Three years before Dustin Hoffman channeled controversial comic Lenny Bruce in Bob Fosse’s stylish biopic Lenny (1974), a different interpretation of the same true story was presented in the low-budget drama Dirtymouth, written and directed by Herbert S. Altman, with Bernie Travis in the leading role. If neither of those names sounds familiar, it’s because Altman’s only other credit is a horror movie from the ’60s and because Dirtymouth was Travis’ first and last film. Therefore, the surprise of Dirtymouth is not that it exists, but rather that it’s a fairly competent effort. Although the picture problematically whitewashes the real Bruce’s drug use, Dirtymouth does an okay job of tracking the way Bruce’s expression of anti-Establishment attitudes triggered his persecution by authorities.
When the picture begins, Lenny (Travis) is already an established comedian, but he’s frustrated by doing conventional material in grimy nightclubs, often sharing the stage with novelty acts and strippers. Lenny gradually channels his anger into routines about politics and religion, so word of mouth draws more people to his shows, earning him guest shots on TV shows. Manifesting a self-destructive streak that Altman doesn’t even try to psychoanalyze, Lenny pushes his content by integrating curse words and incendiary remarks, even as he tries to woo the beautiful Iris (Courtney Sherman), whose conservative parents find Lenny despicable. Dirtymouth culminates with re-creations of vignettes from Bruce’s infamous legal battles, with enemies trying to classify Bruce’s comedy as obscenity.
Comparing Travis’ performance to Hoffman’s in Lenny is unfair, seeing as how Hoffman had the benefit of a better director and a better script, but the portrayals share something in common—both actors get the anger right without actually being funny. Like Lenny, this picture is about Bruce the tragic culture warrior, not Bruce the edgy funnyman. Unlike Lenny, Altman’s film mostly ignores the real Bruce’s hardest edges, so while it’s not as if Altman strives to make Bruce sympathetic, per se, the characterization in Dirtymouth pales next to the prismatic presentation in Lenny. Yet it’s not as if Altman plays things completely straight; in some scenes, he features fantastical visions of Bruce’s routines, and in others, he exaggerates reality, as when actors playing judges and lawyers wear cartoonish makeup. There’s also a fair amount of nudity and rough language. Still, all the half-hearted praise in the world can’t mitigate the Lenny problem—Dirtymouth mined this material first, but Lenny is superior in every way.