Let me tell you the truth: The truth is what is. And what should be is a fantasy – a terrible, terrible lie that someone gave the people long ago.– Lenny Bruce
Film and television are fraught with reimagined lives to fit the censorship of the times in which they were made. Lenny Bruce would say John Cromwell’s 1940 film Abe Lincoln in Illinois is a dirty lie. Mary Todd takes the brunt of the film’s dishonesty, painting her as unsympathetic and hysterical. Her inability to connect with her husband – partly informed by her own ambition (for shame) – helps to motivate him to bigger things outside their seemingly tortured union. In Abe Lincoln in Illinois, Lincoln marries Mary because she is a useful cheerleader. His true love (Ann Rutledge) has already died of brain “fever”, and with her demise, any notion of a romantic union would forever be absent in Lincoln’s life. He’ll soldier on with poor Mary and what her character can do for him on the road to political success.
In reality, Mary Todd Lincoln’s political leanings were very close to her husband’s. He had no issue with her ambitions. After their son Willie died, she became increasingly ill and was likely already bipolar. Neither of those notions is evident in the 1940 film. Robert E. Sherwood, the acclaimed writer on whose play Abe Lincoln in Illinois was based, knew better than to infuse an RKO film with historical accuracy. He always had the theater, a place where truth was more tolerated and the audience, likely educated and wealthy, were entertained by the multiplicity of people’s motivations. They perhaps saw themselves in the conflicted hustle.
Lenny Bruce loved our conflicted hustle; “We are all the same schmuck,” he often proclaimed. When Abe Lincoln in Illinois opened on Broadway in 1938, reviews were rapturous. The Herald Tribune called it an “endearing tribute”, which to these eyes, reads like the beginning of a nasty review. The performances were likewise lauded, with my favorite sentence (and I like to think it would’ve been Lenny’s) coming from Sherwood’s fellow playwright and critic George S. Kaufman, who suggested Raymond Massey, who played Lincoln, “would not be satisfied until he too was assassinated.”
Lenny Bruce could not have imagined that the world would embrace his reincarnation as not only a leading man but, more, a foil by which a female character will learn about herself and the wicked ways of show business. It is only in recent times that television has had the temerity and wisdom to occasionally reverse the nonsensical patriarchy and give female characters their due beyond the male gaze and the male ego. At long last, male characters can now be fodder and little else. (Fairness occasionally dictates a renewed pecking order, and we should be lucky.)
If we base these male characters on actual people, we can revise them to the usefulness necessary for their episode or season arc. In the Amazon series, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, the truth of Lenny’s life plays second fiddle to his usefulness as a story device. Invention reigns, and Lenny becomes a romantic lead with a dirty mouth, affectionate lust, and a mentor’s facile grasp of the “know-it-all” thing. His demons, formidable as they were, are mitigated and dramatized here to motivate another character’s proactiveness.
But here in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Lenny Bruce is not the multi-layered and flawed satirist depicted in biographies (including his own autobiography How to Talk Dirty and Influence People), but a roguish 1950s version of Cary Grant who swings with the subculture. He’s an elegantly dressed hipster with a penchant for jazz, weed, and one funny lady whom the world can’t yet fully embrace. He’s a visionary, so he knows where the future is heading, just as Maisel knows he likely will have no place in it. His time is her time – where he can teach, implore, lead, and lovingly back off when the moment is right. He’s a faux daddy with a hidden syringe; A sexualized Fairy Godmother.
Adaptation in screenwriting demands creative license. I suspect that sounds obvious, but a vocal online community is red-lining science fiction and historical dramas for their lack of authenticity. I know scientists who will not watch Alfonso Cuarón’s 2013 sci-fi film Gravity because “you can’t do that in space”, or fanboys who quibble about John Ford’s 1946 western My Darling Clementine’s inaccurate depiction of Wyatt Earp.
