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    Wrestling with Lenny

    Posted by Mike Finnegan on

    Lenny (1974) is the cinematic equivalent of a wrestling match, with the competition fierce between three ferocious creative sensibilities for supremacy throughout: self-destructive comedic legend Lenny Bruce, stage and screen visual stylist Bob Fosse and obsessively curious, chameleon-like actor Dustin Hoffman. Opening in theatres 41 years ago today, Lenny (adapted by Julian Barry from his 1971 Broadway play that won its lead Cliff Gorman a Best Actor Tony Award) divided critics in their estimations of whether or not it could be termed biography, whether or not the film captured enough of Bruce’s groundbreaking and obscene (for its 1950s/1960s era) humor, whether or not the Oscar®-winning director of Cabaret erred too much on the side of stylistic flourishes and show-business sleaziness, and whether or not Hoffman’s intense and pugnacious portrayal was close enough to the mark. But in the year of Chinatown, The Godfather Part II, The Conversation and other acclaimed movies pulling back the layers of society’s dark underbelly, Lenny struck a chord by being mesmerizingly watchable. With a documentary feel generated by its stark black-and-white cinematography by Bruce Surtees and its style of interviewee recollections framing the events of Bruce’s life and career, audiences made this version of Bruce – provocateur, agitator, censorship slayer, law-breaking martyr – a box-office success. Though its making took a toll on workaholic Fosse’s health and constantly challenged Hoffman in his struggle to shape his characterization, the movie somehow transformed its doom-laded ambience into a powerful cautionary tale about societal attitudes toward the deviant – as well as Bruce’s own demons. The film was nominated for six Academy Awards® including Best Picture, Director and Actor. For her portrayal of Bruce’s stripper wife Honey Harlowe, Valerie Perrine was a Best Actress Oscar® nominee and Cannes Film Festival 1975 award winner, as well as the Best Supporting Actress choice of the National Board of Review and New York Film Critics. That an artistic triumph grew out of depressing subject matter wasn’t a quandary for film historian David Thomson, who observes in his New Biographical Dictionary of Film entry for Fosse: “Lenny has no real song or dance, but Bruce ‘sang’ to his audiences, acidulous blues that dared interruption; arguably only a director of musicals could have handled the subject.” With a bracingly analytical Julie Kirgo/Nick Redman Audio Commentary covering the Barry play, Fosse film and all points in between, Lenny – whether Bruce, Fosse, Hoffman or all the above rule the day in your estimation – pins you to the mat on a spellbinding Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray.