“Lenny” – At Film Society of Lincoln Center – 200th Post

Dustin Hoffman in "Lenny"

From November 3 – 13 the Film Society of Lincoln Center presented a film series called Hollywood’s “Jew Wave.”  The series highlighted films made between 1968 and 1977, a period during which Jewish movie stars took Hollywood by storm.  The stars included Barbra Streisand, Elliott Gould, Dustin Hoffman, George Segal, Woody Allen, Richard Dreyfus, Zero Mostel, Gene Wilder and others.  The Jewish quotient was also reflected in the subject matter of the films:  “Funny Girl” (1968), “The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz” (1974), “Annie Hall” (1977) and “The Heartbreak Kid” (1972), to list just some of the films included in this series.

On November 9 the series showed one of my favorite movies, “Lenny” (1974), starring Dustin Hoffman and Valerie Perrine.  “Lenny” was directed by Bob Fosse and nominated for six Oscars. 

I first saw “Lenny,” a year after its release, at The Parkway Theatre, a second run movie house in Mt. Vernon, New York.  It was playing on a double bill with “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” I had heard “Lenny” was a “racy” film.  Clearly The Parkway Theatre was not enforcing the MPAA rating code by selling me, at the age of 13, a ticket to this clearly R rated double feature.  I felt like I was being exposed to forbidden fruit…and I surely was.

“Lenny” certainly lived up to its “racy” reputation.  However, if that was all I absorbed from the experience, the film would have soon been forgotten.  I was completely engrossed in this story, about comedian Lenny Bruce.  Here was a grown up, in the 1960s, who swore freely in his comedy act, pointed out the hypocrisies in our culture and got into incredible trouble for doing so.  He was arrested, considered obscene and put on trial repeatedly for what he said in his nightclub performances.  Lenny Bruce used words, which, by today’s standards, would be considered perfectly normal in any comedy club.

I was entranced by the way “Lenny,” brilliantly edited by Alan Heim, fractured time, seemingly at will.  The film jumped back and forth from Lenny at the height of his popularity to Lenny, in his early days, bombing as a “clean” comedian, to Lenny’s wife, mother and manager giving interviews about Lenny to an unseen reporter.  Past and present informed each other, creating a tapestry that was, and still is, very rich and absorbing.

Hoffman was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for “Lenny.” His fellow nominees that year were  Al Pacino in “The Godfather Part II,” Jack Nicholson in “Chinatown,” Albert Finney in “Murder on the Orient Express” and Art Carney in “Harry & Tonto.”  Carney won.  Had it been up to me it would have been a split decision between Hoffman and Carney (with all respect to Pacino, Nicholson and Finney). Hoffman’s performance is strong, fearless and, at points, vulnerable.

Valerie Perrine was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for her performance as Honey Bruce, Lenny’s wife.  Perrine matches Hoffman, shot for shot, in a performance that is soul bearing.

Since that day in 1975 I went to see “Lenny” every time I had the chance.  When home video came along I made a pact to only see “Lenny” in movie theatres.  As with the performances, the film’s striking, stark, documentary style black and white cinematography, by Jack Surtees, can only be properly appreciated on a big screen.

Seeing “Lenny” again, 36 years after my initial viewing, I was struck by what an uncompromising, rough, sad and shocking film it still is.  As I have often said in this column, when revisiting older movies, they do not change but I do.  That being the case, and if “Lenny” is any yardstick, it is comforting to know I am not too far away from that 13-year-old boy sitting in The Parkway Theatre.

Today’s teenage movie goers have no idea what they have missed, not having grown up in the 1970s.  That decade, when studios still made character driven films, is considered to be the last golden age of American cinema, of which “Lenny” is a prime example.

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About unpaidfilmcritic

Up until 2009 Seth Shire spent nearly two decades in the New York film industry as a post production supervisor of feature films. Highlights include working on the films of Martin Scorsese, James Toback and Spike Lee. Since leaving the film industry Seth has expanded into new and varied areas where he has found a great deal of satisfaction. Seth currently teaches in the Sociology Department of CUNY Queens College. His courses include "Mass Media and Popular Culture," "Introduction to Sociology," and "Sociology of Cinema" where he is a very popular teacher. Seth is also the film critic for "Town & Village," a Manhattan weekly newspaper, a position he has held for the past six years. Seth gives back to his community through volunteer teaching at Manhattan's "The Caring Community," a center for senior citizens, where he teaches a very popular course on documentaries called "The Golden Age of the Documentary. In the fall of 2010 Seth taught "Critical Reading and Writing" at Parsons School of Design. He has also taught "Cinema Studies" at the New York Film Academy. Seth lives in Stuyvesant Town, in Manhattan.

Posted on November 14, 2011, in Classics, Feature Articles and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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