Lenny (1974): Bob Fosse’s Stylized Biopic of Lenny Bruce, Starring Dustin Hoffman

As a follow-up to his 1972 Oscar-winning musical “Cabaret,” fast-rising director Bob Fosse chose another showbiz personality, albeit a more controversial one that Sally Bowles.  In his 1974 black-and-white, “Lenny,” from a screenplay by Julian Barry based on his own stage play, he offers a chronicle of the life and times of the 1950s comedian Lenny Bruce.

Cabaret (1972): Bob Fosse’s Dazzling Musical Featuring Liza Minnelli in her Best, Oscar-Winning Performance Film


At first glance, Dustin Hoffman is not the most likely or natural choice to play the anti-establishment Jewish comedian.  On the Off and then Broadway stage, Cliff Gorman was supposed to be excellent in capturing the essence of Bruce; as a compensation, perhaps, Fosse cast Gorman here in the film-within-film.


The episodic narrative is too much of a patchwork, punctuated by flashbacks and interviews done in pseudo-cinema verite style, and obviously inspired by the structure of Orson Welles’ magnum opus, “Citizen Kane,” with touches of Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita” and “81/2.”  Some scenes, such as a prolonged orgy, smack of sensationalism and don’t do much to illuminate Bruce as an artist or man.


Chronologically, we get glimpses into Lenny’s courtship and marriage to Honey (Valerie Perrine), a street smarts stripper who’s portrayed here as a drug-addict and bisexual. Main sections are devotes to Bruce’s rise to fame and controversial standing as a result of using foul language and inflammatory monologues in public, which lead to several arrests based on charges of obscenity.


More effective are the chapters dealing with his personal lifestyle, specifically his addiction to drugs (heroin), which further complicates his standing with the authorities.  Bruce’s obsession with death and tragic ending have proven prophetic in terms of the real life and death of Bob Fosse, which makes the picture a more personal work than given credit at the time.  (Fosse who died in 1987, would make two more pictures before his untimely death, “All That Jazz” in 1979 and “Star 80” in 1983).


Oscar Alert

Oscar Nominations:  6

Picture, produced by Marvin Worth

Director: Bob Fosse

Screenplay (Adapted): Julian Barry

Actor: Dustin Hoffman

Actress: Valerie Perrine

Cinematography: Bruce Surtees


Oscar Awards:  None


Oscar Context:


In 1974, the two most nominated films were “The Godfather, Part II,” with 11 nods, and Polanski’s Depression-era well-crafted noir, “Chinatown,” also 11.  While Coppola’s second installment won the largest (six) number of awards, “Chinatown” received only one, for Original Screenplay.


Of the five nominees, Bob Fosse’s biopicture “Lenny” didn’t win any award, despite six nods, and neither did Coppola’s other picture, “The Conversation,” which was nominated in 3 categories.  The fifth contender was the disaster-adventure flick, “The Towering Inferno,” which won three technical awards out of its seven nominations.




Lenny Bruce (Dustin Hoffman)

Honey Bruce (Valerie Perrine)

Sally Marr (Jan Miner)

Artie Silver (Stanley Beck

Sherman Hart (Gary Morton)

Aunt Mema (Rashel Novikoff)

Jack Goldstein (Guy Rennie)

Baltimore Club MC (Frankie Man)

San Francisco Defense Attorney (Mark Harris)

San Francisco Judge (Lee Sandman)