If Lenny has a single highlight scene, it’s at the end of the second act, when comedian Lenny Bruce (played by Dustin Hoffman) does a set on dope. The film’s got a fractured narrative, simultaneously showing posthumous interview clips with the people in his life—ex-wife Valerie Perrine, mom Jan Miner, and agent Stanley Beck—recounting Bruce’s life story, but then also footage from nearer his death, after he’d made it. With Hoffman in nothing but a bathrobe and a single sock, losing track of his routine as he roams the stage, that scene is the first time we’ve gotten to see what everyone’s been talking about. It’s a seven-minute, uninterrupted take, and it’s absolutely devastating. Stellar work from Hoffman, director Fosse, screenwriter Julian Barry, and the sound department (led by Dennis Maitland). In a singular film, it’s a singular scene.
Despite the fracturing, the film’s got a straightforward narrative. Someone’s recording interviews about Bruce, starting with Perrine, then Beck and Miner join in. It’s mostly Perrine, whose story is juxtaposed against Hoffman’s. Flashbacks reveal and inform what the interviewees are talking about, then there are flashforwards to some of Bruce’s final sets. The film intersperses bits from those final sets, showing the matured comic throughout the film. Lenny’s never easy, but Fosse and Barry don’t make the narrative plotting difficult.
The film’s first act is hacky young comedian Hoffman meeting stripper Perrine. He immediately falls in love, and she thinks he’s cute. They’re married pretty soon after. Fosse introduces Perrine in the present-day interview, then through her dance routines, with he, Perrine, cinematographer Bruce Surtees, and editor Alan Heim creating a transfixing sequence. It’s an entirely objectifying one, but then the rest of the film is just realizing that object as a person; Perrine’s the protagonist of the film, while Hoffman’s the literal subject. And also, for reasons, when Lenny gets to the biopic summary montages, they work differently for Hoffman and Perrine. Hoffman wouldn’t be able to stay protagonist with them, while the devices don’t affect Perrine.
The film and Hoffman are wholly entranced with Perrine, and their salad days are fun, sympathetic, and exuberant. And then tragedy strikes, and their whole lives change. They end up in L.A. and get hooked on heroin. They clean up long enough to have a kid to save the marriage, only it doesn’t work, with Hoffman staying off but Perrine getting back on and worse.
Hoffman doesn’t have to account for any of that period outside flashback moments and intercut references in his routine, but Perrine goes through it in the interview. It’s harrowing, with Perrine getting two distinct arcs, one in flashback and one in the interviews. It’s an exceptional performance; maybe not better than Hoffman’s, but far more complex. Perrine builds her performance one way, winding through the narrative and its fractures, while Hoffman gets to build from scratch. And to a goal. In the later comedy routine, the film shows where Hoffman’s going to end. It’s just a matter of getting him there.
The thing about Hoffman (and Bruce) is there’s no early moment in his failures to foretell future greatness. At the film’s start, he’s usually bad and rarely middling. He’s affable and cute, but it’s Perrine who gets him out of the proverbial Catskills comedy circuit (whether she wants to or not). His social commentary routines start as filler between introducing dancers at one strip club or another. He initially gets those gigs because Perrine’s dancing there.
Hoffman grows his performance along the same trajectory; it’s all a coincidence of person and time. The film’s got a lengthy Bruce routine about racial slurs (which dates poorly as social commentary but provides exceptional historical insight); it’s post-integration, and people are figuring things out. It’s the time and place, not the person. There are numerous bits about men and women, husbands and wives, and even some (albeit slurry) anti-homophobia commentary. For a brief, shining moment (in the second act), Hoffman sees the world better than anyone else with a microphone. Then the third act is revealing he’s still profoundly naive about the whole thing. Initially, the film bakes that revelation and resulting tragedy into a pseudo-comedic courtroom scene. Lenny’s got great courtroom scenes. The last one kills and in the wrong way.
The finale ought to be a lot more abrupt than it plays; in the present, night has fallen after the days of interviews; there are a handful of flashbacks, shorter, with the interviewees directing attention to specific details instead of setting up. But, thanks to some pointed questions and answers, the film can stay firmly on its path, Fosse bringing it to the unavoidable but not inevitable finish. The film pulls in all the threads of the previous almost two hours, jumbles them up, then elegantly lays them out, lucidly but not obviously. Fosse’s got one last incredible move in a film of spectacular moves.
All the acting is excellent. Obviously, Hoffman and Perrine are the stars, with Miner and Beck both getting some fine moments. None of the other supporting players get more than a few short scenes, with Rashel Novikoff and Gary Morton standouts. But also pretty much the only other two actors with significant scenes. Novikoff is Hoffman’s unintentionally hilarious aunt, and Morton’s a Catskills comic gone Hollywood, so basically Hoffman’s best-case future.
Technically, it’s superlative. Fosse’s direction, composition and of performances, is great. Heim’s editing, Surtees’s black and white photography, Joel Schiller’s production design, the occasional but actually perfect Ralph Burns music.