In April the ugliness was beginning to sprout like warts on a cover girl’s nose. At 2:30 in the morning, after 16 straight hours of work, Dustin Hoffman loses his temper. Out on a wet, chilly Brooklyn street, he finds himself shouting at the associate producer. Where the hell is the food? Who works for 16 hours without food? The crew and equipment are due at Brown’s Hotel in the Catskills that evening and nothing is packed, nothing is ready to go.
Hoffman is working on Lenny, a film about the life of Lenny Bruce. He started in late fall of 1973 with eight weeks of rehearsal. Filming began January 21st. Now it is the last week in April and the shooting is more than a week behind schedule. For Hoffman, playing the part of Lenny Bruce is the most difficult thing he has ever done. It rips at him and tears at him and eats up the bulk of his humor, leaving him edgy and obsessive about his work. There are moments when he looks a decade older than his 36 years. Sometimes the cameras have to be halted — entire seconds when he drifts out of Lenny and into Dustin, when his eyes go wild with confusion and fatigue and bitterness.
The first filming in Miami was pleasant enough. There were high spirits then: a lot of dirtymouth antics and the practice of mooning over Miami. Pull down the slacks and bend over. Gotcha, ha ha.
Valerie Perrine, the actress playing Lenny’s wife in the film, Honey Harlowe, realizing she was going to have to shave for the stripper scenes in which she would wear a G-string, sculpted out a neat little pubic heart and told director Bob Fosse it was his Valentine’s Day card. Then there was the time she was at the motel pool with only her robe on. A crew member stood a few feet away with his back turned. Yoo-hoo, mister. Flash. Total exposure. Except that the observer turned out to be a complete stranger. “I exposed my entire body to that unfortunate man,” Valerie admits. The consensus was that the unfortunate man would live. However, “someone very important in the picture” advised against her or anyone else doing any more mooning.
The movie kept dropping behind schedule and the crew worked six and seven days a week, 10 to 16 hours a day. The antics and high spirits gave way to an unceasing general depression. Lesser members of the crew focused their resentment on Robert Fosse’s demands, on his persistent coldness. “He’ll do 25 takes,” one crew member says, “then walk over and move a glass on the table — move it half an inch — and do it all over again.” At first the Lenny people didn’t mind the double time and triple time, but now it is wearing on them. A general below-the-surface Fosse Bitch has developed. In outline, the Bitch goes like this:
Lenny is the first film Fosse has done since 1973, the year he swept America’s most prestigious directors’ awards for film, television and stage: an Oscar for Cabaret, an Emmy for Liza with a ‘Z’ and a Tony for Pippin. “The guy is overrated and he knows it,” one disgruntled crew member is saying in April. “He knows the critics will be gunning for him, so he’s trying to cover his ass. He’s already shot 750,000 feet of film. He’ll do a master shot and 30 different angles with 30 different takes per angle. He wants it all. And he’s hard on the actors and the people behind the camera. It’s like he’s always saying, ‘I don’t think you have it. I think you’re shit. Show me what you can do, but I don’t expect much.’ ”
After the Brooklyn scenes, Dustin Hoffman rides up to the Catskills in a limo, arriving at Brown’s resort in a cold, gray, false dawn. His room faces the resort pool, and a couple of hours after he gets to bed, the pool’s public-address system begins pumping out calls for Mr. and Mrs. Bloom, for Dr. Swartz, for Mr. Levine. At 9:30 a cheerful voice booms out something about “teaching you all Greek dancing, like we promised yesterday, so all please link arms …” This followed by the hotel band blasting an interminable and grating version of “Zorba the Greek.” At 11:00 it is the maids. Unaware that the movie people got in at dawn, and anxious to finish their work, they take up Gestapo tactics.
Bam, bam, bam on the doors. The key in the lock.
“He still sleepin’?”
With contempt: “Maybe he daid.”
“No, I seen him move. He still … sleepin’.”
Hoffman is up at noon for six hours of interior shooting, then has dinner in the mammoth dining room. He orders “garden fresh sautéed vegetables.” What he gets are ugly wet little cubes fresh from a can.
Enter a cheerful elderly widow from an adjoining table. She’s got the rhinestone cat’s eyeglasses and the white shawl opened down the front but buttoned at the neck. “Mr. Hoffman, may I have your autograph?” She’s holding out a soggy napkin and a ballpoint pen. “It’s not for me, it’s for my daughter.”
Hoffman doesn’t look up. “Can’t you see I’m eating?” The woman thrusts the napkin in his face. Hoffman picks up the vegetables in both hands and stuffs them into his empty water glass. Next he pours his wine into that glass, then dumps it all on his plate.
“I’m eating,” he shouts, and several people at other tables turn to watch the little drama.
“Oh, I see,” the woman says, smiling uncertainly, “you’re acting for me.”
Hoffman splashes his right palm into the mess on his plate. “I’m eating. Can’t you see I want to be left in peace?”
“Well,” she says, “I’ll come to see your movie anyway.” Exit the old woman, limping slightly.
There is a leaden silence at the table, then the tired sad truth from Hoffman’s own lips. “She’ll never see any movie I ever make.”
