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Inside Dick Cavett's Brain
   Reflections on the Interview Maestro
   by Timothy Dugdale

You could tell that Dick Cavett was nervous. And Ingmar Bergman, being Bergman, didn’t miss the opportunity to point out that The Seventh Veil was a bad movie, unlike his own, The Seventh Seal.

Cavett had traveled all the way to Sweden to do their 1971 interview on a borrowed set. Yet, as the lights came up and Cavett turned to the camera, it was impossible to tell that Cavett was anywhere other than in his signature habitat of quiet urbanity.

Turner Classic Movies has been showcasing Cavett’s legendary interviews with some of film’s greatest stars and directors, culled from his late-night ABC series that aired weeknights from December 1969-December 1972. For those three years, Johnny Carson blew Cavett out of the water but it didn’t matter. Carson was a different animal performing different tricks. Carson’s show, even though it appeared at 11:30, reeked of its late afternoon origins. Carson’s job was to re-assure America that all was well before lights out. Cavett belonged to that hour when a particularly engaging dinner party is just breaking up and there’s always one straggler who insists on a last drink. You move to a couple of chairs in the den, some low light bleeding in from another room. Kenneth Tynan remarked that Cavett creates the illusion that he is your guest, enjoying a slightly subversive private chat.

You could never imagine Cavett allowing John and Yoko to guest host a week of his shows, as Mike Douglas did. Cavett’s sense of midnight intimacy and candor was unique on television, then and now. The sixties opened up the clock, pushing the mind deeper into the hours during which Ward Cleaver’s America slept. There was no reason to turn in at ten unless you were Nixon.

If, as Nick Tosches suggests, Dean Martin was the consummate fifties man sticking it to the sixties, Cavett’s show worked the troubled synapse between the sixties and the seventies like no other program. After the horrors of Vietnam and the broken promises of the Summer of Love, people were looking for a place to soothe their tired souls, changed in ways they had yet to understand.

When Bettie Davis shows up for a chat, it’s the same wrinkled, kooky free spirit we saw in Whatever Happened To Baby Jane. She’s wearing go-go boots, she’s smoking, she’s winking, she’s carrying on. And Dick’s loving it, hanging back, letting her do her thing. Midway through the interview, Davis reminisces about her fight to get out her studio contract and become a free agent. She won, eventually. Davis beams with pride, an event emblematic of her forceful Yankee personality in action. Cavett quietly goes on greasing the rails for her ride onto the next story about necking with screen-test lotharios.

Watching Davis you realize the stars of the silver screen were no longer distant, twinkling lights. Television brought them up close and soiled them with the mud cast by mere celebrities. Cavett, with his self-effacing sophistication that permeated every aspect of the show – the set, the lighting, the music, the tempo - offers Hollywood’s greats a chance to soup-up their aura a bit. If Cavett’s show has an undercurrent of melancholy to it, where does that come from? Aging legends like Groucho Marx, holding court as he waves a giant cigar? Or the audience that pines for them at their apex of beauty and talent?

Cavett, raised in Nebraska but educated at Yale, is often maligned as some sort of East Coast fuddy-duddy. That assessment is not only unfair but inaccurate. Orson Welles appeared on Cavett’s show a record six times and they have a lot of fun. Welles, like Cavett, was from the heartland. He, like Cavett, left the middle West for bigger things. Yet as you watch them chat, you can feel the warmth of “flyover territory” radiating from them both.

Bergman quips to Cavett that when he first saw Cavett do a monologue, he didn’t like him. But as he towers over Cavett in his chair, you can see that the great Swede is very much at ease. He offers very touching (and somewhat troubling) anecdotes from his youth, when he was “a dreamer”. Anyone who has read Bergman’s autobiography, The Magic Lantern, knows all these stories. Yet swaddled in the warmth of Cavett’s ambience, Bergman is once again in the flesh a wounded, gifted child looking to escape the unhappiness of family life in the fantasies of cinema.

Even Hitchcock, the legendary cold fish who loathed actors, lets himself be the moon to Cavett’s sun, reflecting out into the audience and the camera. He tells a great story about playing around with a reaction shot in the infamous step sequence from Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin. Instead of an old woman getting bayoneted, Hitchcock and his editor inserted a shot of a teddy bear. Sure enough, the reaction shot of a man’s face changed completely. Hitchcock tells the story clearly to point out his power as a director to control the audience’s emotions. But Cavett has him in such good cheer, that Hitchcock comes off less as a manipulative tyrant than a grown-up kid bemused at discovering something he’s very good at.

-- Timothy Dugdale

Timothy Dugdale teaches in the Department of English at the University of Detroit Mercy.


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