Robert Redford kicks off the fall film season on an exhilarating note of challenge. In Quiz Show, his fourth and finest movie as a director, Redford celebrates the muckraking spirit of Watergate that nailed Nixon 20 years ago by prodding audiences to rage against the machine. It’s not the White House — Redford vented in that direction by producing and starring in the landmark 1976 film of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s All the President’s Men — this time it’s television. Redford blows the dust off a 35-year-old scandal about rigged TV quiz shows and makes it snap with up-to-the-minute relevance.
Redford puts television on trial in Quiz Show, and then raises the stakes by exploring the flaws in our national character that sucker us into buying the lies television tells. Directed with probing intelligence and slashing wit, Quiz Show is the best and boldest American movie so far this year. Redford has got his blood up, and the flush of anger becomes him.
Although the film does take place a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away — we’re talking the 1950s, in a world of black-and-white TV sets — Gen Xers won’t have trouble recognizing the fine art of mind fucking. Quiz shows were the rage — there were three dozen on the air — and hard as it may be to swallow in the age of Beavis and Butt-head, smarts could make you a celebrity overnight.
That’s what happened to Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes), a telegenic WASP bachelor who taught English at Columbia University and who came from a prominent literary family that included father Mark (Paul Scofield), a Columbia professor and Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, and mother Dorothy (Elizabeth Wilson), an editor and novelist. Charles Van Doren went on Twenty-One, a popular NBC quiz show, and electrified the nation by beating the reigning champ, Herbert Stempel (John Turturro), a working-class ex-GI with a wife and son in Queens, N.Y., who was described by one of the show’s producers as “a fat, annoying Jewish guy with a sidewall haircut.”
Redford and production designer Jon Hutman re-create the Twenty-One experience with uncanny exactitude. Host Jack Barry (Christopher McDonald) reads the questions from a center podium emblazoned with the name of the sponsor Geritol, a product that promised relief from, of all things, tired blood. Not on this show, not with Stempel and Van Doren sweating out Barry’s questions in glass-enclosed isolation booths so the contestants can’t hear each other’s answers. There’s Stempel stuttering and biting his lip and Van Doren mopping his brow. What drama! What ratings! What profits!
What a con job! A 1959 congressional investigation headed by Harvard lawyer Richard Goodwin (Rob Morrow) exposed the quiz shows, including Twenty-One and The $64,000 Question, as frauds. Angered at being forced to lose to Van Doren, Stempel helped blow the whistle. He testified that Twenty-One producer Dan Enright (a scary-funny David Paymer) and his associate Al Freedman (Hank Azaria) gave him questions in advance and told him how to drag out answers to build suspense. Redford gets it all in, right down to the public outrage over being duped and the disgrace heaped on Stempel, who was castigated as a vengeful neurotic, and Van Doren, who was dismissed from Columbia and never taught again.
Quiz Show could have stopped there and settled for being a record of the public’s loss of innocence about the black box in their living rooms. But that would be the official story. Redford is hunting bigger game. As far as he’s concerned, the real betrayers of the public trust went free when Enright took the fall. NBC and Geritol, claiming they had no knowledge of the fraud, were never implicated. Redford implicates plenty. The Geritol honcho, played by a dark-suited Martin Scorsese in a savage cameo, studies Stempel on the tube. “There’s a face for radio,” says the blonde at his side. Orders to drop him are passed to NBC president Robert Kintner (Allan Rich): “They want a guy on Twenty-One who could get a table at 21.” It’s good business.
And much more. Redford sees the battle between Van Doren and Stempel as a microcosm of American class warfare: It’s race vs. race, pretty vs. ugly, have vs. have-not. Twenty-One is gone, but TV is still playing the game of reinforcing stereotypes and fudging facts in the name of entertainment.
The source material for the movie is a single chapter in Remembering America: A Voice from the Sixties, a 1988 memoir by Goodwin, who followed his high-profile exposé of the quiz shows by serving as one of the president’s men for JFK and LBJ. The chapter serves as an intriguing outline. What fleshes it out is the contentious, character-driven script by Paul Attanasio, a Harvard Law School graduate himself, as well as a former film critic for the Washington Post. Attanasio doesn’t shy away from stepping on toes, even knowing that many of the characters in this real-life drama are still living. One caveat: The script implies that Van Doren was still heating up the ratings on Twenty-One when Goodwin convened his investigation in 1959. In fact, Van Doren had put in his last appearance more than two years earlier. Flashbacks would no doubt have lessened the suspense, but in this movie it might have been wiser to avoid any alterations “for dramatic purposes.”
