Lenny Bruce: Swear to Tell the Truth

The Boston Phoenix

DIRECTED BY: Robert Weide

REVIEWED: 12-14-98

Lenny Bruce's reputation as a visionary comedian has been all but overshadowed by his legend as a free-speech martyr. Unlike his progeny -- George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, Sam Kinison, Chris Rock, Sandra Bernhard, Roseanne -- Lenny left no defining document of his work (his was the era before the HBO Comedy Special). So latter-day fans have to construct a composite Lenny -- from his sanitized albums (available on Fantasy), his autobiography How To Talk Dirty and Influence People, Bob Fosse's pious bio-pic with Dustin Hoffman, Albert Goldman's jazzed-up biography Ladies and Gentlemen: Lenny Bruce!! (both from 1974), and a couple of sketchy documentaries.

Robert B. Weide's Lenny Bruce: Swear To Tell the Truth offers the most complete film Lenny yet: with rare footage from the comedian's early career and interviews with Sally Marr (his über-Jewish stage mother) and Honey Harlow (his stripper wife, a shiksa icon in his autobiography and in the Fosse movie, but here somewhat woozy and opaque) plus lawyers, managers, even a prosecutor from the New York DA's office that managed to convict Lenny of obscenity in 1964 -- and ended his career. But there's only a flash of what Lenny fans might hope for in some previously unshown footage from the Steve Allen TV show (it was never aired). Here's Lenny as we imagine him: hot, hip, and darkly handsome, oozing confidence and charisma, spieling in a beat-perfect rhythmic patter, a Jewish-American prince of comedy.

Unfortunately, aside from Marr, there's not another great character in the movie. You can see that Bruce didn't help himself in the last two years of his life (he was drug-addled and paranoid and insisted on taking charge of his own legal affairs). But just as clearly you can see how methodically he was hounded by the legal system (he was once arrested for saying "schmuck" on stage), until he died of a drug overdose in 1966, at the age of 40.

--Jon Garelick

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