Fran Lebowitz's name has always been familiar to me--perhaps it has something to do with her idiosyncratic personal style and wry speaking voice--but I haven't read anything she's written or really known anything about her. After watching Martin Scorsese's 2010 documentary starring Lebowitz, Public Speaking, I can say that's still pretty much true.
That's not to say the film isn't immensely entertaining and (what a shock) well made. It intersperses a conversation between Scorsese (instantly recognizable through his voice and, I never realized this before, the back of his head), a mystery dude who appears only in profile and silhouette who is decidedly NOT co-producer Graydon Carter, and Lebowitz at Waverly Inn in the West Village (I had to look it up--I thought it was Sardi's) with clips of Lebowitz at speaking engagements and fairly bizarre and distracting bits of New York-based film marginalia. The latter element is probably unavoidable, given Scorsese's fetish for precisely that.
Though I didn't learn nearly as much about Lebowitz's life as I did from scanning her Wikipedia page after, I did learn a lot about how New York changed for a certain group of avant guard artists and intellectuals, of which Lebowitz was a member, from the 70s to the present, but particularly during the 80s. I learned that she holds essentialist views on gender, leading her to believe that whereas racism might end because it's a fantasy of difference, sexism never will because she holds that the hierarchy is biologically based and therefore impossible to overcome. I learned she's tight with Toni Morrison. And I have to say, I like this approach to the personal documentary more than a rote recital of major milestones in its subject's life. After all, listening to someone talk about something other than themselves is usually how we get to know people, so why shouldn't it work in this genre as well?
Above all, I was reminded that Lebowitz is really hysterically funny. I didn't agree with everything she said (um, the gender thing, as well as her insistence on an ontological distinction between gay rights and civil rights), but I sure as hell loved the wit and confidence with which she said it. I think we can safely add her to my galaxy of girl crushes.