“Sitting in bars and smoking cigarettes—that’s the history of art.” So sayeth Fran Lebowitz. If you’re a longtime fan of the truly iconoclastic essayist (responding to one lecture attendee’s inquiry as to how she feels about being called the modern-day Dorothy Parker, Lebowitz snaps that’s she’s “not big on emulating”), expecting to learn what makes her tick then Public Speaking, Martin Scorsese’s loving profile of the early bloomer who subsequently spent a decade with “writer’s blockade,” is certain to disappoint. How exactly this high school dropout (well, she was kicked out) who fell in with Warhol and his crowd after fleeing Jersey for the Big Apple developed into a NYC legend in her own right is never addressed. Instead, we catch only glimpses below the surface of this whirlwind of wit as Scorsese steps out of the way and lets Lebowitz herself run the show. Which ultimately proves to be the smartest move. When a language locomotive as entertaining as Lebowitz barrels your way, it’s best just to jump on then hang on for dear life.
“When I was a child it was called talking back. Now it’s called public speaking,” Lebowitz says about her lecture-circuit career from a table at the Waverly Inn, where an Edward Sorel painting containing her caricature graces the wall. (From time to time, cinematographer Ellen Kuras captures the back of the amused director seated across and to the side.) Scorsese mixes these table talks with typical scenes of Lebowitz hurrying through her beloved NYC streets and onstage in conversation with Toni Morrison, adding in classic black-and-white clips of influences such as James Baldwin debating William F. Buckley. (He also tosses in scenes from her Law and Order gig and an episode of Jeopardy! containing “The Quotable Fran Lebowitz” as a category.)
But the star of the film is Lebowitz’s brilliant bon mots. “This is what happens when an inside joke gets into the water supply,” she laments about the fame-obsessed society that sprang from Warhol’s originally ironic invention of the superstar. On the gentrification of her neighborhood, she declares that running into somebody you know in Times Square is like running into somebody you know in a gay bar in the ’70s—you start making excuses as to why you’re there. Discussing the current nanny state from a podium she notes that, “All the things they say about smoking they used to say about homosexuality. It was really always the secondhand nature of homosexuality that scared people.”
Getting serious, Lebowitz, who developed her voice in the gay male world, reminds us that the AIDS epidemic destroyed not just an entire generation of artists, but also an audience of equally crucial connoisseurs. She later goes on to rip apart the twin LGBT lobby’s causes of homo marriage and gays in the military with “Are you kidding me?…The two most confining institutions on the planet. Usually a fight for freedom is a fight for freedom—this is the opposite!” It’s hard to argue with a hyper-rational thinker that believes she’s always right—and usually is. Though when Lebowitz says that wit can’t be dragged out to the length of a feature film, the master director behind the lens may have finally proved this cultural watchdog wrong.