Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Lenny (1974) Bio Noir

A Bio Noir directed by Bob Fosse (Sweet Charity (1969), Cabaret (1972)  All That Jazz (1979), Star 80 (1983), and Chicago (2002)), a former variety show dancer, a musical theatre choreographer, a screenwriter, and an actor.  Julian Barry's Oscar nominated screenplay for Lenny was based on his 1969 hit play Lenny. The incredibly strikingly crisp  Black & White cinematography was by Bruce Surtees (Tightrope (1984).  

Music by Ralph Burns and Miles Davis.

There is a very small sub genre of Classic Film Noirs and also Biographies or "true story" based films that have a quasi noir vibe, I call them Bio Noir's such as Dillinger (1945), Young Man with a Horn (1950), I'll Cry Tomorrow (1955), The Wrong Man (1956), Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956), The Bonnie Parker Story (1958), I Want To live (1958), Baby Face Nelson (1957), In Cold Blood (1967), The Honeymoon Killers (1970), and Raging Bull (1980). Lenny easily slips into this lineup, and takes top honors. 

The film stars Dustin Hoffman as Lenny Bruce, Valerie Perrine as Hot Honey (Harlow) Bruce, Jan Miner as Sally Marr, Stanley Beck as agent Artie Silver Rashel Novikoff as Aunt Mema, Gary Morton as Sherman Hart, and Guy Rennie as Jack Goldman and an outstanding cast of other supporting players. 

Lenny Bruce (Hoffman)

The film is non linear,  events are portrayed out of chronological order combined with the use of Classic Noir style flashbacks and new wave jump cuts. The film bounces about between recorded interview footage of Honey Bruce (Perrine) and agent Artie Silver (Beck),  depictions of their various biographical milestones, live performances of Lenny Bruce's comedy shtick (during his dive bar days, his prime when he was riding a wave of popularity, and when he was burned out and on the skids, obsessing on stage over his court transcripts), the sexy stripper routines of Hot Honey Harlow,  the heroin junkie shooting galleries and the various court appearances of Bruce for flouting obscenity laws. He was a social commentary comic way before his time, talking about and poking fun at the extremely taboo subjects of religion, race, and sex. He was doing his shtick against "The Man", and got squeezed out of mainstream show business by insider pressure and silenced by outside threats put upon the operators of small venues that held the liquor licenses. 


Sally Marr (Jan Miner )

Honey Harlow (Perrine)

Lenny is not only a Bio Noir but you can equally call it a Show Biz Noir.  It's an insightful, informed depiction by Fosse of the show biz of small clubs, bars and lounges, with house jazz bands, and traveling comics and strippers that replaced traditional Burlesque and flourished in the late 40s through the early 60s. Lenny contains up front one of the most Noir-ish and beautifully choreographed stripping routine performed by Valerie Perrine. 

There's only a small string of  films that I can rattle off, Gilda (1946), Armored Car Robbery (1950), The Glass Wall (1953), Girl On The Run (1953), The City That Never Sleeps (1953), The Man With Golden Arm (1955), The Big Combo (1955), Beyond A Reasonable Doubt (1956), Screaming Mimi (1958), Two Men in Manhattan (1959), Satan In High Heels (1962), Angels Flight (1964) and Marlowe (1969).  All Noir/Neo Noirs that either under the Hayes Code, hinted at stripping Rita Hayworth's routine in Gilda, had supporting characters in the biz, Adele Jergens in Armored Car RobberyRobin Raymond in The Glass WallMala Powers in The City That Never SleepsHelene Stanton in The Big Combo, Kim Novak in The Man With The Golden Arm,  Barbara Nichols in  Beyond A Reasonable Doubt, Michèle Bailly in Two Men In Manhattan, and Rita Moreno in Marlowe) or were actually about strippers/burlesque, Rosemary Pettit and Rene De Milo (an actual stripper) in Girl On The Run, Anita Ekberg in Screaming MimiMeg Myles in  Satan In High Heels, and Indus Arthur  in Angels Flight.  These last three mentioned actually doing routines at small clubs very similar to those that Lenny Bruce and Honey Harlow actually performed in.

The best of them actually featured complete or large parts of routines, and as we got further away from the 1940's and with the crumbling of the Hayes Code the more realistic they got. The top three are Rene De Milo's suggestive performance during the production code in Girl On The Run, and I'll give a tie to Rita Moreno glamour strip  performance in Marlowe with Valerie Perrine's noir strip  in Lenny. Perrine's routine being probably the best benchmark for what a Classic Film Noir striptease might have looked like if we had never had the Hayes Code.

Bob Fosse and Bruce Surtees do for a striptease what Robert Wise and Milton R. Krasner did for the boxing prizefight in The Setup (1949). The juxtapose the action with the crowd reactions.
Hot Honey Harlow

Both Dustin Hoffman and Valerie Perrine were legitimately Oscar worthy. Hoffman brilliantly performs Lenny Bruce's material (it's still relevant and has the potential to shock) and gives us some insight through his acting ability into Bruce's obsessive personality, which clues us to, in a backhanded manner, the reasons for his collapse and death. You get the strong impression that it wasn't caused by just his legal harassment. 

This film is Perrine's high water mark, she shows quite a bit of range going from hard core stripper, to cute young wife, to swinging bisexual, to crumbling hophead. Her stint as a Las Vegas showgirl combined with Fosse's choreographic background pushes her eye popping strip performance into the Noir stratosphere. It"s a true shame that the subject of the film prevents it even now from being seen by wider audiences

Jan Miner plays Sally Marr Lenny's live and let live attitude Jewish mother who got Lenny started in the biz. She was a borscht belt comic and emcee,  Rashel Novikoff as Lenny's Aunt Mema during the family time sequences is hilarious. Stanley Beck is entertaining as his slick agent Artie Silver.

Artie Silver (Stanley Beck)

What was the real Lenny like, we'll probably never know completely. I'm sure the film had to sugar coat and skirt a lot of details to get made. Check out the Albert Goldman-Lawrence Schiller biography, "Ladies and Gentlemen, Lenny Bruce!!" Screencaps are from the MGM DVD 10/10

1 comment: