Public Speaking: A Mash Note from One Fast-Talker to Another

02/16/2011 3:00 AM |

Public Speaking

Directed by Martin Scorsese

“It’s what I wanted my entire life,” says Fran Lebowitz of speaking engagements in Martin Scorsese’s portrait of a talker. “People asking me my opinion, and people not allowed to interrupt.” Forty-odd minutes later, she’s wondering aloud about TV talking heads: why on earth do people want to listen to other people’s opinions? The difference—a disappearing art of witty and insightful conversation—is what makes these 82 minutes of Lebowitz telling stories and making pronouncements far more than an indulgence. Originally broadcast last November on HBO, it’s at once a mash note from one fast-talker to another, and an energizing, persuasive piece of New York nostalgia.

The main event, one-time wunderkind writer Lebowitz is mostly shot in her current element: holding forth at a table (in the Waverly Inn, with Scorsese at one point visible in shot, just listening), or fielding questions from audiences, Wilde-style. A recurring onstage dialogue with Toni Morrison threatens to puff Lebowitz up too much, but it’s offset by Lebowitz’s liberally sprinkled meanness, embracing smart-set elitism, and recollections of past personal miscues. As in a dinner or a Q&A, the appeal of her stories and quick-draw opinions ebbs and flows; Scorsese, who in Lebowitz’s early years in the 70s sketched two other talkers (Steven Prince in American Boy, his mother in Italianamerican), conjures cosmopolitan moods with archival clips (The Oscar Levant Show, James Baldwin versus William F. Buckley in full spiteful drawl).

Snap judgments are a point of pride for Lebowitz (and the brevity that is the soul of wit sometimes comes unchaperoned by sound argument), but as the sort of documentary that relies on its subject to perform, this holds its own well.

Opens February 23 at Film Forum