and eventual heroin addict), his mother, and agent. if there is any serious criticism, the film paints bruce as a basically saintly heretic. the repeated scenes with his infant, then toddler, daughter underscored how selfless he was (not to mention repeatedly bailing out his wife). the guy just couldn't do wrong.
we're even led to believe that the repeated arrests and prosecutions led directly to his tragic death (fully portrayed with the infamous image of him sprawled out naked on his bathroom floor). but, it's is annoying vague on a lot of material. it nails the downward spiral bruce's stage routine devolved into - he literally read, ad nauseum, the transcripts of the trials to his audience! that wasn't comedy, it was drug-fueled self-pity. the film doesn't explore the drug-addiction (although it implied, via a mother's rant, that it was honey's fault).
while nominated for six oscars (including best picture, actor, actress, and cinematography) it took home none. but valerie perrine did win best actress at the 1975 cannes film festival for her portrayal of honey. the substance of lenny bruce's biography is thin, but the performances are first rate - well worth the time to watch. if you're a stickler for background and detail, balance the film with goldman and schiller's, "ladies and gentlemen - lenny bruce."