Fortunately, a remarkable cast shows no compromise in measuring the human toll taken by the quiz-show scandal. That includes Goodwin, superbly played by Morrow of TV’s Northern Exposure. In a shrewdly judged performance, Morrow lays on the Hah-vud voice and the righteous indignation just enough to show the ambitious climber in Goodwin, who grew up hearing the same anti-Semitic jibes as Stempel but won a scholarship to Harvard and graduated first in his class. Goodwin the outsider is enamored of Van Doren (“I want to think the best of you, Charlie, everybody does. That’s your curse”) and his world. “They call Edmund Wilson Bunny,” he tells his wife (Mira Sorvino). But the quiz-show witch hunt is his idea; it’ll make his name.
The film opens with a stunning moment of seduction. Goodwin, chewing a fat cigar, is in a car showroom feeding his fantasies about buying a Chrysler 300D convertible he knows he can’t afford. “That’s pigskin and calfskin,” says the salesman, stroking the interior. “Hand rubbed.” As he does throughout the film, master cinematographer Michael Ballhaus perfectly captures the textures of luxury that lure the characters. On the car radio, Goodwin hears news of the Soviet launch of Sputnik — a crushing defeat for the U.S. in the space race — and that’s Bobby Darin singing “Mack the Knife,” a song that warns about sharks with pretty teeth.
In this brief, beautifully precise scene, Redford shows us an America hungry for that luxury, that victory, that feeling of being smarter and richer than the rest of the world. Quiz Show is a movie about temptation. And everyone is susceptible.
Turturro gained 25 pounds, cut his hair and blackened a front tooth to play Stempel. But his real achievement comes in capturing the wounded pride of a man who goes from being a TV somebody to being “Charles Van fuckin’ Doren’s first kosher meal.” Worse, he’s told to take the dive by missing a simple question about what picture won the Oscar in 1955. “Everyone knows it’s Marty,” he says. “Don’t you see the drama of that?” asks Enright. Stempel sees only the humiliation. “For 50 grand,” says Enright, “you can afford to be humiliated.”
Van Doren’s motives are harder to pinpoint. Two decades ago, Redford, now 57, would have been the ideal actor to dig for answers. He gave a haunting performance then in The Way We Were, playing a sellout writer who wrote of himself: “In a way he was like the country he lived in, everything came too easily to him.” Those words could also fit Van Doren. When this symbol of academic excellence — cover boy on Time and culture correspondent on Today — admitted his deception, he wrote: “I’ve flown too high on borrowed wings. Everything came too easily.”
Van Doren’s fall from grace is at the heart of Quiz Show, and Fiennes gives a brilliant performance in the role, alert to every flicker of insecurity and resentment behind Van Doren’s ready smile. This is acting of the highest order, exactly what you would expect from the British actor who stunned audiences as the Nazi commandant in Schindler’s List. Fiennes’ American accent wavers but not his fix on the character. The quiz show gives Van Doren what he wants most — a shot at fame, a chance to be known as something more than “the son.” At first, he resists Enright’s invitation to cheat. But the spotlight feels too good. There’s a small, telling scene: Van Doren, delivered to the Columbia campus in an NBC limo, stalls to tie his shoe so his emergence will synchronize with a class bell and a wave of adoring students.
The moment when the son confesses his guilt to the father he loves and resents — the great Scofield plays the role with magisterial authority and deep reserves of feeling — is a stunner. The father can’t hide his pain or deny his forgiveness. Redford has examined family relationships before in directing Ordinary People and A River Runs Through It, but he cuts deeper here. Quiz Show is a triumph for Redford because he won’t treat people as disposable, the way TV does. Their moral defeats have consequences and weight.
Still, this is a movie without heroes. Goodwin makes his name, the quiz shows are off the air, but corporate culture stays in control. Scorsese delivers the sponsor’s prophetic last words with acid cool: “Even the quiz shows will be back. Why fix them? You could accomplish the same thing just making the questions easier. The audience wasn’t tuning in to watch some display of intellectual ability. They just wanted to watch the money.”
Woodward and Bernstein didn’t change the world (America recently tuned in to watch Nixon get a statesman’s funeral); neither did Goodwin. “I thought I was going to get television,” he says. “The truth is television is going to get us.” You might say “Come on down!” game shows, reality TV and choreographed news proved him right. We’ve learned to expect scandal and to shrug it off when it comes — Whitewater or Milli Vanilli, it’s all the same. Redford wants to fight back. His detractors have a rap on him: naive, earnest, means to improve people. Fuck that. Maybe we could use a little improving and a sense of outrage and purpose, however naive. What Redford is saying isn’t new, but it has rarely been said in a mainstream movie with this kind of passion. The final image in Quiz Show is memorably chilling. It’s an audience, like us, enraptured, laughing, soaking it all in, watching the money.