The next night there is an outdoor rain scene to be shot. Hoffman sits in his trailer between takes. It starts with jokes — the thermal underwear makes it hard for him to use the toilet. Somehow the conversation gets serious. “The pollution,” Hoffman mutters. “I think we’ve got ten years to clean up or the human race just isn’t going to make it.”
I had been with the Lenny crew since Brooklyn — long enough to fall into the general malaise of exhaustion and edginess. Somehow Hoffman’s prediction of ecological disaster strikes me as both inane and galling. I mention that the Lenny death scenes were shot not long ago and that there may be a bit of psychic dead weight from that work contributing to Dustin’s sudden sense of apocalypse.
“That’s not it,” Hoffman says with what I take to be false conviction. “I think we’ve got about ten more years unless we clean up our act.”
“I don’t believe you,” I say more sharply than I intended. “I don’t believe you really mean what you’re saying.”
Hoffman terminates the conversation by turning his back on me. He appears to be controlling his temper.
Later, while the rest of the crew eat at Brown’s again, Hoffman is a few miles down the road at a Chinese/American-food truck stop. There is a bit of standard interview talk before the food arrives. Hoffman was born in Los Angeles, studied piano at the L.A. Conservatory of Music before taking up acting at the Pasadena Playhouse. He moved to New York and shared an apartment with Gene Hackman. He supported himself with odd jobs: He waited on tables, checked coats, sold soft drinks, demonstrated toys at Macy’s and worked for six months as an attendant at the New York Psychiatric Institute. He also acted.
There were small parts, larger parts, then, suddenly, rave reviews and recognition for an astounding variety of stage roles: for the hunchbacked Nazi homosexual in Harry, Noon and Night; for the pinched-faced Russian clerk in Journey of the Fifth Horse; for the Cockney plumber in Eh?
Director Mike Nichols was impressed and invited Hoffman to try out for The Graduate. The story goes that just before his ten-minute reading with Katharine Ross, Hoffman gave her an empathetic pat on the butt. A warmup gesture. Ross whirled on him and gritted, “Don’t you ever touch me.” Dustin blew most of his lines and left the audition in defeat. Nichols, however, loved the test. Hoffman projected just the sense of confused earnestness he wanted. Dustin began work on The Graduate in his 29th year. By the middle of his 30th year he was a film star.
Hoffman waited another year before accepting his next part: the sleazy, tubercular Bronx hustler Ratso Rizzo in Midnight Cowboy. It was a calculated decision. He wanted to prove that he was more than a one-role actor. Cowboy was the perfect vehicle to prove his versatility and it remains one of Hoffman’s favorite films.
Lenny will be Hoffman’s ninth film. It is, he keeps saying, his most difficult role: the most demanding in terms of his craft, the most shattering in terms of emotional outlay. “I never played anyone who lived before. Someone who died only eight years ago.”
A plump, dour-faced truck-stop waitress serves up an order of wonton soup. “I like people like that,” Hoffman says. “They don’t have an easy time.”
It is surely not the proper time, but the talk turns to Dustin’s experience with psychoanalysis. He explains that he started years ago. It was an adjunct to his acting career. Even now, at the peak of his career, he is still seeing his psychoanalyst. “One’s own feelings about oneself — the barometer — don’t change because of external changes. If you become successful, become a star, it doesn’t matter. I’ve been a star for about six years. But my feelings about myself and my work are based on the first 30 years. The feelings I had when I couldn’t get a job, the way people treated me then. People that meet me since that summit can’t understand that. They will give me a funny look if I comment about a … dissatisfaction with my work … as you gave me a funny look awhile ago when I said something.”
Hoffman spoons up a few wontons, then asks if he can turn the interview inside out and ask the questions himself. He asks about writing and music and the magazine. Somewhere along the line comes the question, “Are you trepidatious of me?”
“No. You’re easy to talk to.”
“I’m really curious — in terms of myself — when you interview a person you must have an image in your mind of what that person will be like. Was I like or unlike that image?”
“The only image I have comes from the films. You seem to be stingy with interviews, so there isn’t much in-depth material to work from. You said earlier that you didn’t trust anybody. It was a joke, but I think there’s probably some truth there. I had some ideas about New York stage intensity, about insecurity. I’ve seen flashes of temperament …”
“Not temperament. The word is craziness. Whack-o.”
“There’s also something mysterious, something you like to keep hidden that …”
“Do I strike you as a hidden person? I hate that. I hate people that are hidden. I feel I respond to open people.”
The waitress chooses this moment to fill up the water glasses. Dustin invites her to sit for a while. She shifts from one foot to the other, water pitcher in hand.
“Would you like to go to New York?” Dustin asks.
“No way,” she replies. She likes the hills: Maine or Vermont.
Dustin likes the answer. “Are you a loner?” he asks. “Do you read a lot?”
“Enough,” she says.
“What’s the last thing you read that you liked?”
The waitress shrugs. It is obvious that she thinks the movie star is making fun of her.
