Have you seen *Public Speaking*, the documentary about Lebowitz that Scorcese made for HBO? Run, don’t walk! It’s brilliant beyond compare. She is the funniest, smartest, and most merciless person in the United States. These three things are interconnected.
The conversation took place at the BAM Opera House on 1/19/14. It appeared to be sold out, and since it was general admission, people were lined up outside. And it was cold! Not frigid, but not what I would call pleasant. It’s gotta be someone pretty special to make hundreds of New Yorkers wait outside in the cold.
The first half of the performance (if you can call it that) was Martin Scorcese asking Fran questions. I don’t remember much of what she said, but remember it was brilliant, and that Marty was constantly laughing very hard. He is too cute. He cast her as a judge in *The Wolf of Wall Street*.
“They gave me my part of the script ahead of time, and they told me that I didn’t need to memorize my lines, since I’d be sitting at the bench and I could just read them. But I’m a professional, I’ve been on numerous episodes of *Law and Order*, I memorized my lines. The driver picked me up at 4:45 AM, and coincidentally it was a driver I knew from *Law and Order*. We talked about old times. They were filming at a circuit court in Queens on Veterans’ Day, right around the time of Hurricane Sandy, or Super Storm Sandy, or whatever they’re calling it. The driver took me to the site, and they showed me to my trailer. There was a big sign in the trailer that said, ‘NO SMOKING, FRAN’.
“I got into my costume, got made up, and went into the courtroom to shoot the scene. Marty, of course, was nowhere to be seen. How he’s able to direct a movie without actually being present, I don’t know, but obviously he’s got a good thing going. Now in my script it showed that Leonardo di Caprio spoke first, and then me, and then him, et cetera. So whoever it was who was in charge of things said ‘Action’ and Leonardo di Caprio walked into the room and stood in his spot. He looked at me. I looked at him. He did not say his line. I thought, ‘Clearly this guy has not been on *Law and Order*! [laughter] We looked at each other for a while longer. The guy in charge said, ‘Cut!’ And who showed up on the set, but Marty! Being all solicitous. ‘Fran, is there a problem here?’ I showed him my script, and showed him that Leonardo di Caprio is supposed to speak first, I was waiting for him. Marty showed me that the script clearly says VOICEOVER. The scene starts with Leonardo di Caprio doing a voiceover, post production, mind you - - and then I am the first to speak. I apologized up and down, and we were able to do the scene.”
The best story she told was about winning $1200 in the lottery.
“I buy a lottery ticket once a week. If you win less than $600, you go to the place where you bought the ticket, and they pay you there. If you win more than $600, you have to go to the Lotto office, which is in the same neighborhood as that other great institution of American gambling, the New York Stock Exchange. [laughter] I once won $1200 in the lottery, so I went to the Lotto office. The guy ahead of me in line said he was there to pick up his check. The woman said she would take his address and he would receive a check in two weeks. He said he needed the check now. She said she wasn’t able to give him a check now, she would put it in the mail. He said she didn’t understand - - he was counting on this money to pay his rent, and he needs the check right now. She said he didn’t understand the process. She was unable to give him a check. She suggested he do whatever his plan was for paying his rent on the remote chance that he did NOT win the lottery.”
The highlight of the evening was her taking questions from the audience. The first question was very long. The audience couldn’t hear the speaker, so Fran paraphrased.
“This is a young woman from Barcelona. She was hit by a police car and wants to know when she’s going to get a check. [laughter] The Audubon Society used to have their offices across the street from my building. Their office space was bought by one of these law firms that advertises on television. ‘Did you break a nail? Did you drop an egg on the floor? Did you get a bad haircut? We’re here to help.’ Call these people, they’ll get you your money.”
The best question - - someone asked her thoughts about the electronic cigarette. This was the perfect question for Fran, who is the poster child for smoking.
“I don’t understand them. I’d rather have a cigarette. But that day, when I was shooting *The Wolf of Wall Street*, when Leonardo di Caprio walked into the courtroom he was smoking his head off. I was impressed by this - - I know that actors have a certain amount of lee-way, but this was an actual courtroom, I was amazed that they’d let him smoke in there. But it turns out it was an electronic cigarette. He smokes them constantly. I asked him about it, and he gave me one. I put it in my bag, I’m not going to use it, come on. But a few weeks later I was on a flight out to California, to do one of these speaking engagements, and it had been a few hours since I’d had a cigarette and I was feeling homicidal. [laughter] And I remembered the electronic cigarette in my bag. I had asked Leonardo di Caprio if you could smoke them on a plane, and he said no. I specified, ‘A commercial flight?’, because who knows the last time he was on one of those, and he said no. But I was feeling homicidal, and who’s going to care. The ban on the electronic cigarette perfectly demonstrates that it has nothing to do with public health, it’s anti-smokers, cut and dried. The vapor that comes out of an electronic cigarette is completely innocuous. It’s like the vapor that comes off of a cup of tea. It’s less than that, it’s not even hot - - if a cold cup of tea were to emit a vapor, it would be like this. So anyway, I was on a private plane, I smoked my electronic cigarette, and I felt less homicidal.”
“How do I feel about Governor Christie. [applause and laughter] I’m not a cheerful person. But this Christie thing really perked me up.”
“When did I work at Mademoiselle magazine. It was for a year and a half, sometime in the early 70s, the same time I was working for Interview. I had a column in Mademoiselle that paid $300 a month, and a column in Interview that paid $100. I was rolling in dough. [laughter] Mademoiselle was a monthly magazine with a photo of a blonde model every month. I thought it was a skiing magazine. I wrote my first column for Mademoiselle and I brought it to the office. My boss called me and said that there was no need for me to come into the office, from that point forward they would send a messenger to pick up my column when it was ready. I guess I was a bad influence on the other girls at Mademoiselle.”
“What did I wear to the Nobel Prize ceremony. A very good question. My friend Toni Morrison won the Nobel Prize for Literature a few years ago and she brought me as one of her guests. First I want to tell you about the TV in my room. We checked into the hotel, and my TV was hooked up to the phone or some such thing, I couldn’t figure out how to work it. So I remembered that I was on the same floor as the science winners. I went out in the hallway and found this young guy and said, ‘Hey, you. You won the Nobel Prize for Physics, right? Could you come in and show me how to work my TV?’ And he did, he was very polite and very helpful. He could get a real job - - he could be the super in my building. So the invitation for the Nobel Prize dinner said that the attire was ‘white tie or national costume’. Toni’s publisher, and my publisher, was part of our group, and his wife was very up in arms about what I was going to wear. I told her I was wearing white tie. She said, ‘You can’t do that, you have to wear a dress!’ I said I was wearing white tie. Toni was wearing an evening gown, but then her date was the King of Sweden. [laughter] So the wife of my publisher at Knopf called up the guy who was in charge of what people wear to the Nobel Prize dinner and she explained that a woman in Miss Morrison’s party was going to be wearing white tie. Because that is her national costume.”