Fran Lebowitz knows everything. She knows second-hand smoke is harmless (at least compared with exhaust fumes). She knows what Jesus would do if you asked him to fill your gas tank for you (fill it). She knows the quintessential symbol of the age in which she’s lived (the blind art collector). She knows the difference between humor and wit (the first is warm, the second cold). She knows this last, it is abundantly clear by the end of Public Speaking, an HBO documentary by Martin Scorsese, because she is one of the wittiest people alive.
She also knows Toni Morrison, who early in the film confesses to Lebowitz, “You seem to me almost always right.”
Twirling a pair of tortoise-shell glasses, Lebowitz, in high leather boots, jeans, a suit jacket, and a button-down shirt with French cuffs, flashes the Nobel laureate a smirk.
“What do you mean ‘seem’?” Lebowitz says.
Cue audience uproar.
The scene epitomizes the author, essayist, and (above all) talker that is Fran Lebowitz. She would be the A to Morrison’s Q, even though Morrison may be America’s most celebrated living author and none too short on answers herself. And she certainly would have a riposte to a compliment that would humble a lesser wit.
Excerpts from Lebowitz’s onstage discussion with Morrison recur throughout the 85-minute film, which is screening once and only once at O Cinema next week (details below). The bulk of Public Speaking, though, is Lebowitz sitting in “her booth” at Ye Waverly Inn, an iconic eatery in New York’s West Village, and firing witticisms at Scorsese and Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter. Here are a few from the fusillade:
“Even as a child, it really struck me as an idiotic exercise to put yourself in danger for no reason. Climbing a tree makes sense if behind you are Nazis.”
Speaking to an audience of college students: “There are too many books. The books are terrible. And this is because you have been taught to have self-esteem.”
“The problem with being ahead of your time is that by the time everyone catches up with you, you’re bored.”
You’re laughing, but you may also be wondering, “Who’s Fran Lebowitz?” I didn’t know when I slid Public Speaking into my laptop, and I still don’t know every detail of the woman’s life and career. The film is less a documentary than a portrait. It gives you a general chronology — Lebowitz’s arrival in New York from smalltown New Jersey in the late ’60s, her stint as a columnist for Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine, the publication of her first book, Metropolitan Life, in 1978 — but it doesn’t get mired in details.
All in all, that’s a good thing; Scorsese was wise only to give enough context that the viewer doesn’t mistake Lebowitz for a raving lunatic, some subway soothsayer. But there were times when I wanted to know more, for example, when Lebowitz describes falling in with “a group of incredible talkers … all guys, all gay” upon arriving in Manhattan. Presumably Warhol was one of them, but who else is she referring to? If having to compete for air time in this silver-tongued cadre honed Lebowitz’s own oratory, I want to know more about them. But Scorsese keeps them in the closet.
As I say, a wise decision all in all. Public Speaking isn’t about nuance — it’s about Fran Lebowitz. “I like doing this,” she says early in the film, “because it’s what I’ve always wanted my entire life: people asking me my opinion. And also in this situation, people are not allowed to interupt. So it’s not a conversation. That’s what I like about it.”
Indeed, Public Speaking is not a conversation. It’s Lebowitz talking at you, bearing down on the viewer with her unabashed brilliance and Devil may care commentary. “Do I think gay marriage is progress?” she asks (herself, naturally) late in the film. “Are you kidding me? This was one of the good things about being gay.”
Make no mistake about it: Lebowitz thinks you’re an untalented idiot and that, as such, you should shut up and listen to the wit and wisdom of a card-carrying member of the Aristocracy of Talent. So if you’re the kind of person who chafes at being condescended to for 85 minutes straight, Public Speaking is not for you. If, however, you’re the kind of person who revels in watching the First Amendment wrung dry by someone who could have stood toe to toe with our Founding Fathers in a match of wits, then it is.
But don’t expect Lebowitz to apologize if she upsets you. She was once booed by a quarter of a million fellow Jews.
“I’m sure,” she told the sea of people, gathered in protest of anti-semitism in the Soviet Union, “that when the head of Russia sees this on TV, and sees how many people are here, that he’ll immediately acquiesce to your demands.”
“Because I know that I for one would certainly not want this many Jewish women angry at me.”
She needed a police escort to escape unscathed. You will not leave the theater in as good shape.
Public Speaking is playing at O Cinema on Tuesday, May 24, at 8 p.m. It is a one-time only screening. For more information, visit O Cinema’s website.