Film History: Quiz Show (1994) at 25: The Fifties on Trial

Maybe you weren’t even alive back then, but you’ve probably seen the black and white footage, some of the best-known images of early television. Two men stand isolated under the hot lights, answering questions, trying not to show the pressure. The graceful, elegant one from New England is scion of one of America’s most famous families; the other one, a decent but unattractive man, a hard-working “grind” who rose from the lower middle class, is actually the smarter of the two, but he’s already sweating, feeling hopelessly outclassed. A trick question has caught him—he’s not allowed to give the correct answer! His anger rises; but he dutifully, bitterly keeps his mouth shut. He plays along for what he thinks is the good of the system, even if it means his personal defeat. But enough about the Kennedy-Nixon debates in 1960.

There’s an overlooked twist of history here, and we’ll get back to it at the end of our story. Quiz Show (1994) takes you back to the adolescence of American television. The film is based on the real-life scandal that engulfed the big-money quiz shows in 1959.

The movie begins with meeting a main character and hearing a radio broadcast, the eerie beeping of Sputnik, the world’s first satellite, as heard on a car radio on the night it was launched, October 4, 1957. This anchors Quiz Show, the movie, in a critique of American values that feels compelling, but is vaguer the closer you get to it; does the omniscient filmmaker want us to look down on America, the inept, because Eisenhower “let” the Soviets get a satellite into space first? If not, why the ominous faces and the air of foreboding? Or, on the other hand, are we supposed to look down on America, the paranoid, because people cared whether or not the Soviets got into space first? They can’t both be equally true and culpable indictments of national character. What’s the connection to the quiz show scandals, other than a sense of moral let-down? Yet it’s a captivating portrait of the ‘50s that you should see, if you haven’t already.

After from that prelude at a strangely dreamlike Chrysler dealership, the credit scene, with its bouncy Mack the Knife soundtrack, is the audience’s real introduction to the world that the story takes place in. Those carefully chosen pieces of 1957 Manhattan are beautiful. Quiz Show really begins with a mere trickle of action, two men handling an envelope of Twenty One’s questions and answers in a safe deposit vault, and with each shot the action speeds up and involves more and more people. With each escalation, Bobby Darin’s song seems to jump a half-tone. Look at the exciting, terribly unrealistic way the armored truck careens around the corner at Rockefeller Center, moving so fast that excited pedestrians are dashing to safety in front of the camera, partly blocking the picture like a newsreel that can’t fully control the background action. Now the envelope, whose journey began in immobility and silence, is carried through screaming crowds and up in the 30 Rock elevators to a nationwide TV broadcast.

The rest of the opening of the film has a montage of people, from all walks of life and from every region of the country, sitting down and getting ready to watch Twenty One, even as we’ve just seen the performers strain to present it. Papa brings in the popcorn, a row of noisy kids squirm into place; elsewhere, a couch full of nuns smile and nod as the kettle drums bring up the theme music and the show goes on the air live and coast to coast. This truly is the magic of network television, tying together a diverse nation, and the postwar romance between America and TV has rarely been depicted so well on film.

There are plenty of points of exchange between the real worlds of film and television (talent and profit come to mind), and plenty of TV jokes in the movies. There are certainly movies that have television shows as their models. But there hasn’t been much done on the simple miracle of coast-to-coast national television. It’s been around for so long we take it for granted.

The TV studio and control room scenes of the Twenty One TV show are superbly done with the feel of a live production. The colors and styles, touchingly naïve and exotic to present-day jaded eyes, are authentic; this is what the fifties actually looked like. At this point we enter the world of live actors and the narrative. Like the Eye of the Tiger montage in Rocky III, it’s a great way for title credits to take you right into the excitement as the scripted story begins with schlubby quiz champion Herbert Stempel, blissfully unaware of what we already know: the show is already scripting his downfall.

