With Public Speaking, Martin Scorsese achieved the impossible: he made the most interesting person in the world more interesting, and he made a film that nearly rivals its subject, the writer Fran Lebowitz, in originality.
The brilliance of Public Speaking is the way it deviates from the typical form that documentaries about a single person usually take. Other films about the legends of American letters like, such as Everything is Copy (Nora Ephron) and The United States of Amnesia (Gore Vidal), rely heavily on interviewees who are there to assure the viewer that yes, the subject was just as fun, interesting, and complex as we had previously thought. Instead, Scorsese lets Lebowitz herself, literally and figuratively, do the talking.
Most of the film is set at the Waverly Inn, a high brow New York restaurant owned by Graydon Carter, who is one of the film’s producers and then the editor of Vanity Fair. There is no attempt at illusion, no indication that Lebowitz is ever talking to or, frankly, even for us. She talks to Scorsese and co-interviewer Ted Griffin, who sit just outside the frame on the other side of the booth. Rather than being talked at, we are invited into a conversation, one that includes an explanation from Lebowitz about how an inside joke by Andy Warhol inadvertently entering the mainstream ruined our culture.
Scorsese’s asthma infused laugh can often be heard off-screen, giving the impression that Public Speaking was perhaps made more for his enjoyment than ours. The film begins with Lebowitz and Scorsese sharing a hug and kiss after she enters the restaurant and discussing which booth is, in fact, “her booth.” Between the laughs and kisses, the film takes on a slice of life quality — it is just a meet-up between two old friends. It is similar to Italianamerican in that way.
Documentaries of this nature typically attempt to deify their subject. No such process takes place in Public Speaking. Scorsese’s decision to appear onscreen, bare the film’s production, and do away with interviewees lends an authenticity to the subject. Is Lebowitz actually as brilliant and funny as she appears? Of course. Because instead of providing us with an hour and a half of friends and colleagues relaying anecdotes, we see her in action. Why deify someone who is already a god?
In an interview at the time of the film’s release, Lebowitz said Wes Anderson was originally slated to direct the film but gave up on the project after “spending many years not being able to come up with a plan.” That’s when Scorsese came in. Lebowitz, in commenting on Scorsese’s direction and not her own performance, called Public Speaking “an extremely original documentary.” Not a bad review from, perhaps, the most judgemental person, let alone critic, in the country.
Though Scorsese’s filmmaking is superb, it must be said that using Lebowitz as a subject is almost cheating. She is the most entertaining person I have ever seen. Videos on YouTube of her speaking publicly are more enjoyable than many films. But that, again, tells us something about Scorsese’s directorial genius.
The best directors know their subject and when it’s best to simply get out of the way and let the camera roll. His touch is subtle. It comes through in the way Public Speaking functions as a love letter to New York City. And as he does throughout his work, Scorsese shows us the beauty in friends gathering around a table for conversation and laughs. Public Speaking is a portrait of a friend, and in that way it’s truly one of Scorsese’s best and most personal films.