I watched Quiz Show on TV eons ago and thought it was a wonderful film. But over the years, my memory of it faded to the point where I could only remember one scene with clarity. Recently, when it came on TV again, I stuck around to watch that scene and then zapped on to other stuff.
The movie tells the story of the rise and fall of a quiz show named 21 which, it turns out, was rigged by its producers in order to get higher ratings. In the third act, when things slowly unravel for everyone involved in the show, there is a meeting between Richard Goodwin, the Congressional investigator probing the scam and Martin Rittenhome, the head of a pharmaceutical company which sponsored the show. The conversation features the sort of cynical truth-telling that we are probably quite used to by now:
You see, the audience didn’t tune in to watch some amazing display of intellectual ability. They just wanted to watch the money.
That Rittenhome is played by Martin Scorsese might have much to do with why I love this scene. Listening to Scorsese’s voice is almost as pleasurable as watching one of his best movies. But this isn’t just me being in love with how the man speaks.
To understand why this scene works so well, you have to listen to the movie rather than just see it. For two acts, the movie seduces you with softly spoken voices of well-mannered people. When you hear Herbert Stempel, the deposed quiz show champion, complain about the show being rigged, it seems like so much whining even though you realize that he is probably speaking the truth. John Turturro does a wonderful job with this character, and a big part of how his character is seen in the movie has to do with how he speaks with a rough, unpolished accent.
Goodwin, on the other hand, befriends the current champion Charles Van Doren — erudite, charming, born to a life of privilege. The movie is seen through Goodwin’s eyes, and his relationship with Van Doren is central to the movie. We, along with Goodwin, are charmed by the other man. We share his illusions about how the television business seems to work, even though we ought to know better. And when the illusion finally shatters, we share in his disillusionment. Again, even though we ought to know better.
Therefore, when the Scorsese character talks about what the show really meeant to the audiences, and when the Kevin Pollak character (who produces the show) talks about how they viewed the quiz show as entertainment and not an actual contest, the tone of these scenes is in stark contrast with the rest of the proceedings.
Rittenhome doesn’t tell us something we don’t know. He just reminds us of something we allowed ourselves to forget for the past 90 minutes.