In the ’70s and ’80s, Fran Lebowitz was a staple of New York City nightlife, appearing at Studio 54 and other hotspots in rumpled men’s suits, looking and sounding like she’d traveled through time from the age of the Algonquin Round Table, tasked with bringing pithy wit back to the city. Martin Scorsese’s documentary Public Speaking intercuts archival footage of Lebowitz with recent speeches and a new interview shot in her favorite booth at the Waverly Inn (right under the Edward Sorel caricature of her). It’s a funny, fast-paced portrait of the woman and her times. The movie opens with a scene from The Mystery Of Picasso, and sprinkles clips throughout of Thelonious Monk, James Baldwin, Oscar Levant, Truman Capote, Dorothy Parker, and other brilliant cranks. Some of these are Lebowitz’s heroes; some are just artists she resembles. Either way, it’s a bold piece of contextualization, positioning a writer who towered over her peers for a brief time—then coasted on her early success—among the leading lights of 20th-century American culture.
Public Speaking isn’t a bio-doc per se. Don’t expect any hard information about Lebowitz’s childhood, or revealing details of her personal life, or intimate secrets about her famous friends. This documentary is more a combination of Lebowitz’s personal opinions about what’s wrong with the world (such as, “There are too many books, because you’ve all been taught to have self-esteem”) and her fond memories of a time when New York was unfriendly to outsiders, but a haven for great talkers. That’s the connection between Lebowitz and Scorsese, a native New Yorker and a great talker himself. The director mostly stays silent in Public Speaking—outside of the occasional wheezy offscreen chuckle—but the snappy editing and the deft weaving together of the film’s sections have a Scorsesean feel. We don’t really get to know Lebowitz by the end, but we know what it’s like to spend 80 or so minutes with her, watching her iconic hunched-over profile while listening to her drop bon mots at a rapid clip. Lebowitz has suffered a famous bout of writer’s block since the ’80s, but she’s made a good living on the lecture circuit, which befits her talent for venting. “It’s not a conversation,” Lebowitz says about her current career. “That’s what I like about it.”
Key features: Brief HBO promo pieces featuring Scorsese and Lebowitz, and about 10 minutes of interview outtakes.