This is one of the only modern films about the 1950s that treats its subject fairly, without condescension. It’s a rare privilege to be able to bestow that “without condescension” label on Robert Redford, who in other respects is a quintessential NPR left-liberal. Because he gave a relatively positive vision of one glamorous aspect of postwar America the respect it deserves, we owe Redford something in return; a serious, respectful consideration of his broad, overarching theme of national moral decline. It’s like Godfather II (1974), a reasonable criticism of those times, not a political hatchet job like The Front (1976), Guilty By Suspicion (1991), or even 2008’s Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

It’s to Redford’s credit that congressional investigator Richard Goodwin, his crusading liberal hero, is also human, self-serving and fallible: his attempt to steer the Congress’s hearings into high-minded abstractions like “we’re going to get television”, or “we’re going after the advertisers” devolves into the kind of attacks on the “little people” that Goodwin wanted to avoid. Flinching in the clinch, Goodwin nervously waffles in his one “confrontation” with NBC boss Robert Kintner at the doors of an NBC elevator. Only in his relationship with cheating contestant Charles Van Doren, a young Ivy League intellectual like he, is Goodwin confidently dealing with someone he’d see as a social and intellectual equal, and Goodwin’s then-wife correctly calls him out on it.

Movies like Pleasantville (1996), True Confessions (1981), and a host of others make the Fifties look like a woman-hating nightmare. The understated bits of feminism in Quiz Show, by contrast, are funny and poignant, like the way that unmarried women are constantly asking if Charles Van Doren is engaged. That sympathy is undermined by the way the movie treats Herbert Stempel’s wife. It’s an ugly caricature that, to Redford’s discredit, is supposed to be funny. Having lived in Queens, I can say that Robert Redford’s portrayal of the old neighborhoods even in the ‘50s would be insulting if it weren’t so silly. But the movie is good at the subtle portrayal of relations between Jewish people at different levels of assimilation (Goodwin and Stempel) and between academic Jews and Gentiles (Goodwin and Van Doren), which has the real feel of the fifties. I enjoyed the knowing intimacy of enemies Stempel and Van Doren when Stempel suddenly and correctly intuited that the supposedly high-minded hero Van Doren was going to take the dive just as he did.

Goodwin’s other big would-be confrontation of an industry big shot also doesn’t come off the way he plans. This is a great two-man scene with Martin Scorsese playing the chairman of Pharmaceuticals, Inc, makers of Geritol and sponsors of Twenty One. Scorsese’s character, while much too shrewd to be caught admitting anything, surprisingly doesn’t seem to deny anything, either; he’s much more direct and honest than the other “villains” of the story. He doesn’t insult Goodwin’s intelligence or ours. More than any other scene in the film, he calmly lays out what the reality of the so-called “scandal” is, and how doing the very same things a slightly different way will soon no longer be perceived as scandalous. Far from being threatening, on a personal level he sounds solicitous: “You’re a smart young man with a bright future”. As in, don’t screw it up.

One of the glories of Quiz Show is the measured, ironic way that even its good guys are drawn into manipulations that echo the illegal showmanship of its bad guys. Quiz Show shows you these obvious ironies and assumes that you’re smart enough to see them without being hit with a sledgehammer. This regard for the audience’s intelligence is part of what elevates this film above the ordinary.

To enjoy Quiz Show, you have to tolerate Robert Redford’s occasional need to tie all sorts of character flaws and shortcomings to his widely shared notions about national flaws. If he wittily uses Bobby Darin’s version of Mac the Knife to open the film with a jaunty sense of fifties America on the make, his use of the dirge-like Kurt Weill/Lotte Lenya original at the end of the film feels artier, more forced. A friend of mine, Hollywood Reporter film critic David Hunter, said in his review that from the Left’s perspective, Quiz Show aspired towards an anti-big-business feel, but it needed to borrow Weill’s sour, left-wing anthem to stiffen its own sentimental spine.

And yet, think of those happy nuns in the background behind the credits, crowding each other on the couch in anticipation of another exciting round of Twenty One. Liberals once knew how to reach those people. The guy who became famous playing the All American Boy-with-a-Fatal-Flaw is smart enough to know that there are various levels of shock and innocence, and at those national moments when the mainstream entertains doubt about the American project, Redford was ready to meet that mainstream; few other aggressively progressive filmmakers have even tried. Yet, the making of this film conceals an irony about power and arrogance.

I was curious about something I’d read long ago about a mysterious dispute between Robert Redford and the director originally announced for Quiz Show, Steven Soderbergh, the fledgling writer-director whose flashy 1989 Sex, Lies, and Videotape changed the commercial potential of Redford’s pet project, the Sundance Film Festival, doing more than any other single film to put it on the VIP must-go map forever, or at least “forever” as Hollywood defines it (roughly twenty or more years). I checked this out on the web. Yeah, Soderbergh and Redford were David and Goliath, Industry-wise; it was kind of funny how it resembled some aspects of Quiz Show, the movie.