Dustin breaks into a quick friendly smile. He would like, it seems, to put her at ease, but the questions keep coming out all monumental and piercing.
“Do you like life?”
“Sure, don’t you?”
“Did you go to high school here?” he asks.
“What subjects did you like best?”
“None of them.”
“Really. High school was a very painful place for me. Was it for you?”
“Bad,” the waitress says. She is at once suspicious and sullen. It is probable that in her world, famous movie stars do not have painful high school years.
“Would you like to be a nurse?” Dustin asks.
“No. I’d maybe work with children. That’s about it.”
“I love children,” Dustin says softly. “I have two girls. How many children would you like of your own?”
“I don’t care.”
Eventually she excuses herself and escapes to the counter where she picks up a waiting order of chow mein. After that there are many water glasses to fill on the far side of the restaurant. Once she passes the table and Dustin asks her to come back when she has a chance. She says she will and never does.
“Did you see the sadness on her face?” Hoffman asks. “And you think I’m hidden. I couldn’t get anything out of her but her unhappiness. The first lie was that she liked life.”
After dinner there is a short limo ride back to Brown’s for another all-night shooting session. On the way Dustin talks about the Russian novels he has been reading. I offer some lame comment about sensing a tremendous aura of angst about the entire Lenny cast and crew. Hoffman nods absently and says that he likes the word “angst.”
Brown’s is a sagging Borscht Belt hotel that advertises itself as “Jerry Lewis’s Favorite Resort.” Like the more famous Grossinger’s up the road, Brown’s room rates include three meals a day and all the nightly entertainment — usually a singer and a stand-up comic — a guest can stomach.
The Catskills resorts sprang up in the late Thirties and early Forties. Catering basically to a New York City Jewish clientele, the big hotels initially had their own staff entertainers, usually a band, a comic master of ceremonies and a singer. The staff would usually create a new show every week. Given enough experience and durability, beginning performers could develop timing and sophistication in return for an abysmal salary. In 1940 a trumpet player like Gary Morton, making $7 a week, might charm the management into letting him do a comedy skit. Comedians made $11 a week.
Morton, who eventually hit comedian status, and who is now married to Lucille Ball, is still well known in the Catskills. Most hotel guests mention Morton about as much as Hoffman during the Lenny crew’s stay.
“I started with impressions,” Morton says. “Every comedian started that way. Actually it became pretty wild back in the early Forties. What Jerry Lewis is doing today, we did then. We used to call it schtick, and it was very important. Predominantly we’d do jokes for people of the Jewish faith. You’d do a joke like … oh … ‘Last night I dreamed they filled the swimming pool with seltzer. You take eight strokes, belch, and you’re back where you started.’
“Later we started doing natural humor. Basically talking about our lives. For instance, when you came up here as a kid alone, your mother would always say, ‘Call me the minute you get there.’ You’d tell her that it was going to cost money. And then she’d say, ‘I’ll tell you what you do. You call and ask for you. This way I’ll know you got there.’ So you’d come up and call and ask for yourself and your mother would say, ‘He’s not here.’ But at the last second she would have to blurt out something like, ‘So you got there all right, God bless you.’ That’s the true humor we used to do up here.”
Many of the early Catskills comedians who specialized in this warm, good-hearted style — men like Danny Kaye, Alan King and Red Buttons — went on to enter the ranks of that special American showbiz institution, the Beloved Entertainer. A Beloved Entertainer may, in fact, have much talent. He may sing or dance or do impressions or go so far as to tell a few ca-ca pee-pee jokes, but he will seldom challenge an audience’s basic assumptions about life and law. He will invariably tell the crowd that it is a wonderful audience and will receive a standing ovation for his big finish in which he says, “Thank you very much. God bless you all.” Blowing kisses is optional.
In Lenny, Gary Morton plays Sherman Hart, a fictionalized, cigar-faced B.E. who advises Lenny to “work clean.” The fact is that the few times Lenny Bruce did work the Catskills in the early Fifties, he was working clean. He did the Jimmy Cagney impression (You dirty rat, you) the Vaughan Monroe impression (Ray-sing with the moon) and some wild takeoffs on topical movies or cinema cliches.
Though Lenny might have been bucking for B.E. status, it was clear enough to his friends that he didn’t have it in him to feed an audience pure pap. “Lenny was always funny,” says Gary Morton. “He thought funny. We’d do crazy things. Lenny and Buddy Hackett and myself would sit around New York in a one-room apartment on 54th Street that we paid $40 a month for. The one absolutely hilarious schtick that we’d do: We’d call an agent and book an act for $8. We’d book an accordion player and give him $8 to play ‘Lady of Spain’ for us. Sometimes we’d book a dancer and the girl would come up and ring the bell. ‘Hello? Am I in the right place?’ There’d be no piano, nothing. We’d hum and sing and she’d try to dance and we’d give her $8 and a $4 tip.”
