Public Speaking: Fran Lebowitz Talks a Blue Streak

A butch Dorothy Parker with flashes of Wildean rhetorical flourish, Fran Lebowitz, the subject of this tonic portrait that first aired on HBO in November, reminds us that mouthiness serves a noble civic function. Though the gilded, Condé Nast clubbiness of Public Speaking is slightly off-putting at first—Martin Scorsese films Lebowitz during a sit-down at her booth at the Waverly Inn, the restaurant owned by Vanity Fair‘s Graydon Carter (who also produced)—once the critic starts talking, the setting no longer matters. The legendarily blocked writer may have a slim oeuvre (two celebrated comic-essay collections, 1978’s Metropolitan Life and 1981’s Social Studies, plus a children’s book from 1994), but she remains a sharp observer, holding forth on racism, sexism, tourism, and, most pungently, elitism: “There’s too much democracy in the culture, not enough democracy in society.” Scorsese, heard chuckling throughout, smoothly intercuts Lebowitz’s banquette disquisitions with scenes from a recent speaking tour (including an onstage chat with pal Toni Morrison, who notes, “You seem to me almost always right but never fair”) and archival footage of Lebowitz heroes like James Baldwin and the subject herself in her Koch-era heyday. The quick-witted malcontent, a Morristown, New Jersey, refugee who arrived at Port Authority in 1969, is the best kind of New Yorker: one with a long memory who’s averse to nostalgia.