It's provocative, engaging, and oh-so-smart. Judge Bill Gibron really enjoyed this trip back to the days of Dick Cavett's tenure as TV's highbrow talk show host.
Legends letting it all hang out.
In the late '60s and early '70s, a weird kind of war was going on all over late-night television. Johnny Carson, the undisputed king of the talk show format, was coasting on his charisma and comic flair, raking in big bucks for broadcast giant NBC. Desperate for a few of the remaining advertising dollars, other networks tried to find an antidote to Johnny's joyful after-hours house party. One of the more curious combatants was a former talent coordinator for Jack Paar, an ersatz standup comic and theatrical thespian "ordinaire" who actually wrote for The Tonight Show when Carson took over. Younger by more than a decade, Dick Cavett's ABC gig in 1969 wanted to buck the Establishment and reach the counterculture that was slowly choking on its own inherent sense of freedom. Tackling tough topics, controversial guests, and thought-provoking themes, Cavett became the anti-Carson, a sort of intellectualized ideal of what a chat fest could and should be. While he never achieved his rival's sense of social importance and popularity, his Dick Cavett Show has gone down in history as one of those necessary benchmarks that reestablished a genre's possibilities while trying to find a place in the public consciousness. Now, thanks to Shout! Factory, we have a chance to witness firsthand the inventive qualities and conversational conceits that made Dick Cavett a cult icon.
Facts of the Case
As they have throughout their entire retrospective of Dick Cavett's work in the talk show medium, Shout! Factory offers up a four-disc set of the host's best interviews, this time focusing on Hollywood Greats. Ranging from '70 to '73, and including everything from one-on-ones and group chats, this compendium of episodes shows the wide range of Cavett's pull as a personality, and his series' importance as a place for typically media-shy celebrities to spill the beans. Specifically, here are the famous faces you'll see as part of The Dick Cavett Show: Hollywood Greats:
The first thing you realize about The Dick Cavett Show is how unbelievably slow it is. This is not the kind of PR pushy product of the new media millennium, the "get the point across and get off" kind of marketing that calls itself conversation in our ADD-addled demo. No, Cavett and whomever he is engaging are given a chance to think, to throw ideas back and forth, and to foster deep meaning and analysis into their drawn-out discussion. This is not the purposeful pandering and shameless shilling we see today as Leno and Letterman battle for rating supremacy, trying to one-up each other on the fame-game Stratego board. Cavett was concerned with conversation and made the audience very aware of the fact that famous people are more than a little uncomfortable when they have to perform sans script. He allowed long pauses, blank space, and dire dead air. He walked a thin line between genuine and joking, using his Yale-educated wit to work his way into and out of the problems created by the personalities he interviewed. Sometimes, the results were magic, more insightful than anything a quick Q&A and a film clip could create. At other instances, the inertia was deadly, turning nearly 90 minutes of supposed insight into endless hours of half-truths and incomplete answers. While Cavett could easily finesse a stagnant situation, the names he was working with were not necessarily ready to hand over complete control.
It's obvious from the first disc of this enlightening Shout! Factory overview of Cavett's time on ABC. Katharine Hepburn did not do the chat-fest circuit, and her appearance here is as much about happenstance as it is about the show's early '70s status. Walking around the studio, commenting on elements she didn't like (the carpet, the camera angles), the then-reigning Queen of Acting simply sat down and decided to start talking. Three hours later, Cavett had a two-part performance from one of the art form's leading lights. It's a mesmerizing experience, something the rest of this box set has a hard time matching. Hepburn discusses her juvenile crime streak (she used to break into houses and take items in her youth) and constantly downplays her looks and talents. It's not that she's humble—she's just isolated from her public persona and insular in her approach to fame. She would rather dote on the late Spencer Tracy (her famous paramour) than acknowledge her abilities in front of the camera. It's something that we see as well in Astaire's appearance. Humble to the point of being halting, and obviously enjoying the clips of his seminal song-and-dance work onscreen, the mild-mannered Midwesterner is all anecdotes and amiability. Cavett's management in both of these interviews speaks to his abilities as a conversation catalyst. While he occasionally feels flummoxed by a response, he will never leave the subject until the stars have had their say.
This can also be a burden, especially when the guest is someone as outspoken as Bette Davis. Anyone familiar with the legendary actress knows that age did not come gracefully to the belligerent superstar. Angry at the Method madness she saw sweeping through the industry during the '50s and '60s, Davis uses Cavett's show as a soapbox, a chance to air all her grievances about a lack of quality in the modern cinema. She can be a stitch, but there are another couple of words ending in "itch" that could apply to her as well. Oddly enough, Kirk Douglas is exactly the opposite. He recognizes the efforts of the new breed, while acknowledging that every generation requires their own set of idols. But when his old pal Groucho arrives for one of his memorable sitdowns, Cavett seems to lose control. His friendship with the remaining Marx Brother was legendary, and the younger man obviously believes that the comedy king should ride the throne—even if this means shocking Debbie Reynolds with a ribald quip, featuring his uninteresting female companion (Ms. Fleming), or chastising Dan Roman (of Laugh-In fame) over some minor misunderstanding. Unlike other talk shows, Cavett's conversation could uncover both the light and the dark of his celebrity subjects.
