“The Dick Cavett Show – Hollywood Greats” features the art of conversation.

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Dick Cavett was a unique talk-show host, the best of a breed that no longer exists on television.  Today a star appears on a talk show  for a few minutes to promote a new project.  Cavett would devote  an entire show, or a majority of the  show, to one star.   And the talk was not limited to hawking a new movie, along with a couple of  previously agreed-upon anecdotes, as we see today.   The conversation was free-flowing.  Cavett has his  critics.  Some say he was too fawning of his guests.  Some say his questions were too simplistic.  For me,  it is the results that matter, and there is no denying that Cavett had the ability to charm and disarm his  most reticent guests.

This 4-DVD set compiles some of the most memorable episodes from The Dick Cavett Show, all of them featuring stars from the golden age of Hollywood (including, of course, Alfred Hitchcock).   I will provide a brief synopsis of each episode, along with my overall impression.

Katherine Hepburn (original air date October 2 and 3, 1973) – Kate Hepburn avoided the talk-show circuit for most of her career, making her appearance on Cavett unique.   Before she agreed to appear, she went to tour the studio where the show was recorded.  While there, she suggested that they tape the interview on the spot, with no studio audience.  Cavett agreed, and the result is unforgettable.  They talked for so long, there was enough material for two shows.  Hepburn is charming, witty, honest.  And she keeps Cavett en pointe,  eliciting several laughs from the crew, who gathered on the set to watch.  At one point Cavett asks if she regrets never working with Laurence Olivier, to which Hepburn replies “We’re not dead yet!”  This is arguably the highlight of this fantastic DVD set, and a must-see for all fans of the great Katherine Hepburn.

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Fred Astaire (original air date November 10, 1970) – Fred Astaire was the epitome of charm, and he didn’t disappoint when he appeared with Dick Cavett.  Much of the show is dedicated to Astaire singing, and even dancing (at age 71!).   Apparently he was more comfortable performing than he was talking about his life.  For that reason, this episode feels somewhat lacking.   I personally would have preferred more conversation, but fans of Astaire will certainly enjoy watching.

Bette Davis (original air date November 17, 1971) – Davis made more than one appearance on The Dick Cavett Show, and the two have a natural rapport.  It is clear that Bette Davis really enjoyed talking with Cavett.  This particular episode created a bit of a scandal when it first aired, because Cavett jokingly asked Ms. Davis how old she was when she lost her virginiy.  Little did he know that she would answer the question!  This episode was entertaining from start to finish, and exceeded my expectations. (Here is a brief clip from the Bette Davis episode. Sony/BMG owns all distribution rights.)

Groucho Marx and Debbie Reynolds (with Dan Rowan and Erin Fleming) (original air date December 16, 1971) – This episode is a disappointment.  Groucho is clearly past his prime here, and he just can’t unleash the zingers and one-liners with the comic timing that he could as a younger man, although he tries.   Granted, he is 81 years old here, but it is a little sad to see him at the twilight of his life.  Debbie Reynolds seems rather subdued, and unsure how to take Groucho at times.  One sad footnote to this episode is the inclusion of actress Erin Fleming, who was in a relationship with Groucho at the time of taping the episode.   Groucho’s family disapproved of the relationship, and after his death, they successfully sued Erin Fleming for almost half a million dollars that she had acquired from Groucho while he was alive.  Fleming would later spend time in a mental hospital before taking her own life in 2003.

Kirk Douglas (original air date June 29, 1971) – This episode is pleasant, if slightly forgettable.   Douglas relates several anecdotes from his film career.  He is entertaining, and often funny, but somehow Cavett doesn’t seem to engage Douglas as much as he does many of his other guests.  The episode feels more superficial than others, although I am sure Kirk Douglas fans would enjoy it.

Mel Brooks, Frank Capra, Robert Altman, Peter Bogdanovich (original air date January 21, 1972) – Bringing four directors together was a good idea.  Capra, retired by this point, was the elder statesman.  Brooks was at the peak of his craft, and Altman and Bogdanovich were early in their careers.   It is a shame that Cavett didn’t have more shows like this one, bringing directors from different eras of Hollywood together.

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John Huston (original air date February 21, 1972) – John Huston’s voice was instantly recognizable.  It was somehow both gravelly and mellifluous at the same time.  Personally, I could listen to him talk all day long.  Of course, he has dozens of interesting anecdotes to share, many of them involving his favorite actor Humphrey Bogart.  This episode is very solid.

