11/22/2010 03:44 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Wit and Wisdom of Fran Lebowitz

Fran Lebowitz is a motormouth, so all you really have to do is press "ON." That makes television a perfect medium for this unusual talker, who, part James Thurber, part Dorothy Parker, part Oscar Levant, thrives at public speaking. With her signature man tailored white shirt, Savile Row suit jacket over jeans and cowboy boots, she makes for a handsome and distinctive subject for the wonderfully entertaining documentary portrait directed by Martin Scorcese to air tonight on HBO.

For those who find this film remarkably unlike others in the famed director's oeuvre, you can see his back as Ellen Kuras's excellent camera work grazes his shoulder. Set against Edward Sorel's tableau of literary types at The Waverly Inn, the downtown eatery part-owned by the film's producer Graydon Carter, the interview with Lebowitz features her opinions and bon bots on everything: how Andy made fame famous telling Candy Darling that she was more than Marilyn, she was a superstar; this was a joke that came to define the Zeitgeist, but ironically, it also comes to explain Fran Lebowitz.

Like the twin towers looming behind the set in an old Conan clip, Lebowitz, the author of the essay collections, Metropolitan Life (1978) and Social Studies (1981) a writer who has not published a book in thirty or so years, is an endangered species, a living reminder of how far we have come from a time when smart people are prized. Perhaps the most revealing aspect of the film is her self deprecation about what she calls her "writer's blockade." For a documentary portrait, Public Speaking is withholding. You find out Lebowitz is Jewish, gay, an only child. But where exactly does she live? What is her domestic scene? How does she support herself? She seems sui generis, an original. How do you pull that off in our consumer culture?

Lebowitz tells a funny story about going to Sweden with her good pal Toni Morrison, as she was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, how at the dinner Lebowitz was seated at the kids' table where the next in age was 12. She also does a rant about strollers. So you might come away thinking that she doesn't like children. Au contraire! At the premiere at The Four Seasons last week, a lavish gathering of literary types like Morrison, Lynn Nesbit and Lynne Tillman, I chatted with Wilford Hemans, a middle school principal for whom Fran Lebowitz sits in at a yearly event. Rather than go off to a reception, he recounted, Lebowitz remains in the classroom with students helping them write. Who knew this famous curmudgeon could also be lovable?

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