scowl. A scintilla of tension, held or released. A rifle report. A kiss. Cinema is composed of privileged moments, born of pulp and transfigured as art. In Scenes, a writer will study one of these moments. The approach is up to the writer. They may analyze the scene from a technical standpoint, discuss the dramatic elements in play, or find personal correspondences. Enjoy.
Where are you going? Aw, c’mon man, I haven’t even said, ‘cocksucker’ yet!” our hero pleads to a few of his customers. The funnyman then provokes a few laughs and a few clinks of lowered cocktails in the nightclub. The silence hits. He then coughs and sits on the stage rail, his back turned against the audience and a hand nursing his stomach. “I can’t work this shit out,” he mutters into the microphone. “My stomach is killing me.”
Behold comic Lenny Bruce—a crusader for the First Amendment, a truth teller who slices through the façade of the Kennedy-era American Way, and a martyr who carries his cross from city to city, handing the Romans nails along the way. And here is Bruce standing on a stage wearing nothing but a raincoat, being paid to entertain squares in their monkey suits and gowns, while narcotics flow through his brain. Everyone is waiting for him to utter those filthy words spoken by humans in private and in their minds. The customers are also awaiting the police who are eager to arrest that guttermouth if he dare says them. The daggers are drawn around Bruce, and he is realizing that he may not be funny anymore.
Director Bob Fosse and Dustin Hoffman deftly staged Bruce’s public meltdown in that central scene of the 1974 biopic, Lenny. The movie was shot not long after the funnyman died of a morphine overdose. Fosse mainly focused his movie on Bruce’s rise, peak, and fall—he sliced up the story in flashbacks and fever-dreamt memories that were all captured on sharp, pupil-shrinking black and white. Hoffman portrayed Bruce as an Icarus whose wax wings were already melting before he flew. When he was on the beat, Hoffman’s Bruce had the smile and glint in the eye of a man who owns the world’s one and only Bullshit Detector. And that machine rang across all four winds during the 1950s and early 60’s. The equal outrage and sympathy he received reflected the hypocrisy of the powers that be and the conviction of so many citizens that the walls must be torn down.
Fosse’s camera jumped between Hoffman’s mug and the crowd’s individual reactions when he performed Bruce’s classic bits like his audience survey of those who had “blah-blah-blahed” someone in bed, or when he called audience members by their ethnic slurs to prove his point that such ugly words can lose their meanings if people excessively used them. Fosse also repeatedly used scenes of a performance where Bruce obsessively lectures on the First Amendment, obscenity laws, and how a judge screwed him over in court, while reading his court papers out loud. The martyr was proudly announcing that his oppressors’ nails were cutting through his hands and he had a mighty song to sing about it. Too bad many of his customers walked out to get their money back during his lectures.
The meltdown scene features Hoffman at his best, and it brilliantly encapsulates Bruce’s tragedy. Before that moment, Bruce was a sober jailbird until his wife Honey Harlow helped hook him back onto heroin. She and Hoffman’s Bruce are high in his dressing room and can barely stand up. Bruce’s steel-backed mother insists that he cannot perform that night and scolds his wife for poisoning him. Cool-jazz music is filling the room. “You can’t disappoint the public—that’s it, I’m proud!” Bruce declares. He finally brings himself up and peeks through the curtain. The “heat” from the city, county, state, and Interpol are sitting in the audience. Bruce grins. When Bruce’s name is announced, he whips open the curtain and yelps, “Super Jew!”
Fosse keeps his film rolling from the moment Bruce steps on stage to the end when he staggers off to vomit. During this nearly 10-minute take, Fosse plants an unmoving camera in an audience seat far away from Bruce. We can only see a shadow covering the eyes of his tiny face, which is a radical departure from the movie’s constant close-ups of Bruce’s face during his performances. The backs of several audience members’ heads are also seen in the front row. Bruce appears dehumanized—the Spectacle to watch, not the human being we got to know. It’s difficult to know whether to laugh or frown.
When he takes the stage in his raincoat, Bruce does not know what to do with himself. He pauses to look at the audience when a weak joke comes to mind. Bruce warns the crowd that King Kong is now ready to entertain them, but tells the photographers to avoid camera flashes. “He gets shitty,” he warns. “Just give him an air…uh, a building to play with or an airplane to squeeze, you where…where the fuck was I?” Nervous audience laughter then kicks in.
Bruce’s demons then arise, disappear, and return in his non-sequitur thoughts. His war in the courts that landed him in prison for public obscenity haunts him and he knows that he is going to be handcuffed again. “Are there any attorneys here tonight?” he slurs into the mic. He then hands a dollar to someone who raised his hand. The fall continues: he shows a topless photo of his wife and a few customers leave. His “obscenity” is failing to entertain. He then pulls out a crumpled newspaper clip and tries to tell everyone about undercover cops posing as transvestites and arresting men who fondle them—he points a finger to the police sitting in the audience. “You guys don’t know what you’re dealing with, man! They don’t care, they’ll just grab ‘ya—they’ll say ‘I don’t care if you’re a cop, you got a cute ass and I’m going to schtook ‘ya anyway!’” He finally draws laughs.
Bruce then feels empowered and goes on the attack, sitting backwards on his high horse. “Hey, it’s not nice to incite, to entrap, to exploit these people, you know what I want to talk about?…It’s like Vietnam!” He pauses and then snaps his fingers. “Catholicism is like one big franchise, man…and Kennedy, he…” A pause. “No, no, no, man, I can’t put together what I’m trying to say!” Bruce then launches into a tirade about harassment and repression, Vietnam, and the fact that the police are threatening nightclub owners that if they dare book Lenny Bruce that they will lose their liquor licenses. He gets a few claps in the room, but he waves it off. The absurdity of his battles and the fact that he’s supposed to be an “entertainer” hits him. He lowers his mic and stares at the audience for nearly a minute. “I’m sorry, I’m not funny,” he exhales into the mic. “I’m not funny.”
The fallen hero ends up hugging a toilet in the men’s room. The cops shove his friends out of the way to arrest him for obscenity. “This is America!” he tells them, while vomit dangles from his mouth. “You can’t come into my shithouse without a warrant.” When his right cheek is pressed against a wall while he’s being handcuffed, he has bedroom eyes. “I love you,” he tells them. It’s a fairy tale ending.
By: Cameron Macdonald
Published on: 2006-08-21