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Lenny (1974)

Reviewed by Tom Ender

The movie starts with parts of a comedy monologue from 1964 about free speech. It then backtracks to when Lenny Bruce (Dustin Hoffman) was playing the Catskills clubs, his meeting Honey (Valerie Perrine) - his wife and then his rise to popularity. The movie is made in a black and white interview / documentary style. This style may lend believability to events which must almost seem surreal today to many people who did not live through the periods depicted.

Lenny Bruce was not an instant “success.” He was not always controversial. The scenes at the beginning of the movie show his life to be relatively “boring” for someone who was involved in show business. In the story’s sequence, once he met, “courted” and married Honey the prior “humdrum” nature of his existence was only a memory.

Honey was a “dancer” in strip clubs. (Some people may consider that this movie is not appropriate for children, but Lenny Bruce would probably have disagreed, at least for older children.) When Lenny met Honey they spent a considerable amount of time inside.  During this time Artie Silver (Stanley Beck) Lenny’s agent and his mother Sally Marr (Jan Miner) attempted to stop the relationship from developing further. However, when Honey and Lenny were parted because of her working outside of the New York area, Lenny missed her terribly and proposed marriage.

After the ceremony Lenny and Honey are shown having dinner with Sally and Aunt Mema (Rashel Novikoff). After Sally gets to know Honey they get along better. Lenny wants Honey to stop stripping so they develop a double act: she sings and he does comedy. They are not a hit. They decide to have a child. Kitty (Allison Goldstein at age 1; Bridghid Glass at age 2) is the result. However, the struggling family is running out of money and Honey goes back to work as a stripper. The lure of drugs and sex pull Honey away from the type of life that Lenny wants and they divorce, Lenny getting custody of Kitty (very unusual for the time). 

At this time Lenny starts working as an emcee in strip clubs and does some very blunt comedy while he’s at it. Some who see him here invite him to play other more upscale clubs. He develops an improvisational style which leads to his comedy career taking off. In the movie what seems to be the key to his popularity is the exposure of hypocrisy and how suppression of language is used to keep that hypocrisy covered up.

Comedy was Lenny Bruce’s way of pursuing a free life. Lenny Bruce was not politically correct. Lenny is not politically correct, perhaps even less so now than when it was made. The freedom of expression is seldom politically correct, but it is absolutely essential to a free society. Those who make us laugh are often teachers: Mark Twain, H.L. Mencken, Charlie Chaplin, Will Rogers, Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, Chris Rock and Jon Stewart. I hope the list will keep growing.

If Lenny Bruce had not done comedy like no one had done before, we would probably not have some of the freedoms that we still retain. Lenny Bruce spoke for an end to racial segregation, against the war in Vietnam and against censorship. He spoke truth to power and challenged the establishment of his day. That is usually a very dangerous proposition, but it is also usually worth doing.

Lenny doesn’t have a “happy ending” and in that respect it is true to the facts of Lenny Bruce’s life. However, although Lenny Bruce may not have personally won his battle with the state, he did help to make the world a better place for many of us alive today. Power deserves to be challenged.

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