Wrong Answer

Pulitzer-Prize winning poet Mark Van Doren accompanies his son Charles Van Doren to the Congressional hearings on the TV quiz-show scandals in 1959.

Quiz Show (1994), directed by Robert Redford, earned four Oscar nominations. Critics praised it, other filmmakers admired it, I absolutely loved it — but it was a box-office disaster. Now, nearly a generation after it was made, the movie is finally beginning to find an audience. Like so many other rediscovered gems, it will make its WNC revival at the Hendersonville Film Society.

It’s January 1957. Elvis Presley has made his third and final appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. Shown only from the waist up, he nevertheless thrills thousands of bobbysoxers, driving their parents mad with concern over rock ’n’ roll’s unbridled sexuality. Dwight D. Eisenhower has been inaugurated for the second time, taking most press attention away from his worrisome vice president, Richard M. Nixon.

If, on Monday nights, they weren’t laughing with I Love Lucy, almost 50 million Americans were glued to their local NBC channel to watch the quiz show Twenty One. For a few weeks running, champ Herb Stempel (John Turturro at his most annoying Everyman) has been trying to maintain his crown. But Herb isn’t popular with the audience. He’s an obnoxious know-it-all from Queens, with ill-fitting suits and bad teeth.

The owner of Geritol (the “cure for iron-poor blood”), the show’s sponsor (played by a reptilian Martin Scorsese), insists that the producers get rid of Stempel in favor of the new challenger, a good-looking WASP-y intellectual named Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes in an example of perfect casting). Charlie, as he is known, is a literature instructor at Columbia University, sharing an office with his father Mark Van Doren, the 1940 Pulitzer Prize winner for poetry and a respected literary critic. (Charlie’s mother, Dorothy Graffe Van Doren, is a novelist and the editor of the liberal/progressive weekly The Nation. His uncle, Carl Van Doren, won the 1939 Pulitzer Prize for his biography Ben Franklin.)

When Charlie was tapped to be on Twenty One, he had actually been trying out for Tic-Tac-Dough. He didn’t even own a TV set, and on a teacher’s salary of $83 a week, he hadn’t given much thought to buying one. Unlike the $64,000 Question, which tested contestants on specialized knowledge (such as psychologist Joyce Brothers, whose expertise on boxing launched a long media career), Twenty One tested general knowledge. Charlie, widely read, could easily have answered all the questions asked of him.

But the producers (David Paymer as Dan Enright and Hank Azaria as Albert Freedman) long ago wanted to guarantee no precious air time would be taken up by players fumbling for answers. So, the contestants were fed the questions and answers ahead of time and also given acting tips on how best to rev up audience interest, such as dabbing their foreheads gently when the isolation booths became too hot, or pursing their lips in fake consternation. Charlie, it seems, had a qualm or two about this unseemly arrangement, but like all the other contestants, he wasn’t overly concerned about ethics. This was, after all, not crime — it was entertainment. As you watch the movie’s smooth-talking producers seduce Charlie into agreeing to their proposal, you want to scream at him, “Don’t do it! You’ll be sorry.” But deaf to his conscience (“I have always been a gambler,” he once told Life magazine), Charlie blithely sets off on his road to riches — and ruin.

In Charlie’s case, was there some kind of Freudian thing going on, as well? He had, after all, written a novel about fratricide when he was in Paris years before. Overnight on TV, Charlie made more money than his professor father made in years.

Crowds of teenage girls followed him everywhere, as though he were a rock star, and he had to hire a young lady to help him handle the sacks of fan mail he got each week. (Her name was Gerry and he eventually married her.) Being on the cover of Time magazine was a feat even his famous father never accomplished. After 14 weeks of dizzying celebrity, and $126,000 in earnings, Charlie agreed to throw a match and the circus ended. Columbia extended his teaching contract and NBC offered him $50,000 to join their news team.

In his upper-class arrogance, Charlie didn’t give much thought to how angry, and thus how powerful, the man he “defeated” could be. Herb Stempel was determined to wreak revenge on the producers who made him lose face by “taking a dive” in the competition. And if his righteous anger would take down the whole quiz-show universe, then so be it.

In real life, a New York district attorney named Joe Stone and the city’s newspapers joined forces to reveal the dark side of the game shows. In the movie, the crusading hero is investigator Dick Goodwin (Robert Morrow), first in his class at Harvard, who later wrote a book that included discussion of the scandal (it became the basis of the script). After the quiz-show scandals, Goodwin went on to be a speechwriter for John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson.

First there was the grand jury in New York, to which everyone including Charlie Van Doren lied. Then on to Washington D.C. and the House Subcommittee on Legislative Oversight. Here, on Nov. 29, 1959, Charles Van Doren delivered his famous confession.

“… I have had all the breaks. I have stood on the shoulders of life, and I’ve never gotten down into the dirt to build, to erect a foundation of my own. I have flown too high on borrowed wings. Everything came too easy. That is why I am here today.”
Nineteen people pled guilty to committing perjury, and all were given suspended sentences. No one ever went to jail. The Today Show fired Charlie and Columbia forced him to resign. He ended up in Chicago, working as an editor for Encyclopedia Brittanica for 20 years. For the rest of his life, he was a pariah, the man who had it all and let it go for lack of moral fiber.

The irony about Quiz Show may be that in today’s TV world of “fake news” and “alternate facts,” it may be more relevant than it was when it was made. The specter of Charles Van Doren is perhaps even more vibrant today than when he sold his soul so long ago.

Quick Take: The quiz-show scandals of the 1950s entrap both low- and high-class players and disillusion American television audiences forever.

Players: Ralph Fiennes, John Turturro, Rob Morrow, Paul Scofield, David Paymer, Hank Azaria, Mira Sorvino.

Director: Robert Redford (Ordinary People, 1980); (Horse Whisperer, 1998).

Rated PG-13 for some strong language.

Color, 133 minutes. Courtesy-captioned.

Showing at the Hendersonville Film Society on Sunday, June 11, at 2pm.

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