A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
At first glance, this movie may seem like a modern retelling of Faust, but it’s more than that. Taken from a few pages in Richard Goodwin’s memoir Remembering America:A Voice From the Sixties, Robert Redford directed a film which shows American society at the point where it’s starting on the road to the modern era and the influence that fame and media will have upon it.
The story is based upon real events in 1958, when the son of a famous literary family tries out for a TV game show as a lark and becomes enmeshed in a cheating scandal which ruins his reputation and career. Ralph Fiennes plays Charles van Doren, the handsome son of a novelist mom and poet father. On the quiz show “21” he becomes the new champion, after the former champ, working class Herb Stempel is pressured into losing. The longer van Doren’s victory sweep, the more angry Stempel gets, until he sets in motion a government investigation, headed by Dick Goodwin, which uncovers years of fraudulent winners, many who have been fed the answers.
On the surface, the message is a warning against cheating, but there’s actually many layers to this story, about class, fame, family and the effect of modern technology on society. There is also the subtle anti-Semitism of television at the time, data proved that a Jewish contestant was always defeated by a Gentile and their winning streak was shorter. Fraud was rife among many of the game shows then, which were as ubiquitous as reality shows are now.
One of the most obvious statements the film makes is about class, which we do have in America, but don’t admit. Van Doren’s world is one of college classrooms, private clubs and sailboats, which contrasts with Stempel’s cluttered working class home and even with Goodwin’s Ivy League University background. Another is the mistrust Americans have always had about intellectualism, Charlie pointing out that he has made being smart cool. There are references to history and literature throughout the movie, trading Shakespeare quotes at picnics, Lincoln facts at poker games, Charlie wondering what Kant would think of his moral dilemma. To those of us who get these references, it adds humor and irony.
What most puzzled me is what Charlie’s motive is. Is it money, reputation, fame? A chance to make a name for himself apart from his family? An Oedipal conflict? In fact, one of the most emotional scenes is where his father, played by the excellent Paul Scofield, asks him that. Even then, Charlie isn’t sure.
The movie does a terrific job of capturing the feeling of 1950’s America, not only in the décor and clothing, but also the attitudes and mores of the times. Wives are the moral arbiters, playing into the ’50’s view of women as “good”. The TV audience is gullible, believing everything they see on the screen is real. And the respect for authority, especially government is so very different from today. When Charlie has to testify before a Congressional committee, it’s one of the few times his confidence falters.
The casting of the film is stellar; Ralph Fiennes is like a Vermeer painting, luminous. Paul Scofield perfectly embodies an old-fashioned code of honor, a father who is proud of his son, while being more disappointed than angry at Charlie’s folly. John Turturro is nerdy and annoying, yet righteously outraged. The only flaw is Rob Morrow as Dick Godwin, whose attempt at a Brookline, Massachusetts accent sounds like he’s talking with marbles in his mouth. Once you get used to that, his “aw shucks” demeanor is sort of likable, and it’s understandable why he is charmed by Charlie, despite knowing he’s guilty.
Much is made that the game show scandal ruined America’s innocence, though dozens of other events have also been labeled thus. But I did get the feeling that TV was being used as a metaphor for something, though I wasn’t completely sure what. Towards the end of the movie, Goodwin says “We didn’t get television, television got us.” Does he mean modernity, manipulation of the masses, the power of big business or something else? Aside from that slightly nagging mystery, Quiz Show is not just commenting on modern society, but also on the timeless quandaries of ambition and temptations.
Hollywood Films 1994 133 mins. Available on DVD