Man of Steel; here is a movie that is 100% moral center.
I often wish that popular movies were about something. Modern blockbusters are all about… two hours long. Quiz Show was released in 1994, is Robert Redford’s finest work, received four Oscar nominations, did not win any of them, and today is largely unsung.
The entertaining part of popular art is supposed to be the “spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down.” The clever dialogue, the realistic performances, and the spectacle of the piece itself are supposed to be what draws us to narrative drama, but is it not the “working out” of a moral or ethical dilemma that serves to keep us there? I am so impressed by the questions that Quiz Show asks, the places it goes philosophically, and the conclusion it reaches about modern life. Lately, most contemporary films impress me as chocolate-covered cotton candy: there is nothing at their center but sugar and air.
The problem is that (spoiler!) Twenty-One is rigged. Van Dohren gets the questions and answers in advance from the show’s producers. The entire program is a charade. Van Dohren is rehearsed to give the show maximum dramatic impact, and his return each week is guaranteed because he is the only contestant given the answers. The program’s network, NBC, wins in the ratings; the program’s sponsor, Geritol, sees its sales skyrocket; and Charles Van Dohren collects money he could not earn as a college instructor in several lifetimes. What could possibly go wrong?
Not only does Quiz Show feature a wonderful cast of some of my favorite character actors (Christopher MacDonald, Illeana Douglas, Mira Sorvino, Elizabeth Wilson, Hank Azaria, David Paymer, Timothy Busfield, Griffin Dunne, and directors Martin Scorsese and Barry Levinson), and not only are they given interesting things to say and do, but the actors also have the privilege of appearing in a narrative that functions as a meditation on morality for its audience. Is this not the highest function of art—to invite the audience to consider their own lives? A majority of modern films abdicate this responsibility completely.
As Charles Van Dohren asks near the end of the film, “If somebody asked YOU to appear on a rigged quiz show—the money, the women, the cover of Time, the fame and everything—would YOU do it?” He is talking to Richard Goodwin, but he might as well be talking to the audience.
My two favorite scenes in Quiz Show both involve Paul Scofield as Van Dohren’s father, the poet and Columbia University professor Mark Van Dohren. In the first, Charles comes home to escape the hubbub of fame and shares a piece of chocolate cake with his Dad. The honest sincerity and caring Scofield projects here is the stuff of great acting, especially when one considers that the two are only discussing cake. In the second, Charles must confess to his father that he is a fraud, that the quiz show that has given him his sudden fame and notoriety is rigged. A long-standing game between the two involves quoting Shakespeare and seeing if the other can name the source play. When Charles starts doing this as a way of deflecting his guilt, his father abruptly cuts him off and says, “This is no time for games.” Charles continues the game with the quote: “it was mine own.” Again, his father cuts him off, shouting, “Your name… is mine.” Silence. In this moment the film achieves the Shakespearean profundity and moral clarity that earlier it was content to merely quote.
Also, Scofield (who is British) uses an American accent that sounds exactly like Joseph Cotton in Citizen Kane! It is uncanny.
I screen Quiz Show at the end of the year in my AP English classes to begin a dialogue about cheating. AP students are under a lot of pressure to do well. They are also very smart, so they are good at cheating and at getting away with it. This year in my four class sections, there was more cheating (and I am defining the term “cheating” pretty narrowly here) than in the past four or five years combined. Maybe I am just getting better at catching them. The prevailing ethic among many of my students seems to be that cheating is okay… as long as you get away with it.
In one of Quiz Show’s pivotal scenes, Richard Goodwin recounts a family scandal between his uncle and aunt. The uncle had an affair, and confessed to his wife. The funny thing was that the affair had happened ten years prior; he had “gotten away with it.” The uncle confided to his nephew that it was the “getting away with it” part that he could not live with. I wish more of my students had a bigger problem with “getting away with it.”
Maybe I should start showing Quiz Show at the beginning of the year.