© Venice Magazine; August, 1999
by Lindsay Bishop
Here is a writer, a director, a producer, an editor, a cultural archivist. A celluloid DaVinci? Well, you know the adage, when you want it done right, you gotta do it yourself. And for Robert Weide, he's not afraid to take the bull by the horns and ride it until everything is right no matter how long it takes. Beginning with his documentary, Marx Brothers In a Nutshell in 1982, Weide has gone on to accomplish an array of artistic achievements. To name a few of his many credits, he won an Emmy for his documentary W.C. Fields Straight Up, wrote the screen adaptation for Kurt Vonnegut's Mother Night, and wrote, produced, directed, and edited the highly acclaimed documentary for PBS entitled Mort Sahl: The Loyal Opposition. He is currently working on a screen adaptation of Vonnegut's The Sirens of Titan, as well as filming an ongoing documentary on Vonnegut, eleven years and counting, entitled Kurt Vonnegut: American Made. When it comes to documentaries, Weide says, "I try not to inflict myself upon the work and let the story tell itself." And it doesn't hurt to have as his choice of subjects, some of the best comedians of the 20th century.
This time out he has chosen Lenny Bruce as his muse. Lenny, the belligerent icon, the mad genius, the fool, the magician. Nominated for an Academy Award last year, two Emmys this year, and this month showing on HBO, Lenny Bruce: Swear to Tell the Truth contains incredible footage and remarkable interviews with the key people in Lenny's private life: his mother, his ex-wife, and his girlfriend at the time of his death (Lotus Weinstock), to name a few. Twelve years in the making, Weide leaves few stones unturned in the pursuit of finding Lenny and capturing a taste of his spirit, a taste best found in what he said. "I am searching for an answer, as Billy Graham is."
To Weide's credit, the thoroughness of research yields outstanding archival footage and photos, much of it seen for the first time, such as a censored appearance on The Steve Allen Show. One of the difficulties of covering Lenny Bruce, Weide comments, was that "a lot of Lenny's classic routines that brought heat down on his head only exist on record." But the problem is solved with numerous rare photo collages of Lenny performing, accompanied by the audio of his legendary live performances.
There are many highlights, one being the interview with Lenny's mother. Sally Marr is a fascinating woman who Weide first met when he included Lenny in his 1984 HBO special, The Great Standups. And in his intimate and hilarious interview with her, one gets a sense that the apple never falls too far from the tree. In remembrance, she says, "Lenny was always attracted, as I think I was, to the bizarre." And it is no surprise, as his ex-wife. Honey Bruce, recollects, "He had a fascination with all religions." It was this fascination with, and critique of, organized religion and social morality's symbiotic and bizarre hypocrisy that fueled his censorship and eventual downfall. But rather than focus on his ending, the documentary charts his path in all of its glory, from heaven to hell and everywhere in between, with Lenny, the comedic hot rod, ripping up the highways of a conservative America.
Solomon, owner of Cafe au Go Go at the time of Lenny's
now infamous performance in New York City which landed
him in jail, sums up the price of Lenny's struggle for
freedom of speech. "He never served any time and
he never paid any fine. He only paid with his life."
And to leave you with a bit, Lenny used to like to say,
"If God made the body and the body is dirty, the
fault lies with the manufacturer."