Thursday, July 05, 2007


Within the family we’ve reached a more mature point about giving and getting presents. For Father’s day I let my wife know about some DVDs and CDs I wanted. Lo and behold, that’s what I received from her and the boys (plus a gift card to espresso royale – my tastes are very predictable these days). One of these was a boxed DVD collection of old Dick Cavett Shows, this set with “Hollywood Greats.” (For the nitpickers in the crowd, the date that has for this is wrong. It says 1969 on the site, but the shows seem to be from 1970 and 1971.)

Nowadays Cavett is now one of the regular bloggers at the New York Times and I came to wanting that collection from reading one of his posts. It’s a bit odd to write a post promoting something commercial where the writer stands to benefit from the sale, especially given the imprimatur of the Times. But blogging about one’s personal experience from work or private life is de rigeur and in Cavett’s case he spent a significant amount of his work time very publicly as ABC’s alternative to Johnny Carson, with less mass appeal for sure but a bit more depth in the conversation, and since there are clear lessons from that experience it seems right to me that Cavett should bring it up and that the rest of us can take part in his past by buying these videos.

There are three shows per DVD, I’m in the middle of the second disc, in a show with Groucho (irrepressible as ever, but getting a little senile) and Debbie Reynolds, with Dan Rowan too but I’ve not yet reached the point where he makes his appearance. The entire previous show was an interview with Bette Davis. While I haven’t quite put the stopwatch to it, all the Dick Cavett shows originally aired as 90 minutes but now with the commercials taken out they are about an hour to view. I wouldn’t know this but for the way I watch them. I dread exercise so much that I need some sugar coating to get me to take that pill. We’ve got an old TV hooked to a DVD player where our stationary bike is set up. I pedal and watch then get off the bike and do some other light exercise and watch all the while and back and forth in that manner till some of my guilt feelings are erased, or the show has ended, or I’m too pooped to continue.
In the old days when I used to jog regularly (people who’ve met me in the last 5 or 6 years wouldn’t believe this, but I used to do 4 or 5 miles a session though not very fast, about 10 minute miles, and do that either every day or every other day) after about 20 minutes or not quite halfway in, I’d find a sense of rhythm. The breathing would have reached a plateau and my heart would be beating pretty well with an elevated pulse rate, the melody of the song I’d been listening to would have somehow been brought into accord with my stride, and altogether it created a feeling of exhilaration, especially when the air was crisp and the sky a sharp blue. In my head I’d feel a kind of reverie, away from work thoughts, not expecting this time to be anything but R&R.

Riding the stationary bike doesn’t quite do that for me. My urge to quit during the session is pretty strong (are we there yet?), which is why I need the DVD to watch. And I’m doing some of the same type of reflecting that I do when I watch TV sitting on the couch, trying to tie what I’m seeing and hearing on the screen to specific issues I’m dealing with at work or to those other more broad issues that are confronting us in the learning technology profession. It’s both a blessing and a curse to be in reflective mode most of my waking hours.

The first disc has two sessions just with Katherine Hepburn – well worth watching, quite compelling actually. And then the third session is with Fred Astaire. As a talk show guest, Astaire is kind of stiff. But Cavett got him to agree to perform, singing Gershwin, Irving Berlin, and Cole Porter, and to do a bit of dancing as well. It was quite amazing how good he was in the singing – all timing and style, not a great voice like Sinatra, but do know that the composers wrote their songs specifically for him; timing and style count for a lot.

The Hepburn interviews were unusual. Apparently Hepburn didn’t do TV interviews. This was a first for her. She made a preliminary visit to the studio to check it out. She’s there in slacks and Cavett is wearing tennis shoes. As it turns out, part of her reticence in going on television was abject fear about appearing in that medium – too spontaneous and not enough control for here. The walk through visit was done mostly so she could try to overcome the fear. Once in the studio and with her emotions in check, Hepburn decided to do the actual interview then and there.

Cavett, fully cognizant of how difficult it was to get Hepburn to be a guest on the show, accommodated in full. Actually he was more devious than that, making me guess he was onto her discomfort right from the start; they were filming from the outset of the walk through. And the entire show ends up being one continuous segment with no real separation between the walk through and the interview. There was no audience at the start, only the crew for the show. Somehow word got out about the interview and an audience trickled in while the interview was going on, unbelievable actually except for it clearly being how it was done.

I’ve seen Hepburn in a variety of films – The African Queen, Pat and Mike, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, The Lion in Winter, and On Golden Pond are some I can recall off the top of my head. There are many adjectives that come to mind about her from seeing these performances – smart, gutsy, spirited, quick witted, tender, and insightful are a few of those. Fearful is not on the list. It’s very hard to think of Hepburn as cowering and afraid. That doesn’t match the mental model. Yet at least insofar as appearing on television, she certainly was. During the interview she talked both about why there was no good reason for her not to appear – one might have thought she’d argue that TV was drivel and not worthy of her attention, but she didn’t press that point at all. Quite to contrary, she seemed to feel that TV was a worthy medium for artistic communication. (Remember again this was Cavett’s show, not the Tonight Show.) It was herself that was the problem, not the medium.