During these apartment sessions, Lenny would work on bits on cop-outs and on Nazis and on religion and sex. “It got so wild that he started to do it onstage. He started to think it. After he married Honey and went out to Hollywood, he still wanted to do that kind of schtick because he worked those strip clubs out in the San Fernando Valley. Duffy’s was one and that’s where it started to get wild, when people started to say. ‘You have to see Lenny Bruce,’ because no one ever said that in the Catskills or at the Strand in New York. But at those clubs, with all those strippers, Lenny thought no one was paying much attention to him. He used to make comments while the girls were stripping. Once I hit my head on the table because I fell out of my chair laughing. He came out onstage completely naked and said, ‘How about a nice big hand for the girl that took that off.’ “
The bigger cities and clubs — the “class” rooms — came after the strip joints. Between 1959 and 1964 Lenny Bruce was one of the funniest men in America and certainly its most controversial comic. It was, some thought, sinful to challenge folks’ attitudes on race and social inequity and drugs and language and law and chicken-fucking. The fact that there was a nearly rabbinical lucidity in some of Bruce’s best bits only made matters worse. Lenny was labeled “sick.” First of the sick comedians. He said words like “fuck” or “cocksucker” onstage.
A decade later, Dustin Hoffman says the same words in front of a camera and quite possibly will earn an Academy Award nomination for his performance. Lenny Bruce was arrested four times and charged with obscenity for his.
Lenny always said he was trying to take the terror out of words. A lot of people — All in the Family coproducer Norman Lear, for one — think that Lenny succeeded. Still, taking the terror out of words and challenging an audience was not then — and is not now — the way to become a Beloved Entertainer.
Even Gary Morton, if he had it to do over again, says he would advise Lenny to stick with inoffensive material. And Lillian Brown, co-owner of Brown’s resort for the last 30-odd years, isn’t sure she would hire a Lenny Bruce even today. “It’s hard to say if we’d do that. We don’t know what he’d say. I hesitate to say anything about anyone that wouldn’t be right. I wouldn’t want to offend my audience or my guests or the public.”
The theory goes that any stand-up comic a decade ago who wasn’t bucking for B.E. status had to be self-destructive. That’s the essence of the night shot the Lenny crew is shooting at Brown’s Hotel. What happens is this:
Lenny says a nasty onstage.
Jack Goldstein, a fictional club owner played by Gus Rennie, is upset. He sets Sherman Hart on Lenny. Lenny agrees to work clean. Onstage the next night, to Jack and Sherman’s great delight, Lenny apologizes with the flourish and humility of a true B.E. Having bowed through a big round of applause, he utters a calculated, vindictive and terminal nasty. Cut to night scene, rain. Lenny and wife Honey getting into a car in a contemporary exit-from-paradise scene. Club owner Jack Goldstein as avenging angel.
Goldstein: “Believe me — everybody is going to be warned about you. You’ll never work another resort — club — room — anything! You’re finished, believe me, in show business.”
Oh, it’s a satisfying scene. Anyone who ever worked for anyone else can identify with it. A calculated resignation, yes, but a resignation that leaves the bastard who signs the paycheck spluttering for words. A resignation with the force of a heavyweight contender’s right cross.
But there is here a larger point to be made. Lenny Bruce was a man who chose his own battles. Because he knew his words had meaning and merit — and that they were funny as well — he always assumed that he would win. That knowledge gave him a patented brass-balls approach to his act, and that approach attracted customers which in turn attracted more and more offers from club owners.
The approach also attracted police. The busts and notoriety fed on themselves. Marvin Worth, Lenny’s one-time manager and producer of the film, thinks that it got to be chic to bust Lenny. “I mean,” he says, “I talked with some of the same guys who busted him back then and they all say, ‘Oh no, we wouldn’t do it today,’ and they start talking about the prevailing social climate or some such shit. And then they tell you how they had a job to do but they thought Lenny was great this and terrific that. I always have this urge to ask them, ‘Well, if you felt that way, why didn’t you just give him a fucking medal and be done with it?’ “
After the first busts — September 29th for narcotics in Philadelphia and October 4th for obscenity in San Francisco, both in 1961 — any police department that didn’t harass Lenny when he was in town apparently assumed they weren’t doing their job. He was eventually banned from entering both Australia and England and arrested five more times: twice for narcotics and three times for obscenity. By 1964 any club owner anywhere who hired Lenny Bruce could expect financially crippling attention from the local authorities. Suddenly bathrooms that had always been adequate needed more toilets. The last fire inspector had overcalculated the club’s maximum capacity by 150 persons. Things like that.
Lenny was effectively frozen out of most of the major clubs in America. He had earlier established a precedent and had some success with his one-man concerts in large halls. He again played some concerts as well as the few smaller clubs where he was still welcome, but he was obsessed with his legal battles and the bills he couldn’t pay. And the sad fact is, toward the end, Lenny Bruce was no longer all that funny.
In San Francisco in October of 1965, Lenny Bruce was declared legally bankrupt. On August 3rd, 1966, he died of an overdose of morphine. The Los Angeles Sheriff’s Office took the last photos of America’s sickest comic. The photos look a bit overexposed, possibly because Lenny’s skin was so white against his bathroom floor. He was 40 years old, 40 pounds overweight, naked and dead.