Soderbergh is an appealing witness, much franker than his opponent in this case, the remote and imperial Redford, who at this time had been the biggest male movie star in the world for the previous twenty years. I was amused by the decidedly un-Adonis-like Soderbergh’s self-deprecation in his account of the unequal struggle over the picture. His words seemed to modestly echo the voice of the unfashionable Herbie Stempel in his hopeless duel with the handsome, famous and favored Charles Van Doren. Soderbergh’s big success gave Redford and Sundance the idea that they should somehow both nurture and profit from the career growth of their “discoveries”. Though that attitude would have seemed perfectly natural at, say, MGM in 1938, it wasn’t a natural fit for the communitarian, band-of-brothers rhetoric of the Indie world. Redford felt impatient or slighted by Soderbergh’s pre-existing projects at studios, so he used the delays as an excuse to replace him, to take over the project for himself.

Like Herb Stempel, Steven Soderbergh could legitimately throw the inside punch that the huge public fad for the big boss’s Sundance Film Festival is due in large part to the public enthusiasm for the kid’s own appealing success story. Sure, they made him, but he also helped make them.

Quentin Tarantino was the next big young star director after Soderbergh began to get balky and, to Redford, ungrateful. Quentin’s sort of a lucky Charles Van Doren of the piece as he became wildly successful in 1994 with Pulp Fiction, making vastly more money even than Sex, Lies, and Videotape. Miramax’s pioneering success in marketing Sundance movies into “ordinary” multiplexes that seldom if ever showed art films before set a lucrative pattern for the Nineties. It would make Harvey Weinstein’s upstart studio enormously rich and influential, especially at Oscar times. Meanwhile former Sundance golden boy Steve Soderbergh seethed with perceived injustice while standing in line outside a theater playing Quiz Show.

If the famous prizewinner of Sex, Lies, and Videotape were to turn, Stempel-style, against the Sundance festival as a bunch of bloodsuckers and exploiters it would be big news—and that’s what happened, as he later publicly “defected” to Sundance’s nervy, pint-sized rival, Slamdance, as being the kind of idealistic People’s Film Festival that Sundance merely pretended to be. That really made it sting for Redford. (Er, so to speak.)

Finally, real life provided a higher level of irony to this tale of establishment corruption. (If I make accusations, it’s dangerous. If I make observations, it’s merely Aaron Sorkin.) Remember, in the opening, my none-too-subtle hint that Kennedy-Nixon debates were, in effect, Quiz Show in real life, played for the highest stakes? In that first-ever televised debate, Vice President Richard Nixon was asked a question about secret US plans to invade Cuba. Prudently and patriotically, he knew he couldn’t give the real answer. He knew Senator John F. Kennedy had been informed about the program in CIA briefings, but on the air, JFK used the issue against Nixon anyway, portraying him as weak on Castro. This was, Nixon said later, the only time in the entire campaign when he was personally furious with Kennedy, who was once a personal friend.

The name of the guy who knowingly slipped JFK the unanswerable question was…Richard Goodwin. Yep, the same: The Democratic political aide Goodwin who got his start as a staff lawyer investigating a suspicious run of quiz show winners on TV. His (allegedly) non-fiction account about his own heroism during those months in the spotlight became this Robert Redford production about flawed character among the ranks of America’s high and mighty. See any hypocrisy here?

Over the decades, Goodwin turned into a real-life version of brilliant and honored Ivy League academic Mark Van Doren, Charles’s dad, the very embodiment of the northeastern intellectual establishment. Richard Goodwin is married to Doris Kearns Goodwin and is famed far and wide as a Kennedy aide as well as a historian.

Goodwin enjoys telling an oft-reported story about John F. Kennedy inviting him and one of his debate colleagues onto his yacht afterwards. He imitates the president’s Boston accent: “If I win this (election), I won it; but if I lose it, you guys lost it”. This seems to give Goodwin no particular pangs of conscience regarding Nixon or the nation.

You could even see him as his one-time opponent: the intimidatingly well-connected guy that Scorsese played, a smooth, genial establishment figure who admits everything with an indifferent shrug and a friendly, condescending smile: sure, you got the story, now go ahead and try to get anyone to care.