© 1999 New Times Inc. SF Weekly March 17, 1999
by Michael Sragow
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences rarely recognizes documentaries about movies or show business. This year's nomination of Robert B. Weide's Lenny Bruce: Swear to Tell the Truth for best documentary feature suggests how amazing it is that Weide manages to portray the brilliant taboo- smashing comic without hero worship or sanctimony. This is one movie about a social-sexual hipster that doesn't simply trade on its hipness. Instead, with a deft combination of performance footage, news clips, and casual, probing interviews, it provokes a re-evaluation of Bruce's boy-can't-help-it artistry and traces his creative roots to the with-it fringes of the '50s -- from hedonistic musicians and scrappy fellow comics to the denizens of the Playboy mansion.
Unlike Bob Fosse's 1974 biopic, Lenny, this documentary honors Bruce without defanging him. Weide gives us the unlaundered Lenny: brutal as well as gushy, earthy and at times pretentious, a Jewish hustler on the upwardly mobile make and a Jewish saint with an amphetamine habit instead of a hair shirt. Weide's balanced, human-scale approach conveys the exhilaration of Bruce building a rabid, jazzy performance style and a ribald, unconventional lifestyle. It also puts across the sadness and horror of his life and career caving in before his eyes.
Nat Hentoff says Bruce "forced people to see themselves." It's the first statement anyone here makes about Bruce as an artist, and it might daunt some moviegoers. After all, the pop avant-garde has always promised to take audiences places they've never gone before. But Bruce's seismic detonations of sexual, racial, and religious taboos set off aftershocks of recognition. And by the end of the film, when an exhausted and despondent 40-year-old Bruce winds up dead of an overdose, people may "see themselves" in the sense of "there but for the grace of God go I."
The way Weide portrays Bruce, his progress from a comic who'd do anything for a laugh to one who'd say anything to provoke a reaction, flows naturally out of Bruce's disreputable upbringing, his club-comic apprenticeship, and his growing heat as a darling of the Hollywood "in" crowd at a time when being "in" meant being "in the know." The child of divorced parents, he chose his free-spirited mother, Sally Marr -- a housecleaner, bartender, and dance instructor, who later became a stand-up comic -- over his square father, a podiatrist who recommended that Lenny take up a solid trade, like chicken farming. His mother didn't believe in constraints; she saw that her son was imaginative and curious and had a taste for the "bizarre." She took him to a burlesque show when he was 12.
In the movie's depiction of his young adulthood, Bruce's progress as a comic and as a man go hand in hand. He meets the love of his life, a voluptuous singer and stripper named Honey, and makes her part of his act; together they perform an unabashedly racist tune called "Bake Dat Chicken Pie," which includes endless iterations of the n-word -- an early example of his need to outrage. But after a period of happy marriage and parenthood (they had a daughter, Kitty), their dream match evaporates in a druggy, orgiastic haze. The breakup provides the impetus for Bruce to "make it" on a grand scale, professionally as well as sexually. In ever-more-mainstream arenas he introduces the wild routines about social and religious hypocrisy, show biz, and sex that he'd been addressing to the most wised-up guys in any club: the members of the band. Until he steps on too many Establishment toes, he gets away with it.
What's astonishing is how well Weide fleshes everything out, using home movies (wonderful stuff of Lenny and Honey cavorting around his stolid father), Bruce's own amateur features (including a hilariously inept crime film called Dance Hall Racket), Sally's audiotape of herself introducing her son on Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts radio show, and a never-before-seen segment of Bruce's censored last appearance on The Steve Allen Show, after his legal battles had overwhelmed him. Skillfully deploying his resources, Weide gives us Bruce as a scrawny, jocular kid, an anxious-to-please clown, and then, in his prime, a sensual spitfire, squeezing skits, gags, and skat talk in rapid-fire free association out of a benzedrine-soaked brain.
Midway through, authorities incensed by his irreverence start slamming him with drug and obscenity charges. He becomes a stressed-out prophet, insisting on his rights as an artist and a citizen. But he's not the secular Christ symbol of the Fosse film. As Hentoff puts it, he is a "Dostoevskian character," hanging on to his belief in the justice of the same legal system that persecutes him. With its moody, bopping musical score and swiftly paced narrative, Lenny Bruce: Swear to Tell the Truth keeps faith with Bruce's mordant point of view and ruthless wit. It seduces viewers with his off-the-cuff riffs and vibrant spritz, only to swing them into the vortex of his emotional whirlpool.
Shown briefly at New York's Film Forum and on HBO, this movie deserves a wide release. It stands on its own as a valiant piece of work.