“Fran Lebowitz’s trademark is the sneer; she disapproves of virtually everything except sleep, cigarette smoking, and good furniture.” – The Paris Review, 1993
Public Speaking is a documentary about Fran Lebowitz directed by Martin Scorsese for HBO in 2011. The film is not a biographical look at Lebowitz but instead is a conversation where she holds forth on subjects including politics, racism, gender differences, tourists in New York, children, writer’s block, laziness, technology, the current fetish for nostalgia, talent and fame.
Lebowitz is a New York institution, a writer, journalist and cultural commentator whose deadpan delivery means that she is often compared to the late Dorothy Parker. She published two very well received books of essays (now brought together in one volume as The Fran Lebowitz Reader) early in her career and is also famous for her writer’s block which has gone on so long that she has now termed it “writer’s blockade”. She has apparently been working on a book on and off (mostly off, it has to be said) for the last twenty years entitled Exterior Signs of Wealth, but whether this novel will ever see the light of day is debatable. These days she mainly makes her living from journalism and public speaking at colleges around America.
Scorsese filmed Lebowitz talking over several nights at her regular table at the Waverly Inn in the West Village. Scorsese compares her to a jazz musician – give her a topic and she will riff about it – and you can see his delight in her humour during the film. He regularly creases up laughing at her more outlandish statements. Certainly Lebowitz’s strength is in her ability to tell a story, to communicate without being in the least bit boring or predictable. She is a lively, intelligent and engaging raconteur and Scorsese has captured this beautifully, interspersing her conversation with archival footage which gives a great sense of context.