Sunday, May 3, 2015

Quiz Show

SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.

At the end of Quiz Show, Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes) says, for him, "everything came too easily."  For film fans, that line should sound familiar. Robert Redford (the director here) played a writer in The Way We Were who wrote the same thing about one of his characters, and used it as a metaphor for America. Redford knows about how acceptance and fame are closely tied to a pleasing appearance. Many times, the audience will not look beyond the outside to see whether there is true worth (which is earned), and honesty underneath that exterior. 

In Quiz Show, the director explores this theme extensively. Herbert Stempel (John Turturro) lives on the outskirts of the American Anglo-Christian mainstream. He is a very bright, less than handsome New York Jew who becomes a winner on the 1950's quiz show, 21.  However, he is disgruntled when, after losing his TV crown, he is not given his own talk show, which he thought the network executives, Dan Enright (David Palmer), and Albert Freedman (Hank Azaria) promised him. He tells the U. S. attorney, Dick Goodwin (Rob Morrow), who is investigating TV, that he, Stempel, was given the answers to the quiz show's questions, and was told to take a dive. Stempel says that Van Doren was also given the answers. Enright and Freedman attempt to discredit Stempel, doctoring a tape that makes it look like he was trying to extort the TV execs. Herbert says that it was unbelievable that he would not know the answer about who won the 1955 Oscar for best picture. Stempel has a point – why would such an outsider not know the honor Marty received, the film about the unattractive Bronx butcher?

Van Doren, attractive, an Ivy League professor, with an impeccable pedigree, is Stempel's successor. His father, the revered intellectual Mark Van Doren (Paul Scofield), is an intimidating dad. He and his son play brainy parlor games, as Charles tries to show pops that he is worth parental approval. That desire for fatherly acceptance drives him to become a contestant on 21. The audiences love him, and Enright and Freedman want to insure that he stays a winner. They eventually convince Charles to accept the answers.  The long sought after fame and recognition are too tempting for the younger Van Doren.  His father is not initially impressed, and doesn't even own a TV until his son gives him one as a birthday present. When Charles tells his dad how much money he is making, the father finally is stopped in his tracks. Charles is on the verge of telling his dad the truth about his deception.  But, he can't do it after his father says that Charles will never feel truly happy until he has a son. This statement emphasizes how betrayed Scofield's character feels when his son's deception is revealed. When he starts to feel guilty Charles tells Enright and Freedman that he can’t continue the deception. They say it is only show biz. He replies by saying it’s different for him because he is a professor. At that point an assistant enters and says, “The Professor is wanted in make-up.” In those few words we see that he has sold his intellectual integrity for unearned idolatry to a sham TV show that sells a modern version of snake oil.

It is fitting that the lawyer who brings down the TV show is himself an outsider – a Jew who attended Harvard. But, Goodwin, too, is seduced by the Van Doren charm, and does  not want Charles to be punished. He is after the network, and TV in general. Van Doren wants out, and blows a question that Goodwin realizes Charles knows. But, the network wants to continue to cash in on his celebrity. Charles accepts a well-paying job on the Today show. He can't let go of the fame, even though it was obtained through lies.

Stempel drops Van Doren's name at the Congressional inquest, and so the latter must testify. When Stempel confesses to his complicity in the quiz show, he is perceived as a buffoon, and is ridiculed. However, when Van Doren confesses, he gives an eloquent speech, and all the members on the Congressional panel, except the one from New York, commend him for his last minute honesty. These Federal representatives are also seduced into jumping onto the popularity bandwagon. This scene shows how believing the lie can spread even to high government officials. 

The power to manipulate the media comes from those who have the money. In this case, NBC and its sponsor, Geritol. The drug company advertised its medicine as the cure for "tired blood." This phony elixir was a lie, and the falsehoods flowed downward to a gullible populace, living fame vicariously through its false idols. Have things really changed?

Next week’s film is A History of Violence.

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