Marlon Brando (June 12, 1973) – This is one of the most famous episodes of The Dick Cavett Show, for a variety of reasons.   Brando is another actor who did not do the talk-show circuit.  He liked Dick Cavett, and agreed to come on the show if he could bring some prominent Native American advocates, to talk about the plight of the American Indian.  Early on, Cavett tries to draw Brando into conversation about his films, but Brando resists.  He makes Cavett uncomfortable more than once, and it is clear that Brando knows exactly what he is saying, and the effect he is having.  He flashes that million-dollar smile more than once as Cavett squirms in his chair.  Personally, I enjoy this episode very much.   (After the taping of this episode, Brando and Cavett went to dinner.  They were followed through Chinatown by paparazzo Ron Galella.  Brando punched Galella in the face, breaking his jaw and knocking out five teeth.  How can you not love Brando?)

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Robert Mitchum (April 29, 1971) – This is another episode that exceeded my expectations.  Mitchum had a reputation for being difficult, of occasionally sparring verbally with the media.  He is an absolute delight here.  His speech is almost poetic as he recounts several delightful anecdotes from throughout his career.   Fans of Mitchum will go crazy over this episode, and it will probably make a lot of film fans see him in a different light.

Orson Welles (July 27, 1970) – Welles was perhaps Hollywood’s greatest raconteur, even if most of his tales were somewhat spurious.  But he was endlessly entertaining.  A man of great intelligence and seemingly endless wit, he charmed Cavett and his audience.   This may be my favorite episode in the entire collection.  In the brief new introduction to the episode that Cavett recorded in 2005, he gets a little teary-eyed.  It is clear that Welles was a favorite of his, too.  Must-see.

Alfred Hitchcock (June 8, 1972) – Alfred Hitchcock was no stranger to television at this point in his career.  He had hosted every episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents for seven seasons, and made numerous appearance on various talk shows.  Although his health had begun to decline a bit by this point, he was as charming as ever.  Several films from throughout Hitchcock’s career are discussed, including Sabotage, Foreign Correspondent, Lifeboat,  Rear Window, and Psycho.  He also discusses the importance of montage in film, as well as the difference between mystery and suspense.   This episode is an absolute must-see for fans and scholars of Alfred Hitchcock, just for the opportunity to hear the master discuss his own films, and film theory in general.  (Below is a brief clip from the episode.)


Overall, this is a very solid collection.  Fans of the golden age of Hollywood are certain to enjoy many of these episodes.  They also provide a glimpse of a type of talk show that doesn’t really exist anymore, when two people just sat down, without props or gimmicks, and conversed.

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VERTIGO tops CITIZEN KANE in ‘Sight & Sound’ poll. What does it mean?

Once every decade, Sight & Sound  (a publication of the British Film Institute) releases a list of the top 50 films, as voted on by film “professionals.”  This list has always been viewed with a certain hallowed reverence by some in the industry, but an equal number of film buffs view it as elitist.  One constant on this list for the last half century has been Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane in the top spot.  This year that film has been supplanted by Hitchcock’s Vertigo.  

Does this mean that Vertigo is “better” than Kane?  The idea of empirically defining any work of art as better than another can only be subjective and arbitrary.   In  many other mediums of expression, the very idea of a best-of list is absurd.   The thought of trying to say that Van Gogh’s Starry Night is “better” than Botticelli’s Birth of Venus (to pick two famous paintings at random) is laughable.  There is no context by which to compare them.  They are separated by centuries, the product not only of different times and nations, but different worldviews.   Try this one:  rank the following books in order of greatness:  The Odyssey, Oliver Twist, Catch-22, One Hundred Years of Solitude, Huckleberry Finn.  Difficult, if not impossible.

Yet when it comes to movies, (and music), we are incessantly making lists.  Perhaps it has to do with the medium of movies having been around for a much shorter time.  With just over a century of material to view, maybe we have an easier time placing them in context.  And yet, one could make the argument that Kane and Vertigo, although made in the same state less than 20 years apart, are as dramatically different as two paintings or novels separated by centuries.   Whatever the reason, movie list-making is here to stay.  All one has to do is google “top films of all time”, or something similar, and you will find page after page of movie lists, from the popular and mainstream, to the many hundreds if not thousands of blogs devoted to films.