It is two o’clock on a dull gray Catskills afternoon. Upstairs, somewhere in a rat maze of corridors, Dustin Hoffman is sleeping fitfully. The Lenny crew quit work on the night scene about 5:30 this morning. They quit work because the sun was coming up. The sun rose to a shower of curses.
Some of the early risers on the crew are up, rubbing sleep from their eyes and mumbling around the lobby. A few of them have stumbled into the large room just off the lobby. They are instantly transfixed by the bizarre scene before them.
A couple of hundred hotel guests, mostly women in their middle years, are sitting in a pewlike arrangement of folding chairs. Bobbing, weaving, whirling and gesturing before them is a fast-talking Kissinger-haired fellow of about 40. The man is dressed like a crude parody of a used-car dealer. He’s got the soft shoes and the doubleknit slacks and clashing sports jacket. Trailing behind like an electronic tail is about 20 feet of cord for a microphone which he handles like a tent evangelist.
The man says that he is selling “ott.”
He is selling paintings of crying clowns. He is selling paintings of laughing clowns and of juggling clowns, and of serious, noble-looking clowns. He is selling paintings of balloon vendors and of children with big sad eyes. And he is selling them at a tremendous discount.
The auctioneer holds up a still life: vase, flowers, mottled yellow background. The painting resembles every painting hanging in every room of the Knoxville, Tennessee, Holiday Inn.
“See this work. This is an original oil painting. Real. It’s not done on a machine. It’s not a cocka-mamie. It’s done by a super-talented person. I venture to say to you that if this artist made only one painting in his lifetime, it would be hanging in the Metropolitan Museum of Ott. It sounds strange. Inexpensively, how could it be the best? Forget it. Forget price. Think in terms of quality.
“Watch. I put it into a frame. No, a piece of furniture. No plastic here. Is there anyone who would like this piece of ott, this work of genius, for $20 … $21 … $24. Mrs. S–at $24. Does your husband approve? Oh, I see you’re a liberated lady. Wonderful. Delicious….”
The only member of the Lenny crew with any taste for the high-pressure ott is director of photography Bruce Surtees. He enjoys the auction — in part because he makes a great pretense of not giving a rat’s ass for art. Words like “chiaroscuro” annoy him and he prefers the title “cameraman” to “cinematographer.”
Lenny is being shot in black and white. Surtees, on a first go around, is likely to say that “what I’m striving for here … is proper focus.” Later, if he’s decided you aren’t going to invite him to some kind of film seminar at Harvard, he’ll open up a little more. “With the new black-and-white emulsions they have that they didn’t have in the Fifties — speeds of 200 and 400 ASA — you can carry a tremendous depth of field, which will be interesting since most color is shot wide open and tends to look soft. With black and white we’ll get very sharp focus and sharp light. Hardly any gray tones. You should be able to count the hairs on the actors’ eyebrows.
“This film requires a lot of reality and reality isn’t always that grainy, documentary effect.” Surtees settles back in his folding chair. “Oh Jesus,” he says, “just listen to this guy.”
The auctioneer is making a lot of sincere eye contact. “You don’t buy a genuine Chagall lithograph and get it for under $800. Now what is this? This is called de après. Now what does that mean? It means in French … ‘after.’ In other words, Chagall made an original and another artist came along and re-created this design. Is there anyone here who would like it at $10? Nobody? Isn’t there anyone who …”
The point is taken: Poor and slavish copies of genius go for cheap. This truth lies at the heart of Dustin Hoffman’s struggle with the role of Lenny. He knows that he is not a particularly good mime and his gift is not impersonation. His Lenny is a characterization — an effort, he might say, to tell the same truth by making it his own.
Hoffman spent three months listening to the records, watching the films and reading the books. He interviewed more than 50 people who had known Lenny well. What he wanted was some small seed from Lenny that he could relate to his own life. It was a method that had served him well in The Graduate. The seed there was simple and personal. He spent hours furiously remembering — forcing himself to relive — the first time he ever tried to buy a pack of rubbers in a drugstore.
The seed for Lenny was both more complex and more immediately personal. “What I was told several times,” he says, “by his mother and his daughter and his ex-wife and some of his friends was that there were certain aspects of me that reminded them of him. They might say, ‘Geez, he’s a lot like Lenny.’ I would ask them what they meant and I would try to zero in on those things. They said he was circumspect, a listener. That he wanted to figure people out.
“His mother and I talked a lot in Los Angeles. She said that there was a certain spontaneous side to him, strange things he might do in public. In the middle of a meal in a restaurant he might get up and go into the kitchen and talk to the guy washing dishes. I tried to close in on those things in me that they said were reminiscent of Lenny.”
Hoffman has his own unique overview of the Lenny story, but even on the set, there are different interpretations of what the movie will say. The script was written by Julian Barry, who also wrote the 1971 hit play Lenny, in which Cliff Gorman played the title role. “In the play,” Barry says, “I mythologized Lenny Bruce. I felt that the last thing people knew about him was that he died like a junkie on the bathroom floor. So my personal feeling was to do it larger than life. American folklore. John Henry and his fucking hammer. Lenny and his fucking mouth.
