Quiz Show

By Alleva, Richard | Commonweal, October 21, 1994 | Go to article overview

Quiz Show


Alleva, Richard, Commonweal


The two white-collar workers, a man and a woman, slouch despondently near the office water cooler. In their despair they can hardly face each other, much less speak. No character from Beckett could express the sense of anomie these two radiate. They have arrived at some final, unclimbable wall that shuts off their view of the future forever.

Finally, the man speaks. "He was my hero." And the woman responds, "Yeah. Mine too."

I, eleven years old, sat watching these two characters on the TV screen and was utterly perplexed. Whom were they talking about?

My sister, fifteen years old and fairly hip, burst out laughing and nearly fell on the floor in her hilarity. She knew exactly who "he" was. Charles Van Doren.

The performers were Mike Nichols and Elaine May, still cabaret comedians in 1959 and the best ones around. Their skit was for a television "special" called "The Fabulous Fifties," and it must have seemed to more sophisticated viewers than myself like a comic tombstone for a decade. Only a few months earlier, Charles Van Doren, the bright, handsome college instructor had plummeted from national celebrity to national disgrace when investigations by the Manhattan district attorney and a congressional subcommittee, enthusiastically aided by an embittered former quiz "champion," Herbert Stempel, revealed that the show on which Van Doren triumphed had been rigged.

The Nichols and May office workers were only slight exaggerations Van Doren's most enthusiastic admirers: moderately well-educated, upwardly aspiring middlebrows whose hero embodied the romance of the intellect as surely as Fenimore Cooper's Hawkeye represented the romance of the frontier and James Cagney the glamour of crime. And this hero had just confessed himself a fake. But the satire of the skit sought the correct target - not Van Doren himself but those in the audience who could swoon over nothing more than a lot of facts crammed into a handsome head. Americans are the most empirical of people and their heroes do strictly measurable feats: winning wars, space exploration, astronomical record sales. And what could be more measurable than giving all the right answers on a quiz show?

Those office workers are just about the only things missing from the Robert Redford/Paul Attanasio film, Quiz Show, for their movie is a marvel of multifariousness. I can't recall any other American movie of the past few years that touches upon so many facets of American life (as well as some universal themes) without losing sight of its central subject: how the lure of fame and money makes intellectual integrity seem very small potatoes.

Some of the facts:

The surging power of American life in the fifties and how much of it was concentrated in a New York City where bustle then had a hopefulness and (relative) lack of rancor nowadays sadly absent. The enthusiasm of the quiz show audiences is made, in this movie, to seem an effluvium of that optimistic bustle.

Then there is the only recently abandoned necessity to imagine the representative American hero in white Anglo-Saxon physical terms, even by those in the audience who aren't WASP. When the sponsor and producer of "Twenty-One" plot to replace the obviously Jewish Stempel with golden boy Van Doren, they are responding to their audience's dream, for dreams can be financial determinants. When the producer at first protests that Stempel is a hero to New Yorkers, a network boss snarls that "Queens isn't New York!" And, of course, the unspoken sequel to that statement is, "New York isn't the United States." These schlock merchants are trying to manufacture a hero for the nation, not the neighborhoods. …

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