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Bob Fosses Lenny A Lost Treasure

When George Carlin hit the height of his fame in the mid-seventies, he was considered by many to be a serious innovator. Besides being extremely unpredictable (walking off minutes into the act, insulting the audience or simply not showing up), behind every scathing and hilarious rant there lay a solid foundation of social commentary relevant to the times. Nothing was too taboo ? religion, politics, sex, all the way down the line to simple fart jokes ? he talked and the world listened, laughed and, most importantly, thought.Other comics were out there doing it as well, Richard Pryor the most notable, fueling his raging stage show ? like Carlin ? with a drug habit to match. Bill Hicks (a self-titled 'Chomsky with dick jokes') wouldn't hit until a decade or so later but he carried the tradition on with an acerbic wit and level of skill that managed to set the bar that much higher for future generations. .

And though those torch bearers seem to be few and far between these days, the impact of these artists can still be seen, and felt, in this new generation ? it's just a matter of searching.Once they're found, a little study can follow their slight branches down into thicker territory, on to the trunk, and finally the roots. There we find one person: Lenny Bruce.Ever hear the Carlin bit about 'context', or his famous 'Seven Things You Can't Say on Television' routine? What about Pryor's 'racial epithets'? Or Hicks' bit about a resurrected Jesus witnessing the crucifix necklace phenomenon?.

They're all variations, but at the core he's there - Lenny. Lenny. Lenny.Eleven books have been written about him and numerous documentaries have been made.

He literally blew the comedic scene apart in the early sixties, taking comedy to levels no one thought possible, championing the First Amendment (in a battle he wouldn't officialy win until nearly four decades after his death) and changing the very face of the profession forever. He didn't just push the envelope, he folded it into a paper airplane and flew that motherfucker into space.Yet still, mention him to nearly anyone in their twenties ? fans of Chris Rock and Dave Chapelle, not to mention Jon Stewart ? and the inevitable 'who?' follows. You can imagine my frustration.The greatest tragedy to be found amongst this mess, though, is the lost masterpiece Lenny, directed by Bob Fosse in 1974 and garnering six Oscar nominations (including Best Actor, Actress, Director and Film).

Ever see it for rent at the video store? Maybe in the classics section? Last week I was in Blockbuster and I asked the teenager behind the counter what Fosse movies they had. After several minutes of searching and a dazed 'Gee, I never even heard of the bugger?' he informed me they didn't even have one. Forget the Oscar, Emmy, Tony and Palm d'Or the man won, we want tits and explosions, goddamit.For anyone reading this who hasn't heard of him and carries any interest or opinion about censorship, truth and the art of comedy, I suggest searching out a copy of Lenny.Based on Julian Barry's stage play of the same title, Lenny was shot in black and white and remains, thirty years later, a cast spell from start to finish. Fosse was an undisputed master of both musical theatre and cinema, and Lenny is a robust testament to his genius.

He perfectly captures nearly every opposing aspect of the comedian's life, from the most tender, personal moments all the way to the flashing, nearly clairvoyant brilliance he displayed onstage during the zenith of his career. No stranger to the turmoil most performers experience in their personal lives as well, however, Fosse does not shy away from taking us directly into some of the artist's most bitter and humiliating moments.Dustin Hoffman is phenomenal in the role, somehow managing to fall into Bruce's body and channeling him with a tittering, manic grace that is sometimes hard to watch but never anything less than riveting.

As with all of Fosse's films the cast is utterly believable, right down to the lowest paid extra, leaving you feeling as if you've stepped right into the furtive, bawdy underworld of the late 1950's New York Jazz circuit.Valerie Perinne is truly excellent in her portrayal of Lenny's stripper wife, Honey, and Jan Miner is dead-on in a small role as his mother Sally Marr, but the meat and bones of this thing is the combination of Hoffman and Fosse. Every emotional angle Hoffman comes at us from is perfectly reflected in the tilt and sway of the camera, every broken scene and lost moment written in shadow and light that slides with a natural ease.

The score, of course, is amazing (Fosse was already making good money choreographing and writing musical comedy sketches by the age of fifteen, after two years of touring theatres and strip joints in the Chicago area during the early 40's), but the overall triumph is in Fosse's ability to show Lenny Bruce as THE innovator that he truly was. Lenny himself once said: "Comedy isn't about telling jokes - it's about telling the truth." And that's exactly what Fosse has done here.

Lenny's fight, at the core, was a humanitarian one, and Fosse paints a portrait of Lenny as many different things throughout the movie, but beneath it all, he finds a core that was uniquely, and tragically, human.



By: Kyle W. McMillan


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