“The film is different. Maybe if I had never done the play, I would feel different about not canonizing Lenny in the film. Bob Fosse worked with me on the script and our approach was that … it was a race between Lenny being destroyed by himself and being destroyed by the police. The point is that the punishment so outweighed the crime — whatever that was — that a cold, objective approach to Lenny makes his case even better. He never wanted to be canonized. The whole beauty of Lenny, everything political notwithstanding, is his message: We’re all the same schmuck. That’s what he was saying.”
Executive producer David Picker thinks Lenny may be a “landmark” film. United Artists, he explains, financed the film’s $3 million budget. Fosse is working for about a quarter of his market value, according to Picker, but owns a piece of any profits. Picker, Marvin Worth, Dustin, Lenny’s mother and daughter also have a piece of the profits. Honey also has a small percentage. The Los Angeles premiere, organized by Picker and Norman Lear, was a benefit for the Southern California American Civil Liberties Union, which picked up a good deal of Lenny’s legal bills during his lifetime. Picker ultimately takes the straightforward view that the film will be about the First Amendment and freedom of speech.
Producer Marvin Worth, Lenny’s longtime friend, finds it a more personal story: “I think it’s a study of hypocrisy, including his own. Lenny always said ‘we’ in everything he did. But I also think it’s about Honey and Lenny, the two of them. They’re like F. Scott and Zelda, only this time it’s junk instead of booze. It’s a love story in its way. Two kids, wild eyed, setting out to grab the world and being destroyed like that. And destroying one another.”
Dustin Hoffman has his own queer, sharp, artist’s perception of the Lenny myth. At issue here is the importance of creative work: “It’s a key thing that Lenny didn’t use drugs to flake out, to get wasted. The drugs were usually uppers, amphetamines, from what I understand. They were used, if anything, to keep him going for four days. He’d do a tremendous amount of work, writing, taping. It kicked him into his work. The obsession with his work is a central thing.
“I know from my own experience that I’m most happy when I’m deep into my own work. Working was very, very important to Lenny. And that’s why when the work was taken away after all the busts he began to fall apart. He couldn’t get on the stage and it really hung him up. That’s when the whole weight-gaining thing started.
“The proof of it is to look at the body of work from the time he started to hit until the busts crippled him. That’s only about five or six years but it is the fruit of his work. There’s a tremendous amount of records and appearances and tapes and books that came out of that time. Which solidifies the idea that there were 24-hour workdays that had to go into that production. After that, all that energy went into his various legal battles but the real work was gone.”
Among the principals in the Lenny crew, only costar Valerie Perrine does not offer theories about what Lenny was really all about. Valerie has met Honey, but her characterization is basically the work of director Fosse. “Valerie is a director’s piece of cake, a superb actress,” Hoffman says. Bob Fosse calls her “an acting robot.”
“Bobby tells me he just pushes a button marked the proper emotion and it all comes out,” Valerie says. “He explains what has happened between Lenny and I, and he tries to relate it to my personal life. One time I was supposed to be very sad and distraught and he told me to think about my Great Dane being killed by a truck.”
Valerie is easily the most popular person on the set. Unlike Dustin, the things that move her are right there on the surface. This makes a number of the crew — those who subscribe to the Fosse Bitch — feel that the director is often unnecessarily cruel with her.
“Valerie,” a friend says, “is very vulnerable, very insecure. She just happened to fall into acting — Montana Wildhack in Slaughterhouse-Five was her first role — and it just so happened that she turned out to be very good. It seems like everyone but Valerie knows that she is super talented. But it’s been very hard. Sometimes she has to take a couple of Valium to get to sleep at night.”
The harshest, most intensely personal example of the button-punch technique happened during a courtroom scene in which Honey breaks down uncontrollably. Fosse’s instructions, some of the crew felt, amounted to psychic brutality.
Valerie doesn’t think so. She respects Fosse and doesn’t mind telling part of the story: “About five years ago, a boy that I loved very much was killed in a hunting accident. We were going to be married in a month. I was very down. The only thing I could think was, ‘Why him? He was so good. It isn’t fair.’ One day somebody handed me a book by Edgar Cayce about reincarnation. I went from there into reading a lot about Oriental philosophy and then into everything Alan Watts ever wrote. I read Jung and Hesse.
“I wasn’t going out with men. Not for a long time. I was sort of lost. Now I understand that good things can come from his death. Good things can come from everything. No matter how bad something is, you can look back and somehow draw strength from it.
“Anyway, that’s what people are talking about — that one scene. Bobby just told me to remember that time in my life.” People who were on the set that day remember the instructions a good deal more specifically, and though no one remembers the exact words, the gist of what Fosse is supposed to have said goes something like this: “Valerie, I want you to think back to the time when you were going to be married. I want you to remember how you felt when that boy was shot. You loved him and suddenly he’s dead.” Fosse gave her a minute to fall into the memory, then, just before the cameras rolled, he hissed at her, “You’ll never see him again.”