Several years ago, I had the privilege of adapting an article for a television movie. The folks on whom it was based were unhappy with the shortcuts necessary for good drama. I explained that the essence of the story was animated, and that should be welcomed. They did not buy this argument and were offended. That’s an unfortunate by-product of the job sometimes – you offend the real-life versions of the characters you’re dramatizing. Lenny Bruce would likely have been stupefied by Julian Barry and Bob Fosse’s saint-like version of his persona in the 1974 film Lenny. That film, artistic triumph that it is, is most assuredly not the place to learn much about the real Lenny Bruce. (Although it is the place to learn a great deal about its director, Bob Fosse.)
There are two Lenny Bruces that the creative world has given us: 1. There is the TV/movie Lenny – hip mentor and accidental deity, and 2. There is the real-life Lenny, the subject of several thoughtful documentaries that sometimes make you wonder why the other version was invented. In those documentaries, Lenny is flawed and brilliant, shocking and egomaniacal. A heartbroken lounge act, a bratty kid, a solemn soothsayer, the sick comic – all often funny until the shaken and boring martyr emerges (see The Lenny Bruce Performance Film, filmed live in 1965, where a bloated Lenny reads trial transcripts and hides the once sly and rhythmic hipster under layers of body fat armor.)
Those two Lennys would hate each other.
I cannot reconcile that polarity. As a writer, I am aware of its necessity. The real Lenny could never get close to Midge of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel in the way that Luke Kirby’s extraordinary portrayal of him does. Joan Rivers, on whom a good deal of Miriam Maisel is based, often spoke of Lenny as the “biggest influence” on her life. She said he mentored and encouraged her and was “sexy as hell. The women were all mad about him.” In her later years, Rivers also claimed that Michele Obama was once a man and that many in her orbit had known it for years. My point is that it was sometimes hard to know when Rivers was joking – even when she was joking. I don’t doubt Lenny was close to Rivers, although I don’t imagine he would’ve found her casual cruelty about our former first lady particularly funny.
Lenny’s enemy was certain types of vicious bullshit. Not the nickel-and-dime version that helps us come up with excuses for obligatory events like reunions and Bar Mitzvahs. I believe he meant the lies we tell ourselves when we can’t admit stinging truths about who we are or, in Rivers’ case, what we’ve become. Lenny’s enemy was what we now call “alternative facts” – the ones substantiating lousy reasons for us to be divided. “Every day, people are straying away from the church and going back to God,” naughty Lenny once said. That line is no longer funny because Lenny only intimated the awful truth that now overwhelms us.
Most of the collective remembrances and writer’s room inventions about Lenny Bruce traffic in a need to illuminate someone else’s story. “This is about me” was the subtext in Rivers’ memory of him, just as Lenny’s presence in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel was about Miriam. Lenny is but a tool. A writer’s device. Absent of nuance, we can dredge him up from the suicidal bits and make him useful.
“We’re all the same schmuck” is an important proclamation. I love the communion of that notion. It answers so many questions about our shared fragility. It also evens the playing field. The Lenny who believed those words is us, and he’s nowhere to be found on television or in movies. He is relatable; by that, I mean he’s not worthy of sainthood. You can find yourself in that Lenny and feel less alone. I’ve always mourned that Lenny and, perhaps finally, have figured out why, aside from death, he’s no longer around.
We pay dearly for our myths because there is no way to attain their lofty embodiments. We hold them out as untouchable by which they become unearthly, comic book heroic, shaming really in their cruel perfection. Writers adhere to the safety demanded by those who do not create and fear confrontational or offensive language. They can mythologize even the worst in us. When the devil appears, he cannot say devilish things for fear it’ll go too far to the supposedly genteel ears of a controlling audience. I watch and participate in this war myself, blaming pragmatism when I am cowardly in a scene. Cole Porter found ways to talk about so many taboo subjects purely in the subtext, in jazzy code, as those times demanded. Is it time to be Cole Porter again?
If it is, is the message of using that code again more depressing than the effort it would take to smartly hide unpleasant truths in lyrical sentiment? Don’t get me wrong, I love Porter. But if we go backward and strip mainstream television Lenny of the sober truth that made up the supposed real Lenny, then one thought keeps poking at me. I’ll share the thought with you if you promise to admit that we – you and I – share this fear because I need that communion: The bullshit won.