I had a suspicion that a majority of film lists would be written by men, and that top-10 lists in general were more a male activity, particularly young men.   When I was a twenty-something young man I had many conversations with friends and coworkers that centered around making a list:  What are the three best burgers you’ve ever had?  Who are the five best-looking girls that work here?  Most of the guys I knew, including myself, were slightly tamer versions of the characters in Nick Hornby’s brilliant novel High Fidelity.  These fictional characters worked at a record store called Championship Vinyl, and incessantly made lists about everything.  When the protagonist discovers that his girlfriend’s father has died, these guys immediately start making a list of the top five songs dealing with death.  My very unscientific random sampling of blog sites leads me to believe that there are indeed more men making best-of movie lists, but there are plenty of women who have as well, I was delighted and relieved to discover.

So if all these lists are arbitrary and subjective, what is the point?  Why do so many movie lovers (myself included) eagerly peruse these lists?  Because we want to compare our own subjective views with those of the listmaker;  our views may be very different, but what we share is a passion for films.  Our “10-best” films are at the very least a reflection of our taste, and at best, maybe a reflection of something more.  So do these lists ultimately mean anything?  Nope.  There is no “best” anything.  The primary function of a movie is to entertain, to provide some escapism.   Whatever movie does that for you, may be your best, and that is irrefutable, no matter how many film “experts” tell you that your view is incorrect.  I once worked with a girl who thought Con Air was the greatest film ever made, and I, seeing myself as an arbiter of good taste in films, secretly snickered behind her back.   Today I would applaud her view.  If that film brings her pleasure, then who am I to deride it?

It is precisely because our tastes differ that these lists have meaning.  That is their greatest significance, as a conversation starter.  Put 10 self-professed movie lovers in a conference room, distribute to them a list of the 100 greatest films as chosen by (whomever) and give them the direction:   discuss.  You can be assured that hours of dialogue will follow.  So there you have it.   We are humans of the 21st century.  We will make movies.  We will make lists about movies.  We will discuss the lists, and the movies, endlessly, as a way of expressing our individuality, and yet finding a commonality at the same time.

Now a quick look at these two films, in the world of movie lists.   Both Vertigo and Citizen Kane appear on virtually every major “best movie” list.  However, Kane has always placed higher, until now.

AFI                AMC                     IMDB                      EMPIRE

Citizen Kane                 1                         9                            44                                 28

Vertigo                           9                        16                          49                                 40

Kane placed higher on all of these lists as you can see (of course IMDB changes constantly, but this ranking is as of 9-23-2012.)

Does this reflect a change in the view of these two movies in general, or in relation to each other?  They actually share some things  in common:  they are both considered technically brilliant, they both achieved their status of “greatness” decades after their initial release, and they are both films that many casual movie viewers struggle to engage with on a first viewing.   I have heard or seen comments many times,  in reference to both films, along the lines of:  “I just didn’t get it”, or “I couldn’t even get through it.”  While such comments may make some of us wish to grab the comment makers by the shoulders and shake them, there is a validity to what they are saying.

I love Vertigo.  I think it is an amazing work, a tortured and tortuous psychological journey into the darkness of the human psyche, with amazing performances.  This film is Exhibit A to refute anyone who thinks that Jimmy Stewart  just played variations of the same character over and over.   And I can’t say enough about Kim Novak’s work in this film.  She has to play multiple roles, and she has to make the audience fall for just as she has to make Stewart’s character fall for her, and she does it in the most intensely understated way.  But I certainly wouldn’t recommend Vertigo to a Hitchcock newbie who asked what film to watch first.  As a matter of fact, I wouldn’t recommend it as my second or third choice either.  It’s not as directly engaging as Rear Window, or Psycho or many other Hitchcock films considered classics.  Vertigo (and Citizen Kane as well) require a level of committed engagement from the viewer, and some people are never going to have that kind of patience.  And for those who don’t, that’s OK.  I would say to someone who was watching these films for the first time, that they require the maximum investment if you want to receive the maximum payoff.


So which is better, the Van Gogh or the Botticelli?  The Welles or the Hitchcock?  Let’s just say they are two very good films, and you could certainly do worse than giving them a try.