Another day, another biopic.
In many ways, biopics are all alike; an interesting figure’s life, failures and triumphs all, is paraded on screen for two hours or so; usually the lead actor or actress is given the chance to shine and is more often than not rewarded for his or her efforts. At the same time, the movie is more or less a checklist of important moments in a famous person’s life and the ‘bigger picture’ of the life is lost. Sure, we can’t really know a person, or what they’re thinking, or their motivations, but biopics try anyway and more often than not, they fail.
In some ways, “Lenny,” Bob Fosse’s 1974 film about the life of comedian/social commentator Lenny Bruce (Dustin Hoffman), is no different from the other Hollywood biopics; a researcher, never seen, sits down with the people of Bruce’s inner circle; his mother, Sally Marr (Jan Miner); his wife, Honey (Valerie Perrine); and his manager, Artie Silver (Stanley Beck). The researcher asks questions, they answer and in the background, a tape recorder is always running, picking up every piece of Bruce’s life from the ones who “knew” him best.
And of course, there are flashbacks – Fosse and Hoffman recreate Lenny’s shows, from his embarrassing early days, to his explosive heyday, to his decline after numerous arrests and trials, and finally his death. Structurally, it’s not unique, but “Lenny” triumphs in style where so many others fail.
And oh, what a triumph. Fosse uses his camera like Bruce uses his words; the lens becomes a weapon, an aggressive character that forces the hypocrisy of the world on the viewers and dares them to look away. With one notable exception near the end, every shot is either a close-up or an extreme close-up, uncomfortably plunging the viewer into Bruce’s life and his message on the power of words. Bruce became a voice for society’s underbelly, shouting what few just whispered about and trying to make things change rather than just talk about wanting to change things.
And from all this, Fosse delivers something personal in a biopic, making the audience more than just a voyeur; we are shown clips of a the life of a messenger, and we become a part of the message. How many biopics, or just straight-up films, can make that claim?
Directed by Bob Fosse
Written by Julian Barry
Starring: Dustin Hoffman (Lenny Bruce)
Valerie Perrine (Honey Bruce)
Stanley Beck (Artie Silver)
Jan Miner (Sally Marr)