When I started writing about some of my favorite older films, I said I had a hard time thinking of these favorites, and that, plus a general slowdown in writing (oh... who notices?), left me grasping for topics.
But a few things came to mind over time, including Quiz Show, the film I think probably best shows Robert Redford's evolution as a director of quality projects, which are especially clever at illustrating the dominance and decline ofmainline WASP culture in America.
Redford's first effort was the difficult, somewhat depressing Ordinary People, a story of the aftermath of suicide that marked Mary Tyler Moore's drastic departure from her role as America's midern sweetheart via her television show. The film speaks tense volumes in its silences, the uncomfortable distance between couples and between parents and their kids.
Quiz Show was Redford's 4th venture, 14 years after Ordinary People, but much of hwat he excavated in Ordinary People continued to resonate. Ostensibly, though, Quiz Show is - on the surface - much more glitzy and light, exploring the period of early TV history when the networks were dominated by game shows, mostly "quiz" programs where contestants demonstrated fantastic levels of knowledge on the most esoteric topics.
In particular, Quiz Show focuses on the collapse of Twenty One, and its biggest success, the Columbia professor Charles Van Doren, who had a spectacular run on the show. Van Doren replaced Herb Stempel, and he was selected in part for his looks and personality, a kind of WASP ideal projected over much of the fifties (Mad Men, especially in Season One, makes a lot of this similar point).
In the film, Van Doren, played by Ralph Fiennes, is pursued by Richard Goodwin, an investigator for a congressional committee looking into quiz show fixing. Good win is eventually able to confirm that producers of Twenty One were feeding answers to contestants, picking winners and sidelining contestants to keep ratings high. Van Doren repeatedly protests his innocence to Goodwin, even as he grows disillusioned with his role, and tries to pull himself off of the show, only to have NBC move him into a guest role on the Today show.
Redford is, admittedly, playing a bit fast and loose with the facts - the quiz show scandal was driven primarily by the discovery of a "briefing book" of answers found on the set of the show Dotto, and similar fixing was discovered on The $64,000 Challenge; and Van Doren's personal history was simplified as well. But the key moment of the film - where Van Doren makes an oblique, vague "confession" of his guilt to the congressional committee did actually occur, as did the moment when one of the Congressmen on the panel chastised him for not deserving to be rewarded for simply telling the truth - especially the truth of a massive lie.
The insight Redford brings to the material is to climb under and around the great lies of the fifties, about the worship of the WASP ideal, and the marginalizing of other ethnics (especially Jews, as exemplified by Stempel). Redford presents Goodwin as being seduced, initially, by the comfort and ease of Van Doren's preppy, upscale family, a world away form his own experience, even with his Harvard degree.
Fiennes is a big part of why the film works, providng both the surface glamour of Van Doren's easy charm and good looks, but also reflecting his growing unease with the deceptions and the highly public nature of his exposure. At the same time, he offers Goodwin a heartfelt, if troubled defense of his actions - "what would you do if someone offered you all this money?" His fall from grace, and that of his parents, is vividly displayed in that Congressional confrontation, and in the subsequent response of the press, and Redford makes the point, quietly but effectively, that only a group as unassailable as white upper missle class protestants could suffer such a fall at that time, when a fraud is revealed.
Even the score serves to underline the distacne between the glitzy illusions of the fifties as seen in pop culture and the grimmer realities. The film opens to the snazzy swing of Bobby Darin's "mack the Knife" itself derived from "Moritat", a selection from Brecht's Threepenny Opera, then enjoying a revival on Broadway (starring Brecht's wife Lotte Lenye, who gets a shout out in Darin's version). Redford closes the film with Sting's reading of the actual Moritat, which is when you realize that Brecht's actual lyric is far darker, and far less charming than Darin's slick ode to a sexy gangster. So is the film, as it peels away the layers of lies in America's pop culture. And that may be Redford's truly finest achievement.