TV Preview: In HBO's 'Public Speaking,' Scorsese basks in the wit of Fran Lebowitz

By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 21, 2010; 8:10 PM

"America has always hated eggheads," says Fran Lebowitz, an egghead and a smart aleck and a sourpuss rolled into one. "When they [say] . . . elite, they don't mean rich. America loves rich people. They mean smart. "

True, there is no known cure for the anti-intellectualism sweeping the nation and the voters' current political distaste for "elitism." But there is still your HBO subscription, which - like a New Yorker subscription and a National Public Radio donor's tote bag - can offer the occasional soothing salve, applied firmly but gently with the left hand.

"Public Speaking," airing on HBO Monday night, is a film by Martin Scorsese that is ostensibly about Lebowitz, a 60-year-old writer of legendary wit and guest-list omnipresence who almost never writes. Less a documentary than an ode, "Public Speaking" works best as an absorbing rumination on being smart, outspoken and provincially of and about Manhattan.

That's Lebowitz's life in a nutshell: Her two best-selling books of essays - "Metropolitan Life" and "Social Studies" - came out so long ago that she promoted them at Studio 54.

After that came a writer's block so intense it can only be described as a phobia. Except for a children's book and a series of wise Vanity Fair articles in the 1990s (which were really just well-edited conversations between Lebowitz and an editor on broad subjects such as race and money), Lebowitz hasn't produced much. Instead, she's a study in brilliant coasting, which can't be as fun as it seems. For all its many laughs, "Public Speaking" carries a necessary undercurrent of the morose.

"No one has wasted time the way I have," Lebowitz tells Scorsese's camera in her usual rat-a-tat delivery, a voice coarsened by years of smoking. "[I am] the outstanding waster of time of my generation. It was 1979, I looked up, it was 2007."

Instead of writing, Lebowitz spends her time talking about American society and culture - either through paid appearances on the lecture circuit or from her usual booth at the Waverly Inn, a dimly-lit, exclusively small West Village restaurant co-owned by her friend Graydon Carter, who edits Vanity Fair.

Talking, she says, is all she ever wanted to do. "When I was young, it was called talking back," she observes. "Now it's called public speaking."

To that end, the film more than delivers on vintage Lebowitzian ripostes:

Andy Warhol, she says, was joking when he predicted everyone would become famous. He didn't mean for everyone to try to become famous. "This is what ruined the world," she says. "This is what happens when an inside joke gets into the water supply."

There's much more: New York is too expensive to be interesting anymore. Tourists are "herds of hillbillies." Gay men, who so dazzled Lebowitz with their highbrow tastes in the 1970s, have let her down by working so diligently to get married and join the army. And revenge is a wonderful thing: "I absolutely believe in revenge. People always say revenge is a dish best served cold. No. It's good any time you can get it."

She is asked: Is there such a thing as being born lucky? Yes, she replies: "Any white, gentile, straight man who is not president of the United States, failed. That's what a big piece of luck that is, okay?"

To illustrate Lebowitz descriptions of the events and people who formed her worldview, Scorsese splices in old clips of everything from Pablo Casals playing cello, to James Baldwin debating race relations with William F. Buckley Jr., to Serge Gainsbourg singing "New York USA."

Thus, "Public Speaking" becomes a subtle yet resplendent paean to New York-centric intelligence, talent, and yes, elitism. If this film was vaporized and bottled, it could be marketed as Sarah Palin Repellent.

Which is why it's hard to imagine anyone who's never heard of Lebowitz even watching "Public Speaking." Carter produced the film; most of it was filmed in his restaurant; the premiere party for it at the Museum of Modern Art (with an after-party at the Four Seasons) was covered by his magazine. It's that clubby, and no, you certainly aren't on the guest list.

Some call Lebowitz the "modern-day Dorothy Parker" - never caught without something to say and ferociously certain of her opinion. ("I'm happy at this point in my life to be considered the modern-day anything," she says.) To anyone else, she would just be a cranky old Jewish woman decked out in men's suit jackets.

About halfway in, it's clear that "Public Speaking" has veered away from documentary intent and instead simply wishes to admire its subject. In appreciating her mind, the film fails to answer basic questions about Lebowitz's life, providing only snippets about her upbringing in working-class New Jersey, where she was punished for reading too much and kicked out of high school (for daydreaming, she says).

Though we ride along with Lebowitz as she prowls the streets of New York in her vintage Checker Marathon sedan (she says the car "is such a subtle shade of pearl gray that straight men think it's white"), we don't see her apartment or gain entry into her personal affairs. "Public Speaking" often seems to be trying to relaunch the Fran Lebowitz brand, 25 years past its expiration date. It feels like the kind of movie that old friends would make about an old friend. Which is precisely what it is.

Public Speaking (90 minutes) airs Monday at 10 p.m. on HBO.

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