She speaks truth to power - or at least to silly pretension - with aplomb and fearlessness.
Mice, however, are another matter for Fran Lebowitz.
It's a late weekday afternoon, as Lebowitz finishes an interview in the deserted cafeteria at HBO's Manhattan office; the network begins airing a Martin Scorsese documentary about the writer, Public Speaking, tonight (11/22/10). Suddenly, she shrieks and lifts her feet up on to the chair where she's sitting.
"I just saw a mouse," she said. "I can't tell you how afraid I am of mice. I'd rather see a wolf than a mouse."
The appearance of a rodent in a corporate dining room aside, it's an otherwise lovely afternoon for Lebowitz, acclaimed as humorist and scourge, who gets to talk about her favorite subject: herself and her opinions of whatever is placed in front of her. That, in fact, is most of what Public Speaking is about: Lebowitz offering her thoughts on a variety of topics, from cultural democracy to the joys of smoking cigarettes to the unseen effects of the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s. The film was the brainchild of her friend Graydon Carter, editor of Vanity Fair, who proposed it in 2002.
"I said no because I didn't want people following me around with a camera," Lebowitz says. "Apparently I'm the only person in America that's true of."
But a couple of years ago, Carter approached her again, saying that Scorsese wanted to make the documentary: "I knew he'd do something different," she says.
The film consists principally of footage shot at a speaking engagement and during a lengthy interview session filmed at Carter's restaurant, the Waverly Inn, in the West Village. As Scorsese edited the film, Lebowitz says, she saw "seven completely different movies. The last three versions, each time I said, 'Marty, it's done.' Marty would still be working on it if it was up to him. But he'd still be cutting 'Casino,' too, if they'd let him."
Watching the film for the first time, however, unsettled her: "Seeing myself was shocking," she says. "I consider myself a person devoted to the pursuit of truth. But I've also convinced myself that I look the same as I did in 1981.
"I said, 'I look horrible. What's wrong with the movie?' I had no idea how I look. How is that possible? I have no idea. If I'm capable of deceiving myself to that extent, then anybody can."