On edge already because of this phobia, she talked about being in constant fear while acting in movies. (Bettie Davis made the same point in her interview but she didn’t seem as ill at ease during the actual interview with Cavett. Hepburn took the entire first show and some of the second show before she settled down. Both of those were filmed the same day.) It was never quite clear from what she said exactly what it was that she was afraid of, but being in a similar boat on numerous occasions myself, it almost certainly was fear that her current performance wouldn’t stand up to the standard set by her previous work. She came back to the predominance of fear in her screen acting on multiple occasions during the interview. Yet clearly she overcame the fear and is one of the icons of Hollywood filmmaking. She was not explicit on how she did that but certainly other motivations were at play as well – ambition, a need for self-expression that seemed especially strong during the interview, and the kindness of her co-actors were a few that did come out in the conversation.

Cavett asked her why she wasn’t wrecked like so many other leading women in Hollywood. (I think it was in the Bette Davis interview where he asked essentially the same question that he specifically mentioned Jean Harlow and Marilyn Monroe.) Apparently booze and debauchery were ok for Bogie, John Huston, and Spencer Tracy, but not for Hepburn. She reported she had a strong sense of discipline and staying physically fit and being able to perform at a high standard with boundless energy during that performance was an imperative for her; so booze and pills were out. She attributed the sense of discipline in full to her New England upbringing. Her parents encouraged her to speak her mind, but they also required her as a youngster and on into young adulthood that she be attentive and listen to the wisdom of her elders as expressed through their conversations, not just her parents but the many house guests they had. And her parents had a genuine curiosity in how her day went, what she had accomplished. They were quite supportive in that sense, though apparently her dad was not very happy at first with her going into acting.

So here are two key themes for us to think about. Even the best and the brightest of us, perhaps especially in them and then even more so in those for whom acting or more broadly performance is a critical part of the work, have to deal with stage fright on an on going basis. It is a constant demon with which to do battle. Stage fright does not vanish even for those with great experience and great talent. In that sense there is no cure. But there is a tonic, much of which is a sense of rootedness and rightness that comes from proper upbringing. The tonic is not simply the need for self-expression. That need evokes passion. The sense of discipline does not emerge from that. The discipline comes from elsewhere, from family and the lessons learned there. At least that was true for Hepburn.

I think that is worth pondering now, as we try to teach leadership and ethics to our students (while plagiarism and disengagement seem to be on the rise). What is the foundation for the students on which we can build? Is it rock solid like Hepburn’s seemed to be? What can we do if it isn’t?

I want to turn to a different part of her interview where she talked about acting. There are lessons from that as well. Hepburn was quite modest about her own acting and during the interview you could see why. She had a certain quickness to her talk and would flit from one point to another in reaction to Cavett’s prodding, mildly annoyed that he had interceded but seemingly incapable of resisting the temptation to react to what he said. She reserved the highest praise as an actor for Tracy. This is not surprising, of course, given their relationship. But it is what she praised him for that was interesting and to me a bit unexpected. She said that Spencer’s great power was his concentration. He could stay in character and continue to focus in spite of the distractions and with that concentration could go deeper into getting at the essence of the role.

Concentration is not a word we talk about much these days, certainly not as a mode of behavior we should aspire to. Yet for Hepburn, concentration was the absolute key to acting. According to her Tracy had it, in spades, and all his fellow actors knew it and they wanted to work with him just for that reason. He could elevate their concentration as well and in turn that would produce marvelous performances. It certainly seems that way from the pictures he made. I watched Inherit the Wind not too long ago, a case in point, truly a wonderful picture and an apt commentary on the religiosity of today in America.

I suppose it is on this point (about the importance of concentration) where I am most removed from the bulk of the profession. I find support in my view from this comparatively recent interview on NPR, though I get more solace from listening to Hepburn and hearing her voice her seemingly timeless Yankee values on the subject than I get from learning that neuroscience seems to tell us that we don’t function at a high level when we multi-process. Others in the profession seem to allow for concentration only as a byproduct of the environment and thus we must seek immersive environments for it is those that produce concentration. And in general the profession seems to attribute great power to the environment and looks there for a first cause.

In contrast, Hepburn clearly thought that concentration was an individual power, some have it more than others, and Tracy was her ideal. She really didn’t say in the interviews whether it could be learned or not through she thought her own powers of concentration not as strong as Tracy’s. People of Hepburn’s ilk will look inward to improve their concentration. They will not look to technology for that.

There is benefit in watching these old Cavett shows, if not for the lessons I’ve drawn from them then simply to get a glimpse of the stars as they were when not in a film. And, too, the shows can remind us of where our views have changed over time and where they’ve remained the same. I was in high school when these show first aired. On some of the key themes, I don’t believe my views have changed very much.

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