If there is one major fault to Cavett's approach, it's that he allows agenda to supercede anything he wants to accomplish as a host. It's not purposeful. In fact, he seems so in awe of many of the mythical figures here that he simply sits back and lets their fame flummox his intentions. The perfect example of this arrives in the form of Marlon Brando. It is clear from the introduction (Cavett supplies a summary preface to every episode here) that the Godfather star had only one subject on his mind when he agreed to appear on the show, an area of discussion that took six hours of phone calls to convince the actor to appear. Locked in his Native American activism phase, Brando only wants to discuss the Indians—not his work in film, not the roles that made him a motion picture icon. Happy to harp on atrocities and politics, the minute Cavett breaches his prepared remarks to ask about his work in Last Tango in Paris, the infamous side of the star arrives. Brando mumbles and mutters something almost unintelligible, waiting for permission to continue on with what he's interested in discussing. In essence, it's the same with Davis (old vs. new Hollywood) and Marx (old vs. new comedy). Carson directed his guests to bring out their public best. Cavett simply let them be who they were, for better and for worse.
Oddly, enough, there are examples all throughout The Dick Cavett Show box where the bigger-than-life personalities actually come off as cool, considered, and completely likeable. Orson Welles is warm and inviting (providing one of the set's greatest show-stopping moments when he discusses dining with Hitler), John Huston haughty but gregarious in his solid storytelling acumen. While Robert Mitchum appears under the influences of several strong color-tinis, bad-ass sunglasses hiding possibly rummy eyes, Alfred Hitchcock does his elder statesman act with grace and gravitas. It's clear that in most instances, Cavett felt incapable of competing with the talent onstage (he lets Mel Brooks go mental, doing his insane shtick to the point of provocation) and was more than happy to share the situation as they took over and performed. Still, his was an important part in the overall success of the show. Without his wry sense of subject, his desire to enjoy the moment with, not overshadow, his often-confrontational guests, Cavett created a doorway which let the famous find their own footing. Granted, he did occasionally give off a vibe of being smarter, more erudite, and more in tune with the modern mindset than these artifacts from show business's formative years, but he never let said smugness set in.
No, at his worst, Dick Cavett was a passive presence in a format that required a combination of carnival barker and therapist to deliver the demographically-required entertainment elements. Instead, he becomes a confused confessor to a group of celebrities not used to voicing their issues in public. You can see it in Mitchum's mannered responses or Davis's determined curtness. Oddly enough, this is also what makes The Dick Cavett Show such a startling DVD retrospective. In a modern mindset that asks every celebrity to be bright, shiny, sensitive, and sympathetic, Cavett merely lets them be people. So what if Marx wanted his woman on stage with him? Who cares if Hepburn found the center table uncomfortable for her standard leg-up sitting style? Are Brando's opinions of Sacheen Littlefeather's Oscar appearance really all that interesting and do we really care if Welles finds magic more fulfilling than moviemaking in his later years? The answer, in actuality, is not important. Instead, it's the means of reaching those elusive ends that are cause for celebration. Decades from now, when Conan is carrying on The Tonight Show mantle and Jimmy Kimmel is considering yet another late-night comeback, no one will be poring over their—or Leno's—legacy, curious how they handled the EPK elements of their version of the talk show. Instead, they will be looking back at Cavett and still saying the same exact thing: How did a show like this ever arrive, let alone thrive, on broadcast television?
Shout! Factory's desire to release this material is commendable, especially when you consider that many of the names appearing on this set are more history than heroes to the modern Hollywood scene. From the tech spec side, the 1.33:1 full-screen image captures analog videotape in all its flaring, bleeding, blurry beauty, and the Dolby Digital Mono makes for flat, tinny—and terrific—conversational clarity. Bonus features include intros by Cavett (mentioned before), show promos, the full, uncut version of the Katharine Hepburn show (as stated before, her appearance was divided up into two edited editions), and a nice little retrospective entitled Seeing Stars with Dick Cavett and Robert Osborne. Recently, Turner Classic Movies has been rerunning some of these episodes, and the conversation between the two is interesting, if a tad redundant (a lot of the stories are repeated for the prologue material before each show). Toss in a 15-page booklet discussing the personalities on display and you've got a wonderful collection of conversation keynotes, supplemented by a selection of intriguing added content.
After his stint on ABC, Cavett continued in his pursuit of talk show supremacy. His long-running series on PBS brought on many noted figures—politicians, professionals, performers—and argued for the host's broad grasp of many important, influential subjects. But there will always be something special about those years when Cavett created the anti-Tonight Show, a nightly network podium for the well-known and notorious to preach and provocate. From slightly off-center comics to rock-and-roll rebels, to these noted Hollywood heroes and hotheads, Cavett's was an arena for conversation as catharsis, not the soft/hard selling of a future project/motion picture. Sure, personal agendas were strewn across the screen in fast talking tracts overloaded with arrogance and self-importance, but Cavett always managed to make even the most outrageous stances seem sane. His may not have been the classic Q&A chat fest, but when compared to the other pretenders to Carson's considerable throne, Cavett definitely deserves a place of prominence in his court. This is a wonderful DVD overview of a frequently forgotten show-business stalwart.
Not guilty. This fascinating box set delivers the kind of eye-opening experience we expect from a well-thought-out entertainment retrospective.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Shout! Factory
• New introductions to each episode by Dick Cavett
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