[Public Speaking opens on Wednesday, February 23rd at Film Forum in Manhattan.]
At first glance, Martin Scorsese seems like an odd choice to do an interview movie with Fran Lebowitz, a Brooks Brothers-wearing gadfly and gladiatorial talker famous for two collections of humor essays, Metropolitan Life (1974) and Social Studies (1981), and for her subsequent three decades of silence in print, which she attributes to sloth; her writer’s block is proverbial, and it seemed to be lying in wait for her even in the pithy articles that she did manage to write. Wes Anderson was originally set to direct a Lebowitz movie, but when his scheduling didn’t allow this, Scorsese took it on, and the result is Public Speaking, a film that lets Lebowitz hold forth on most of her expected subjects, regaling her director and his crew from her table at the Waverly Inn, a restaurant and semi-private club run by Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter, who initiated this project. Lebowitz has always made it her business to make friends in high places, and she has made her living through no-doubt exhausting lectures at colleges but also as a kind of court jester (this is Edmund White’s phrase, which he immediately took back as too mean in one of his memoirs) to the rich.
Late last year, I watched Public Speaking and then Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work right afterward, and they made for an illuminating study in contrasts. Rivers, for all of her success, is still desperate for attention and approbation from as many people as possible; her shtick is that she will say anything and do anything as long as we keep watching her, and though she can still be outrageously funny, Rivers’s anything-goes drive is more than a little depressing. Lebowitz, on the other hand, obviously couldn’t care less what the masses think of her or even what Scorsese thinks of her; she was brought up in a very different, now-vanished milieu, a cutthroat world of high culture 1970s gay men who were all but wiped out by AIDS. Browsing through her collected writings again, bound in one volume now called The Fran Lebowitz Reader, I could tell exactly the kind of gay man she was writing for, and I could even picture that gay man reading her latest piece and phoning others to read it out loud and laugh over it. There are a lot of dated observations in her arch, “It has occurred to me,” style; her really weak articles are usually the ones that make use of lists or compare-and-contrast tables. But every now and then, Lebowitz will come out with a walloping aphorism like, “Sleep is death without the responsibility.”
Why has Lebowitz written almost nothing since 1981? She has her comic routines about that in interviews, but I think it’s mainly because the people she was writing for died, and their sensibility died with them; if Lebowitz was to write, she’d be writing to a nearly empty house. She herself is a lesbian, but you aren’t going to hear a word about that in Public Speaking; in her world and her sensibility, that simply isn’t done. It’s more sophisticated to her to just assume certain things about someone’s sexuality, and this type of dated sophistication is obviously of great importance to Lebowitz; again and again in Public Speaking, she proclaims her elitism for laughs and worries over being a hick or even being near hicks in the Times Square of today. Like Quentin Crisp, she is a kind of resident alien, stuck in a 1970s time warp and refusing to budge. In the most intriguing segment of her talk in Public Speaking, she levels with us and says that the first men to die of AIDS were the really attractive ones who got laid a lot, and many of the ones who remained were the less attractive and the lesser talents, who rose to prominence because their competition, their betters, in her way of thinking, died off. Only someone who didn’t care what anyone thinks about them would dare to make an observation like that, and this is both Lebowitz’s value and her limitation at this point in time; everything about her, even her daring, feels quaint, or after the fact.
Scorsese breaks up her flights of talk with some fascinating documentary footage of past public intellectuals and includes the infamous live slugging match between Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley where Buckley loses his temper and calls Vidal a queer on the air; that’s still a startling piece of footage because it’s possible to see the momentary hurt in Vidal’s face swiftly followed by his excited realization that he has scored an enormous point and has shown Buckley up for all time. The same kind of furious mental calculation can be found on Lebowitz’s face as she throws out line after line of smart talk in this movie; her own talking intoxicates her, but she’s always pulling back for split seconds to see the effect of her latest barb, and in moments like this of heightened intellectual panic, you sense exactly what it must have been like to be at certain gay male gatherings in the 1970s, where you needed to keep your wits about you because if you let down your guard for a moment you might be cut to pieces verbally. Some of that kind of social bantering exists today, but the real high culture queens are few and far between, and Lebowitz is right to lament the demise of all those men who could immediately tell if Suzanne Farrell’s ballet technique was off even a quarter of an inch when she danced.
I’m being too hard on Lebowitz, but she invites and might be said to encourage such sharpness, and as the Luddite of Luddites, she doesn’t own a computer, so she most likely won’t read this. If I’ve focused on the more troubling sides of being Fran Lebowitz, that doesn’t mean that Scorsese’s Public Speaking isn’t one of the greatest movies based around talk of all time, a mental jolt and tonic from a director who appreciates a fast spiel better than anybody else alive. It is that, and it is also a virtuoso performance from a woman from another time who refuses to develop and join our own age because it might seem disloyal to that audience that she lost who read her essays and phoned each other and said, “Can you believe that Fran wrote that? It’s to die!”