Quiz Show

(Robert Redford, USA, 1994)


There are a few connections between Barry Levinson's Disclosure (1994) and Robert Redford's Quiz Show. Paul Attanasio wrote the screenplays for both films, and also has a cameo in both. Levinson also has a small part in Quiz Show, as a morning television host. But there the resemblances pretty much end.

Quiz Show strikes me as an overrated film. It has a preachy, didactic air about it. It is a tale of the booming consumerist age and capitalist corruption in the American '50s. Thus, it starts with the sunny Bobby Darin version of the Brecht-Weill song "Mack the Knife" and ends with a tragic modern rendition by Lyle Lovett. This is a pretty heavy-handed way of making a point. Equally leaden is the way Redford, as a director, gets bogged down in all the meticulousness of the period recreation. His camera never gets into these vast sets and brings them alive, the way Scorsese did in The Age of Innocence (1993), or the Coen brothers in The Hudsucker Proxy (1994).

What is undeniable, though, is the intrinsic interest of the real-life story on which the film is based. Indeed, I am astonished that no one has ever used it as the basis for a movie before now. In 1957, the producers of the television quiz show Twenty-One decided to replace one reigning champion with another. Out went an unglamorous Jewish student from Brooklyn, Howard Stemple (John Turturro), and in came Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes), a handsome intellectual who quickly became a media darling. The whole business was rigged: how Stemple managed to lose, and how Van Doren managed to keep on winning. When an enraged and humiliated Stemple finally blows the whistle, a public scandal ensues, thanks largely to an intrepid government investigator Dick Goodwin (Rob Morrow).

Like all films based on complex real-life cases, Quiz Show is a condensed, neatly organised version of what actually went on. The American media commentator William Boddy has written an excellent book on this scandal. From Boddy you can learn some of the fascinating stuff which is not included in Redford's film. Although the incident portrayed in the film was in every respect a major scandal, it was really only the culmination of a whole line of quiz show frauds throughout the '50s. Some of these frauds centred on children's quiz shows. In fact, one of the earliest and most famous of the quiz show phonies was Patti Duke, later to achieve fame on The Patti Duke Show. Eleven year old Patti had a deal going with a television producer whereby she would memorise supplied answers to pre-set questions. She won thirty-two thousand dollars in this fashion. When her agent discovered her, one day, struggling to remember these answers, he cut himself into the deal: he would allow her to write down the questions and answers in return for fifteen per cent of the winnings. That's showbiz for you.

A major scene shows us Goodwin playing a clip from the quiz show over and over, isolating a moment where the host of the show is caught unawares when a contestant decides not to throw the game and get a question wrong, as had been arranged. In real life, this host, Jack Barry, was also a producer of the program, and his on-air slips of the tongue were staggering. Stemple himself was once congratulated live by Barry with these immortal words: "I know everyone congratulates me for the brilliant showing you made". And as for Stemple himself, he was probably a more interesting and complex character in life than we see in the film. In the film, Stemple is the quintessential loser, a nerd, someone who seems to adore the trivial pursuit of quiz show knowledge. In reality, Stemple publicly critiqued the game shows at the time for being, in his words, "esoteric garbage, a parrot system of throwing out a lot of irrelevant facts."

But perhaps more interesting than such documented facts of the quiz show scandals is what Boddy makes of the whole case. For Boddy, the quiz show debacle is, above all, an important turning point in the extremely fraught relationship between television, as an emerging, powerful form of mass culture, and the intellectual class. This intellectual class includes not only academics but also teachers, writers, poets, newspaper columnists, theatre people – just about anyone who considers themselves learned or cultured in some way. When television began, an older generation of intellectuals was suspicious and dismissive of it. This is something that Redford recognises and shows very well in the film. He embodies this old-fashioned contempt for television in the person of Charles Van Doren's father, a Pulitzer prize winning poet, played beautifully by Paul Schofield.

But Van Doren junior, for a brief moment in the '50s, embodied a different sort of attitude, a different sort of hope. He embodied a dream that television and the humanities, mass culture and high art, could actually join together, become mutually enriched, and create new cultural forms. Remember that American television in the '50s is often celebrated nostalgically as a golden era, with its live television plays that gave a start to so many important directors and great film actors. As the film indicates, Van Doren wasted no time turning his mass media celebrity into a particular kind of cultural capital. He popularised great literature and read poetry on morning chat shows. And there must have been quite a few members of his own generation who liked what they saw in Charles' briefly brilliant career.

The exposé of the quiz show scandal, however, put an abrupt end to this dream. Van Doren was exiled, in shame, from both television and the university. A thousand columnists put pen to paper denouncing the insidious values of this monstrous new mass medium of television, which had at last revealed its true, evil face to the world. Those who previously had high hopes for the marriage of television and high art just kept quiet, withdrawing to their own corners. Boddy's conclusion is to the point: for him, "the stalemated antipathy between commercial television and US intellectuals is perhaps the most lasting legacy of the quiz show scandals."

And this is exactly where Robert Redford comes in. It is important to realise that Redford is one of those actors who has never involved himself in television. He has remained aloof, high above the special events, the quality miniseries, the sitcoms. His public identity as a certain kind of popular intellectual – liberal, righteous, alert to any threat to democracy – has been a key element of his career since the '60s. Even then, he was acting in and co-producing films such as Downhill Racer (1969) and The Candidate (1972) – both directed by Michael Ritchie, a key figure of that era – whose principal object of attack was the mass media. What all this means is that, when Redford comes to make Quiz Show, he is keen to load the argument of the drama in a particular direction.

For Redford, as for the outraged intellectuals of the '50s, television is an absolute evil, and the story of Van Doren proves this fact, pure and simple. This leads to some odd distortions in the film. Goodwin says over and over that his mission is to "get television". I can hardly believe that the real Goodwin, in the '50s, would have thought of what he was doing in these terms. Finally, in the big moment of the film, he amplifies this sentiment and adds a zinger: "I thought I was going to get television. The truth is, television is going to get us."

Television is going to get us! This is a grand, apocalyptic statement, and one that I, as a modern-day TV viewer, instinctively resist. But I guess it goes with Redford's wider intention in making the film. As you may have heard ad nauseam in the media, Redford says that his film is about that moment in history when America lost its innocence. I don't know about you but, frankly, I am getting a little tired of this loss of innocence mantra. America seems to have lost its innocence in so many different ways, at so many different times, in so many different stories. America lost its innocence when JFK was shot or when John Lennon was shot, when the Vietnam War started or when it ended, when Watergate happened, or the Oliver North scandal occurred, or perhaps just when television entered the ordinary American home. In every single episode of the TV series The Wonder Years, some kid lost another little piece of his sweet, stupid innocence – and the narrator always chimed in to tell us that maybe the whole of America was losing it too, in some sad, wise way.

Redford looks back at the quiz shows through jaundiced eyes and sees something grandiloquent: an entire nation losing its innocence. Boddy looks back, more dispassionately, and sees something more local: a lost opportunity for artists, intellectuals and producers in the television industry to get together, have some fun, and stop being so suspicious of each other. Maybe that's a happy situation that we're closer to in the age of Seinfeld, Northern Exposure and Wild Palms. But if so, Redford's film is certainly not out to help this cause any.

MORE Redford: Up Close & Personal, The Clearing, Indecent Proposal, Sneakers, The Horse Whisperer, The Legend of Bagger Vance

© Adrian Martin January 1995

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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