Social commentator Fran Lebowitz, known for being an endless source of witty and pointed observations about American life, has accrued a lot of fans over the decades. None bigger than filmmaker Martin Scorsese.
“I admire her clarity and unequivocal stances,” Scorsese says of his friend in a statement provided to Deadline. “We need people to tell us: this is crazy, this is absurd, this is ironic, this is funny, this is tragic. Her voice cuts through the din of contemporary discourse. I want to know what she thinks about pretty much everything.”
Scorsese doesn’t just take a casual interest in Lebowitz’s opinions. He has devoted his energies to directing two documentaries about her, the 2010 film Public Speaking and the 2021 Netflix docuseries Pretend It’s a City, Emmy-nominated for Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Series. The seven-part series oscillates between Lebowitz and Scorsese in conversation, to public talks Lebowitz made before the Covid pandemic hit, moderated by a succession of luminaries from Spike Lee to Alec Baldwin.
“My approach to our conversation was to listen to her; I would get angry, happy, inspired,” Scorsese explains. “Fran is, to me, asking very serious questions even when she’s being humorous about things. Fran expresses her ideas with a freedom and directness that I’ve rarely experienced. She says the things that many of us can’t and is a catalyst for people to be more observant and thoughtful about society and their world.”
A few samples of her pithy comments in the series:
“Now we have something that I really cannot tolerate: ‘Wellness.’ There are, like, wellness spas and wellness this and wellness that… What is wellness? It’s like ‘extra’ health.”
“Your bad habits can kill you. I’ve seen that. But your good habits won’t save you.”
“The great thing about talent is that it is the one thing—the only thing I can think of—that is absolutely randomly distributed throughout the population of the world… You cannot buy it, you cannot learn it, you cannot inherit it.”
“When the opportunity came up to make a series with Netflix, I was thrilled,” Scorsese notes. “I had been absorbed with the idea: how do you tell a story differently? Could Fran’s sensibility and point of view be captured as a 7-part series in 30-minute installments? I could construct a new form of monologue or opinion piece; something nonfiction that could be shaped in the editing, with references to other works of art and historical periods.”
Scorsese’s propensity in Pretend It’s a City to guffaw at some of Lebowitz’s witticisms, to the point of nearly busting a gut, was parodied in a Saturday Night Live segment, with cast members Bowen Yang playing Lebowitz and Kyle Mooney as a chuckleheaded Scorsese. Lebowitz says she’s heard about the SNL send up, but…
“I didn’t see it,” she said. “I didn’t know it was going to be on. If I’d known, I wouldn’t have watched it. I never watch myself. I cannot stand watching myself.”
However, as an executive producer of Pretend It’s a City, she couldn’t avoid looking at the footage, repeatedly.
“The worst part of doing this is how much I had to watch myself during the editing process,” Lebowitz notes. “That was unbearable to me. It was really hard… It’s not just because no one my age wants to look at themselves. Even when I was young, when I started being on TV when I was 27, when my first book came out, I never watched myself.”
The series is sprinkled with references to an extraordinary group of people Lebowitz counts as friends, some living, some sadly among the departed: Toni Morrison, Jerome Robbins, Robert Mapplethorpe, Charles Mingus.
Among the living is The Departed director Scorsese. They don’t recall quite where they met, but it was a while ago, probably at a party. And they’ve taken great pleasure in each other’s company ever since.
“My friendship with Marty reminds me of my friendship with Jerome Robbins, who is not alive anymore,” Lebowitz said. “And not because they’re alike at all—they were not. I mean, Jerry was nothing like Marty. But my friendship with Jerry, I learned so much about the ballet… With Marty, my knowledge of movies is a billion times greater than it was before I [met] him… He just knows everything about movies, everything… Marty’s mind is densely furnished with every single frame of every movie ever made. And I know that sounds exaggerating, but it’s not.”
Her esteem for Scorsese extends to an appreciation for his sense of humor. As director, Scorsese kept the focus on Fran, so whatever contributions he made to their witty repartee were left on the cutting room floor.
“Marty himself is extremely funny,” Lebowitz affirms. “He’s really funny… Marty makes me laugh at least as much as I make him laugh.”
The friends have not only worked together on the two documentaries, but Scorsese also cast his pal in his 2013 film The Wolf of Wall Street, where Lebowitz played Judge Samantha Stogel. Her character presides at an arraignment for dodgy stockbroker Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio). She tells Deadline on the day of filming she blew a succession of takes, to the point that Scorsese came out from the video village to speak with her.
“I said, ‘Marty, I’m really sorry. I know I’m screwing this up. Just tell me exactly how you want me to say it. And that’s how I’m going to say it,” she recalls. “And he said, ‘Fran, actors don’t ask for line readings.’ And I said, ‘Marty, I’m not an actor. I think I’ve proven that.’ So he told me exactly how to do it… He was very hesitant to do that, but I think he realized he had no choice. Then afterward, I said, ‘Marty, please don’t cut me out of this.’ And he looks at me, and then I realized there’s no way they’re cutting me out of this because Leo is in the scene.”
Scorsese has won an Oscar and a couple of Emmys. Earning an Emmy nomination herself, Lebowitz insists, is not something she ever anticipated.
“I’m assuming most, if not all other people who have received nominations, it was something that they thought about,” she says, “but that’s probably because they were in the television business. I never thought about this, because I was never in the television business… To me, this is like [the idea of] winning a Super Bowl ring. It never occurred to me.”
But she does add of the nomination, “It’s very delightful to get this.”