Fran Lebowitz in 2011 / Photo: Christopher Macsurak (Wikipedia / CC BY 2.0)

Pretend It’s a City Proves Once Again, You Can’t Argue with Fran Lebowitz

Fran Lebowitz’s ubiquitous little smirk is still going as strong as ever because she never feels bad about herself.

Pretend It's a City
Martin Scorsese
8 January 2021 (US)

Fran Lebowitz is an exceptionally gifted user of words who admits she is only motivated to leave her bookish isolation and open her big mouth when she needs money. I was psyched for her inevitable next project when I first heard she’d bought a $3million apartment in Chelsea a couple of years ago. Lo and behold: Netflix’s seven-episode limited series, Pretend It’s a City, directed by Martin Scorsese. As soon as I saw this news, I thought two things—”why this?” and “hell yes!”—because the concept is identical to Public Speaking, their previous collaboration a decade ago for HBO. Fans of that will be fans of this because it’s more of exactly the same.

Scorsese and Lebowitz are longtime friends who agree that New York City used to be better than it is now. Each of the seven episodes revolves around a loose theme like “metropolitan transit” or “sports and health, but basically, these are to wind up Lebowitz so she can go go go, spouting her opinions the way she’s always done. The B-roll is mainly classic clips of her walking all over Manhattan, pausing now and then to read a street plaque or arch an aggravated eyebrow at a stranger. These quiet bits show that her gait has slightly slowed—easy to overlook when her shades, boots, and custom suiting captivate as usual—and the long sit-down portions of each episode reveal that her smoker’s cough is somewhat more interruptive than it used to be. The unwavering familiarities of her hands and voice persist with incredible alacrity.

Pretend It’s a City offers proof that the way Lebowitz wields wit at age 70 is every bit as fast and pointed as when she was 19. She is a natural-born critic–not exactly a comedian and not exactly a misanthrope. Her appraisal lives on a spectrum that runs from annoyed to enraged, coloring her adjectives and facial expressions with varying degrees of disapproval. When she smiles, her mouth can’t help but twist itself sideways in an archetypal example of smugness because the thing that most makes Lebowitz smile is when she’s just said something the entire room damn well knows is very witty. She is still unabashedly delighted by her own wit, and she’s completely aware of how irritating both the wit and the smugness about it can be to others.

This is the kind of punk exhibitionism the world expects and even encourages from a young woman in her 20s whose first book, 1978’s Metropolitan Life, is a major hit. At that moment, it’s hot for her to relish being a rock star. But here she is now at 70, and that little smirk of hers is still going as strong as it ever did because—and this is why she is sexier now than she was 50 years ago—there is really just no way whatsoever to make Lebowitz feel bad about herself. She’ll never be deflated. Neither her attitude toward life nor her style of delivering it has changed in any substantive way in the 50 years she’s been serving it up. Her consistency is sublime. Love her or loathe her; the reason is that Fran Lebowitz is relentless. Neither friend nor foe can argue with her.

Scorsese asks her if she’s a snob. She delineates two kinds of snobbery—that kind which discriminates based on breeding or wealth or other privileged criteria, obviously bad, and that kind which simply forms judicious opinions by discernment. The moment echoes Jimmy Hoffa’s famous line, “I may have my faults, but being wrong ain’t one of them,” and there’s a flash of deliberation in Lebowitz’s eye, daring the audience not to laugh.

Indeed, one thing about both of Scorsese’s projects with Lebowitz is that he includes himself in the frame. He is there to pose the occasional question, to nod his head and toss out an occasional “hmm mmm” and to laugh out loud with his shoulders shaking as he struggles to regain his breath and composure. The pleasure she takes in waiting for her interlocutors to come up for air is evident. There’s a moment when Toni Morrison is sipping a glass of water, Lebowitz speaks, the water almost goes up Morrison’s nose, and you just know that Lebowitz will die happy, thanks to that.

An oddity with framing her as participating in a back-and-forth is that her thing is clearly monologues. Most people can’t really get a word in and seldom even try. The series includes clips with Alec Baldwin, Olivia Wilde, and even notoriously wry David Letterman all surrendering to her cleverness, relaxing into the overwhelming nature of it without mustering much in retort. She’ll pause for claps but never for clap-backs, so even though the audience may only agree with 70% of her opinions related to whatever she’s on a tear about; she has such an easy grip on the throttle of conservational flow that she stamps out any space for true dialogue on the 30% of her judgment that is a fertile gray area worth exploring.

She will cut off explicit attempts at retort by upping the ante on her own harshness of tone, or by faint self-deprecation that quietly serves more to further lionize her. She’ll flatly remind would-be debaters that she doesn’t care what they think in the first place. Objections quickly fade under these conditions, compounded by the rapid-fire speed of her delivery that leaves little time for an opponent to think. Lebowitz has always been so formidable because she can run rhetorical circles around anyone—she can do bigger, can do better, can do faster, can do more, and these powers have only consolidated further with her advancing age. The most interesting speed bump in the series is Spike Lee, marveling at how Lebowitz neither knows nor cares anything about sports and taking her to task for assuming girls don’t want to play sports. But in the end, his bafflement leaves him vulnerable to her usual steamrolling.

Like snobbery, there are two kinds of relentlessness—that which is built on consistency and that which is built on constancy. Lebowitz’s product assembly line has not been constant. She is a Luddite operating without a cell phone or computer. Constancy is for the likes of the Kardashians, and Lebowitz says she wouldn’t know a Kardashian if she passed one on the street. She doesn’t read the internet, yet she has an innate sense of how it works. Fully 100% of her spoken sentences in Pretend It’s a City would make good tweets, and at least 100 of them would go viral. She speaks with a concision that makes every word count, she is neither slowed nor cowed by rejection or humiliation, and she is almost always either hilarious, or a little bit mean. If she arrived on Twitter as a nameless nobody today, she’d be considered a troll—a troll who would still wind up with a hot first book because, as even her detractors admit, it’s hard not to watch when she goes to work.

Yet she only works when there are bills to pay, popping up to captivate and aggravate in her trademark way every decade or so. At the end of the ’70s, it was to publish two books Metropolitan Life and Social Studies (1978, 1981). In the mid-’90s, there was a children’s book, Mr. Chas and Lisa Sue Meet the Pandas (1994), and some appearances on Letterman. In the new millennium, there was a recurring role as a judge on Law & Order. In 2011, she did 90-minutes for the aforementioned Public Speaking.

Pretend It’s a City is about three and a half hours long, by far the biggest dose we’ve ever had of Lebowitz in one go. The runtime is relentless and the speaker is relentless and the strangers crawling all over New York are relentless and the audience’s lust for more minutes is relentless. Had Scorsese released the series as one long film, it would be considered a criminal fanboy indulgence by the haters and a magnum opus by the lovers. This director is known for making very long movies. This series is every bit as long as his longest one, 2019’s The Irishman. Probably like the rest of us who obsess over any time Lebowitz chooses to emerge from the sanctum of her library, he is just thirsty for as much as he can get. And there’s no reason to feel badly about it. Lebowitz clearly doesn’t.