That night, after four hours of sleep, with the Valerie death story and the Lenny death story rattling around in my head, I split my time between watching another night-shooting with rain, and the show at the fabulous Jerry Lewis Theater. Somewhere in the middle of her act, a young woman singer humbly tells the audience that “this beautiful song tells of the life of a performer better than I ever could. I learned it off an old Burl Ives album.” She proceeds to sing Simon and Garfunkel’s “Homeward Bound.”
Ordinarily, I think, I’d find this worth a palm to the forehead and a short laugh. This night it seems sad. I wander back up to the set and watch the rain towers pump out authentic-looking rain. I find the artificial rain sad.
Back at the fabulous Jerry Lewis Theater, the headliner, a stand-up comic, has them rolling in the aisles. He is, I’m told by co-owner Lillian Brown, one of the real up-and-comers. The format of his act is classic Beloved Entertainer: pap jokes, impressions, singing, the big finale. It is sad.
After the show, I spend my sixth sleepless night with the Lenny crew. No one, myself included, feels much like talking. The idea of death and the concept of the Beloved Entertainer keep colliding in my mind. Being a true B.E., it seems, requires talent but it is more a matter of style and format than content. In contrast, the best of Lenny Bruce was entirely a matter of content. There is, in this dichotomy, a small, shameful truth that eludes me that night.
Sunrise: pale and cloud shrouded. A bus leaves the hotel for New York in three hours. An earlier bus leaves from a station 20 miles down the road. There is no decision to be made. I am out on the highway in the gray dawn, hitching a ride down to the early bus.
The Lenny crew wraps up the shooting two weeks after I leave. It is to be an intricately edited film and the final mix takes six months to complete. In late October I fly to New York to see the pre-premiere screening.
The afternoon before the film I talk to Dustin Hoffman again — the first time in half a year. He is in the early stages of directing a play called All Over Town, a comedy starring Cleavon Little. Dustin is working hard, but looks rested, even happy. Little breaks him up every five minutes.
“The last time I saw you,” Dustin tells me, “you were hitchhiking out of the Catskills.”
“True. I was getting depressed for some reason.” We talk about that for a while, the reasons, and I tell him that he seems different to me.
“Well,” he says, “I feel different. I think part of it has to do with the fact that this is directing. My wife and friends tell me that I’m more relaxed here than in any acting job I’ve done. There is a certain pain that I always feel when I’m acting that I don’t feel now. I don’t know how this will turn out. Maybe you have wonderful times doing things that turn out terrible and terrible times doing things that turn out wonderful.
“Looking back at Lenny and trying to find the best part … you know what the best part is? The fact that it’s over. One has a memory. I mean my memory of that whole thing is of working nights. Like we were in the Catskills. And not only for me, but for a lot of other people, it was a very hard film to do. There was a tremendous amount of hours put into it. I mean it was depressing. A bummer.” He is smiling.
“It’s good to know,” I say, “that you aren’t always talking about the end of the world.”
Hoffman looks startled. “Is that what I was doing?”
“You were a little pissed off that I didn’t take you seriously.”
“Oh no.” We laugh, for 15 seconds straight, about the end of the world.
The film itself is a surprise, because there are laughs in it and there is tenderness. The stark lighting and Surtees’s cinematography are brilliantly evocative. Bob Fosse’s perfectionism — which had been irritating, then almost unbearable to those on the set — translates into a thorough-going intelligence on film. Levels of meaning — emotional, social and legal — emerge in quick cut and somehow manage to illuminate the tired cliché that comedy grows out of pain.
Valerie Perrine is stunning. That is the talk one hears after the screening. Hoffman makes for a curious Lenny — a shade too thoughtful, perhaps. The effect may be calculated: It lends weight and inevitability to the final scenes in which Dustin’s demoralized Lenny is an intensely disturbing experience.
Disturbing enough, in fact, to keep me up much of that night recalling another evening six months earlier — that last weary night in the Catskills. The small truth that eluded me becomes self-evident as I reread what I have transcribed from my tape recorder from that bus ride back to New York:
Something terrifically funny is going on at the Jerry Lewis Theater at Brown’s Hotel. There’s a comic up there under the lights and he’s working his heart out for these people. He came out and loosened them up by being candid about himself. Seems he isn’t really Jewish. Italian boy, actually. But after working the Catskills for the last two and a half years, he’s become just a little bit Jewish himself. Osmosis or something. In his neighborhood, the folks call him “the Jew-op.” (Polite laughter)
“No really, folks, I used to work the Bocce Belt. That’s the Italian side. [Polite laughter] One day I work the Italian side, the next day I work the Jewish side. My car solved a problem for me. I knew I was going into the Jewish mountains because I listened to my front tires as they hit the bumps. The rhythm told me they were Jewish bumps. Bump-abumpa-hava-nagelahava-nagela. [Full-blown yoks combined with appreciative applause]
“Did you hear about the Polish guy who died drinking milk? Tried to take it right from the cow and … pow, right on his head. [Building laughter] Say lady, do you have a cold? Your chest looks swollen. [Laughter and applause]
“And now, ladies and gentlemen, your favorite movie stars, singers: I will try to impersonate them. You tell me what you want to hear and I will attempt to indulge you.”
