Rediscovering Lenny Bruce; Comic Shown as Persecuted

By Mick LaSalle

Lenny Bruce didn't intend to go down in entertainment history as a victim. He entered the 1960s in sunglasses, a dark suit and a skinny tie, a young man on the way to the top -- and ended up, six years later, sprawled on his floor naked, dead of a heroin overdose.

Since his death at age 40, Bruce's life has become a symbol for all sorts of things to do with free speech, the '60s, victimhood, persecution and plain bad luck. Lost in the shuffle is the twisted joy of his comedy. Bruce was funny. It's the thing that most made him dangerous. Lenny Bruce: Swear to Tell the Truth, which opens today at the Roxie, presents the facts surrounding Bruce's five-year losing battle with the law. And it makes a case for him as an artist worthy of rediscovery.

Opportunities to see Bruce on film have been limited. The most available performance footage shows Bruce, late in the game, reading from legal documents. He looks beaten and miserable.

The real Lenny can be found in this documentary: Thin as a whip, fast on his feet, a slick hipster. Director Robert Weide has uncovered some fine footage. We see the young Lenny on the Arthur Godfrey show doing innocuous material. There are scenes from a B-movie he made in the '50s and several appearances on Steve Allen's talk show.

It comes as a surprise to realize that Bruce was a complete performer. He could sing -- he's shown singing a song he wrote, All Alone. He had movie-star looks, and one suspects that he could have found success in movies.

The documentary, which was 12 years in the making, tells the story of Bruce's rise. There are interviews with his outspoken mother and with his ex-wife, the stripper Honey Bruce, with whom he had a bizarre marriage -- part suburban middle class, part sordid showbiz.

The film, narrated by Robert De Niro, implies that the thing that really got the law down on Bruce was that he exposed a bribe. Jailed in Philadelphia for possession of amphetamines in 1961, Bruce let the world know that a judge had demanded a payoff. After that incident, police departments around the country repeatedly arrested him on obscenity charges. "It's become chic to arrest me," Bruce says at one point. He lost bookings and ultimately became a broken man.

Lenny Bruce: Swear to Tell the Truth is pretty terrifying in its presentation of what the government can do if it's out to get a guy -- and the abuses the public will tolerate if it doesn't like the views of the victim.

Bruce, too emotionally weak to ride out his persecution into the wide-open '70s, wound up becoming one of those patriots Jefferson wrote about, whose blood nourishes the tree of liberty. He'd much rather have had a good time.

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