Films that were made in the early part of the 1970s in America sometimes feel like they were part of an exclusive club. The confusion created by the defunct production code (which ended in 1968) and the flailing MPAA rating system which didn’t get instituted in its entirety until the early ’80’s meant that films sometimes got a decent theatrical run without being rated at all. I haven’t been able to find significant information about the original rating of Lenny (if you have info please let me know) but it feels like a movie that was made during this period. Perhaps the greatest contribution to American system during the rating system inefficiency was to create an atmosphere of unaccountability where cinema, if properly rated for mature audiences, could get away with anything and so it freed a filmmaker like Bob Fosse (who directed this film) to take creative license in the service of a story.

The film feels much more like a French New Wave film than American cinema but also firmly smacks of its contextual peers in American cinema like Easy Rider, The Graduate, Annie Hall, and American Graffitti. Being shot in black and white helps to add to its aesthetic artiness. At the same time its gritty and real, it has elements of discontinuity which break up the flow of the narrative and help to focus on the constructed nature of the film.

The key here is that all of this aesthetic is in the service of the story and really paints the title character, Lenny Bruce as a kind of martyr to “the word”, in other words human language and more importantly free speech. The film has three deliberate strains, one Lenny’s night club act from late in his career which serves to be a cap on the narrative flow of his life story and the other two strains, in a kind of Citizen Kane zeal, are interviews with important people in Lenny’s life, his wife and mother, which narrate a flashback in which we see Lenny living through those experiences.

He is a flawed character to be sure, but he is a tragic one as well. Constantly arrested for using words like “cock-sucking” not out of malicious intent originally but we see through the course of the film that Lenny is the type of personality that, when pushed, pushes back harder. If you tell him not to go there he goes there and pisses on the lawn. Later in his life he is so fed up with being censored that his comedy gives way to simply ranting about the inequities and injusticies of barred public speech. The great irony is, of course, that all the while we are watching a movie about him not only saying but doing those very things he was arrested for.

Nudity and profanity dot the film like candles on a birthday cake but like Bruce’s material its difficult to say which instances are egregious and which directly in the service of the story and entertainment. The bottom line is that taken as a whole Lenny’s (that is the movie as well as the man) message is an important one and to throw the baby out with the bath-water is a disservice to everyone. We must look at this not only from the perspective of a 1970’s film commented on a censored 1960’s comic but also from our own current perspective in which a movie like Lenny probably couldn’t be made.

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