The audience calls out names. “Yes. I have some friends here from on the cinema crew and they wanted to see my impression of … Mr. Dustin Hoffman [scattered cheers] from Midnight Cowboy.“
The comic turns his back to the audience, pulls his tuxedo coat askew and turns stage front. His face is oddly twisted, his shoulders are thrown forward and his back is hunched. He steps toward the audience, limping horribly, then coughs for ten seconds straight.
“Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Dustin Hoffman. [Polite applause] I feel like I’m a bombing mission here tonight. Hey, what are you doing after the show, sweetheart?”
The Lenny crew has missed the comic’s impression of Mr. Dustin Hoffman. They are shooting the night rain scene where Lenny and Honey leave the bungalow at the resort they’ve been working. The action is this:
Lenny and Honey hurry to their car in the dark and rain. Guy Rennie, playing the club owner, stands there with his cigar, shouting while Dustin and Valerie pile a few ratty suitcases in the trunk of their car. Rennie shouts after them as they pull away in the ’49 Chevy Deluxe.
The crew which worked 20 straight hours yesterday has been up and working since nine this morning. It is now a little past midnight and everyone knows that once again the filming won’t stop until dawn. There is a peculiar sense of sadness in the air. Partially it’s the scene, but mostly it is the fatigue.
It is a still and windless night, 1,900 feet high in the Catskills. A thin glaze of ice has formed on the puddles in the rutted, unpaved road. Most of the crew — two prop people, one hairdresser, two wardrobe people, four electricians, two stand-ins, three production assistants, an assistant director, a script supervisor and the director — are wearing red or orange all-weather gear. As they speak, their breath forms into frigid puffs and drifts into the empty sky.
Squatting in a small field across from the bungalow, there are two Cinemobiles: huge double-decker location buses, each one carrying a Westinghouse generator pumping out a constant 920 volts. Hard black cables snake across the field to the set. A prop person moves one of the arc lights slightly, Bruce Surtees supervising. A pattern of light and shadow rockets across the set. An assistant producer turns his back to the sudden glare.
“Okay, hit the rain,” a voice calls. The towers erupt: a preternatural winter storm.
“Speed.” Sound tapes running.
Lenny and Honey toss their bags into the car, exchange angry words with the club owner and drive off down the muddy road, past a dozen 1950-vintage cars.
“You’re finished, believe me, in show business,” the club owner howls. The car is out of sight. The cameras continue to roll for another 15 seconds.
“Okay. Kill the rain.”
A tired, soggy silence settles on the hill, but below, a short walk away, the comic has them rolling in the aisles at the fabulous Jerry Lewis Theater. He’s done his Dean Martin imitation, his Frank Sinatra, his Engelbert Humperdinck and has just started a real crowd pleaser, his imitation of Jerry Lewis imitating Al Jolson singing the beautiful “Rock-a-Bye Your Baby.”
“And now, ladies and gentlemen, a song by the very talented Mr. Anthony Newley from that great play, Stop the Girl, I Want to Get Off. I mean, Stop the World, I Want to Get Off. [Tremendous yoks]
“Why, why, why Dee-Lie-lah …” He has them in the palm of his hand. They love him. They’re singing along with his Tom Jones imitation.
A quick change-up: back into the jokes. Drunk goes into an Italian restaurant, eats everything on the menu … walks out and grabs a cab. Says to the cabbie, “Hey, you got room on the front seat for an order of calamari, a large pizza, a plate of spaghetti with meatballs and two six-packs of beer?”
“Yeah,” says the cabbie. “Thank God,” says the drunk. “Yaaggh.” (The sound of a man vomiting into the front seat of a cab, followed by laughter and applause)
The big finish: “Ladies and gentlemen, a song that means a great deal to me and I know I can nevér do it like the King, but …” And into a lachrymose version of “My Way.” (Prolonged applause) A few people leap to their feet, clapping wildly.
“Thank you, thank you very much, thank you.” And straight into the emotional B.E. exit line. “Ladies and gentlemen, I came here tonight as a comic and an impressionist and a singer. As you know by now … I hope I came here as a friend. Thank you. Thank you very much … for liking me. God bless you.”
Blessed and happy, the crowd files out of the Jerry Lewis Theater and onto the paved walkway to the hotel. There are lights on the hill above, but few seem to notice.
What they miss is only another weary take, this time a close angle on Guy Rennie, as he rasps that Dustin/Lenny will never work another club, room, anything.
“Hit the rain.”
Guy Rennie: “Believe me. Everybody is gonna be warned about you …”
“Guy, wait a minute please,” Fosse says. “Where’s your cigar? You’re supposed to have a cigar.”
“I … I must have put it down. It must be in the trailer.”
“Cut. Will somebody please go find Guy’s cigar?”
“Kill the rain.”
A man at the rain tower has missed the command.
The downpour continues for several seconds. It’s getting late. The sun will be up in a few hours and no one wants to stand around shivering through the same damn scene tomorrow night. The next shout is very loud, very angry.
“Will someone kill the goddamn rain?”