So Peter Falk died last month, and someone posted the 41-year old video of his appearance on the Dick Cavett Show with John Cassavetes and Ben Gazzara. It was exhilarating to watch, but also sad and profoundly disturbing -- a time-capsule message from another era, or perhaps another world altogether. I’ve tried to embed some of it here because I think you may have to actually see it to understand what I’m trying to say. Having given up on that effort, at least for the moment, I have to direct you to the link at the bottom of this post. It's worth the extra effort when you see them saunter on stage, instantly owning it, Falk with his cigarette, Gazzara with a drink and a cigar.
Of course the first thing that strikes you is how impossibly young they all were. Cavett looks good for his age now (75), but Gazzara suffered a stroke in 2005, Cassavetes died in 1989 and of course, Falk is gone , too. They seemed immensely grown up to me when I first saw that broadcast. Well, of course -- I was eighteen years old, they were pushing forty. They were my Dad’s age. The odd thing is they still seem more grown up than I am, though I long overtook the phantoms on youTube. In fact I’m now technically old enough to have been one of their fathers. If my girlfriend in college really had been pregnant during that terrifying month of October, as the Viet Nam war was winding down, our child would be 39 years old now, a year younger than Gazzara was at that taping, two years younger than Cassavetes.
I get a migraine just thinking about it.
So why do they seem so powerful, so charismatic, so adult to me, even today? Why would they overwhelm and triviliaze some parallel talk show moment … Johnny Depp and Gore Verbinksi on the Jimmy Fallon show, or Matt Damon and Ben Affleck chatting with Conan? Those guys are all kids – little boys, playing at adulthood in the Hollywood Frat house. They seem flimsy and posturing by comparison. But it’s not their fault, that’s the worst part. It’s not something simple like … we have a puny new group of movie stars cluttering the multiplex screens … if that’s even true.
It’s about the times, not the people.
The era: the late sixties and seventies, when America was still the most powerful nation on earth, riding the storm surge of power and wealth from World War II. Yes there were cracks and fractures in that world, but they were easy to ignore. Our parents smoked and wore blocked hats and gave big cocktail parties and drank from flasks of rye at football games; we protested and demonstrated and smoked weed and ended the war in View Nam and brought down the President. Heady times. Who could have guessed that our swaggering parents would get lung cancer from the smoking and cirhossis from the booze, and that we would become the safety first, rules-making, no-kid-rides-a-bike-without-body-armor scared of its own shadow generation, about to drag the world into insolvency with our collective medicare and social security costs?
What did faded movie star Norma Desmond say in Sunset Boulevard ? “I’m still big. It’s the pictures that got small.” Well, it’s the whole world that’s shriveling now. We live in a diminished, attenuated world, one that seems to be running down like a hand cranked sewing machine. There are too many people, and too little of everything else – food, water, oil, education, breathing space. There was a kind of power moving through the world that Gazzara and Cassavetes and Falk inhabited, like the immense pulses of energy that move through the Pacific from the great Aleutian storms, creating the giant waves that break in Hawaii and the Northern coast of California.
That energy has drained from the world somehow, We’re all sitting in inflatable rafts in swimming pools, our new world tiny and tame and chlorinated. The power surging through their world made the success and charisma and swagger of those men possible: a world where a major studio like Columbia Pictures would finance a movie like Husbands. Today you’d have to shoot it on your iPhone and post it on YouTube; at best it might make the festival circuit and die a quiet death on the Sundance Channel. They were big stars making films for a major movie studio. America’s post-war wealth and confidence carried them along. It might not have created their stature but it gave them a place to stand.
Okay it was all an illusion, but it was a grand illusion and I miss it.
Watch the video. I think you’ll miss it, too.