The Dick Cavett Show – Hollywood Greats

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Before watching the DVD of The Dick Cavett Show – Hollywood Greats I had never seen any of Cavett’s work as an interviewer (unless you count his appearance in ‘Forrest Gump’). But I kept reading almost universally good things about his early 1970s show – that it was a high watermark in American TV interview shows, that Cavett was a sophisticated interviewer, that the interviews were far more substantial than you would see from the typical film star today, etc…

After watching this DVD, do these assertions hold up? Yes and No.

On the positive side the format of these shows are very appealing if you want to get a substantial overview of the person being interviewed. Most of the shows have one person being interviewed one-on-one for an hour or so without having to push a film or book (although Hepburn and Capra are exceptions to a degree) – they can just talk about themselves and their career and the results are usually entertaining and enlightening.

On the downside, there’s Cavett himself. Considering his lofty reputation as the gold standard of TV celebrity interviewers, I was generally unimpressed by him. He’s capable of being urbane and witty (as he generally displays in the present-day intros to these shows) and the interviewees clearly respect and like him, but I found him a generally irritating presence.

Partly because his fawning ‘gee whiz I can’t believe I’m interviewing this great film star’ demeanour becomes tiresome pretty quickly. And also because his line of questioning tended to be repetitive, frivolous and constantly going on about ‘small change’ topics when there were so many richer topics to explore. On top of that, his opening monologue is pretty lame.

Despite that, these are highly worth watching not only because of their historical value for any film fan, but they are usually entertaining. For the most part, these film personalities come across as far more intelligent and interesting than in interviews I watch and read with film types today. During her interview, Bette Davis talks about how the meaning of the word ‘precocious’ has been misconstrued over the years and it’s a positive attribute instead of a negative one. How many interviews with actors today would you hear talk like that?

After the jump, I’ll give my thoughts and observations on each of the interviews in this DVD:


Alfred Hitchcock – Hitchcock displays his usual dry wit and provides some interesting insight on the technique he displayed in his films. Despite that I was oddly dissatisfied with the interview as Htichcock’s persona came across as calculated and pre-planned. Of course that was always the case and generally it was most effective but in this format where more of one’s self is required it was less satisfying.

Katharine Hepburn – One of the most famous interviews Cavett did as Hepburn was a notoriously reluctant interviewee, only doing this interview to promote the film version of ‘A Delicate Balance’ she was in. Despite the interview being conducted without a studio audience (or perhaps because of it) the interview works so well that it was extended to cover two episodes. It’s one of the best interviews on the DVD as Hepburn is a delight to listen to – insightful, sharp, witty, bossy and unpredictable. It’s also helped by Cavett’s irritating interview tics generally being kept in check, probably because of his genuine intimidation in Hepburn’s presence.

Fred Astaire – Probably the weakest interview on the DVD, mainly because Astaire is the least comfortable of all the interviewees, as evidenced by his tense demeanour (constantly sitting upright in his chair) and bland answers. Probably sensing this, Cavett largely gives over the second half of the interview to Astaire singing many classic tunes, where he’s clearly more in his element.

Kirk Douglas – One of the more disappointing interviews. Douglas is clearly at ease in this format and is charismatic and interesting but it’s largely wasted due Cavett being at his most tedious – he spends an inordinate amount of time focussing on Douglas’ famously unusual chin (he’s wearing a beard during this interview). As well, the first half of the interview is taken up by uninteresting montages from Douglas’ career. It improves in the second half, but overall a waste.

Bette Davis – Probably the most entertaining interview on the DVD. Davis is clearly at ease with the format and takes quite a shine to Cavett – indeed there seems to be an element of flirting going on between the two. As a result of this relaxed mindset, she’s forthright and open with virtually all her comments which coupled with her assertiveness, makes for very interesting viewing.

Marlon Brando – Both the most frustrating and enlightening interview of the lot. It would be an understatement to say that Brando isn’t suited to this format, which he barely hides his disdain for (he only appears to promote the cause of Native Americans). He is completely uninterested in talking about any of his films (even a then very recent hit like ‘Last Tango in Paris’). But he is most interesting when he begins analysing Cavett and his function as an interviewer within the TV industry and why he operates the way he does. Most of what Brando says on this is very perceptive and exposes to an extent the machinations Cavett works by.

Robert Mitchum – Like Brando, Mitchum isn’t a natural at this format but he comes across as quite an interesting, specific personality. Out of all the people interviewed in this set, he seemed the least likely to be a film star and the Hollywood lifestyle.

Groucho Marx (Debbie Reynolds and Dan Rowan also appear) – Cavett in his present day intro speaks very fondly about this interview, doubtlessly in part because he had a strong friendship with him. But I found this somewhat awkward and occasionally painful to watch. It’s a bit depressing to see one of the great American comic talents of the 20th century slowed down by old age and his famous speed and timing just about gone. The audience laugh at his schtick but that’s more out of respect than anything else.

John Huston – I’d never seen Huston interviewed in a format like this before and he came across impressively – full of the charisma that one would expect having read about his life. I loved his comment response when asked whether Bogart was the first choice for ‘The Treasure of Sierra Madre’, “He’s was the first choice for all the pictures i did with him and still the first choice that I only wish he were alive to do today”. Alas, the interview isn’t very insightful due Cavett’s weaknesses as an interviewer, but it’s still worth watching.

Robert Altman, Mel Brooks, Peter Bogdanovich, Frank Capra – This is a great idea to have a group of directors talking like this although inevitably some get squeezed out of the conversation. Despite being on first, Altman doesn’t get much of a chance as the interview is predictably taken over by Brooks and Bogdanovich in their idiosyncratic styles. The second half of the interview is dominated by Capra as the other directors are clearly in awe of him and his significance in the early years of Hollywood.

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