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Flying Too High On Borrowed Wings:
Charles Van Doren and the Tragedy of Quiz Show

January 2000 | The 1957 rigging of the NBC game show "Twenty-One" became the center of a national scandal, soon bringing the public a step closer to its current state of media cynicism. In his 1994 film Quiz Show, Robert Redford uses this scandal to focus on Charlie Van Doren, a man whose large-scale disparity between "aspiration and possibility" leads to a tragic division between "impulse and imperative" (Heilman 1). Cheating seems to fulfill Charlie's aspiration of fame beyond the shadow of his prominent family, but ultimately, honesty is Charlie's only possibility to retain honor to himself and to his vocation of teaching. Though Charlie's prolonged choice of impulse over imperative finally subjects him to public disgrace, Charlie nevertheless comes away with a greater level of self-knowing. The film's probing of a man's path from internal division and to eventual understanding is what makes Quiz Show a tragic narrative.

Charlie's motives first come to the fore when he interviews with Dan Enright and Al Freedman, the producers of "Twenty-One." When Dan and Al ask him about his antecedents, Charlie says, "He [my father] also-- uh-- I also teach at Columbia." Charlie is trying to minimize the fact that he lives in his father's shadow. Charlie also mentions a "mediocre" novel he wrote about patricide. Not only does this comment highlight Charlie's lack of success in comparison to his Pulitzer-Prize winning father, it also implies Charlie's wish to remove his father's shadow by metaphorically killing his father. Nevertheless, during this interview, it is clear that Charlie is applying to be a contestant only for fun. "My friends said I had a good head for this sort of thing," he says. Charlie has no aspirations to be on "Twenty-One," NBC's premiere game show: "Tic-Tac-Dough seemed more feasible." When Dan and Al, realizing that Charlie's clean-cut image will do wonders for ratings, propose that Charlie cheat, Charlie becomes quite uneasy from the pressure of this moral seduction. Redford visually emphasizes this pressure by centering on a mid-shot of Charlie. He is visually squeezed into the frame's center 1/3 by the dark-suited bodies of the producers. As Charlie prepares to make his decision, Redford cuts to an overhead shot of a seated Charlie (whose physical position is subordinate to the standing position of Dan and Al). Finally, Charlie heeds the imperative call of honesty over his impulsive desire to win: "It just doesn't seem right... I'd have to say no."

However, the high-pressure setting of the game show and his own impulses soon break Charlie's resolution to play honestly. Relieved in passing both the moral test and the Quiz Show screening, Charlie appears on "Twenty-One," prepared to enjoy himself. He cheerfully answers his questions, smiling frequently and barely sweating. However, for his final question to win the game, Charlie is asked one of the same questions that he correctly answered during his Quiz Show interview. Recognizing Dan's ploy to force Charlie into cheating, Charlie's smile turns to shock and a deep frown. Jack, the show's host, mentions the difficulty of the question, and Charlie answers, "It's just so oddly familiar," as he stares accusingly to the production booth. The camera subjectively takes Charlie's point of view as it focuses on Dan and Al, both tense in anticipation of Charlie's answer. Faced with another moral crisis, Charlie is unable to respond right away, even though he knows the answer to the question. Redford ties this moral crisis to the earlier one by using a similar overhead shot on Charlie's head. At the last second, the pressure of the cameras, audience, and producers, and Charlie's own impulse for fame and success-- all of this proves too much for Charlie to withstand. Charlie is aware of his imperative to stay honest, an imperative made even more important by the fact that Charlie is a teacher. But in a significant moment of weakness, Charlie answers the question correctly, taking a huge step towards becoming a full-blown cheater.

After the show is over and everyone exits to NBC's lobby, Charlie is still uncomfortable with his dishonesty-- he has not yet had the time to reconcile his internal division. He finds Dan, and recalling Dan's earlier promise to run a fair game, Charlie says, "So pure, it floats, eh?" Dan and Al ignore Charlie's inner dilemma, instead congratulating Charlie on his win. Angry with himself and his producers, Charlie opts to take the stairs to try to resolve his conscious conflict on his own. As Charlie runs down the stairs, muttering to himself, we can see and hear his battle between impulse and imperative. By the time Charlie is close to the bottom of the stairs, he bursts out, "Twenty-thousand dollars!" Having rationalized his choice of fame and success over honesty, Charlie begins to relax and walk more slowly. Redford signifies this sequence as another "step" in Charlie's moral crisis by cutting to an overhead shot of the spiraling stairs, a visible symbol of the beginning of Charlie's moral descent into dishonesty and hypocrisy.

As Charlie becomes more comfortable with his deceit, his hubris increases. Charlie's wanton self-confidence is particularly clear as his limousine driver pulls up to the front of the building where Charlie shares an office with his father. Charlie tells his driver, "I just need to tie my shoe," and leans over, but a close-up on Charlie's shoe shows that it is already tied! It is soon apparent that Charlie is waiting for class to end and for the students to pour from the building, giving him the audience that his hubris demands. After walking through a throng of adoring students, Charlie enters his office and finds Dick Goodwin, the congressional prosecutor who is investigating "Twenty-One." Charlie's smugness turns to blank fear as Dick explains his business. In an attempt to appear distracted rather than suspicious-looking, Charlie shuffles through student papers as Dick questions him. He is unable to make eye contact with Dick. When a gaggle of gushing college girls unwittingly comes to Charlie's rescue, a close-up on Charlie's face reveals remnant fear still running through his eyes, particularly when Dick quotes the poet Keats, saying, "Beauty is truth, truth beauty. That is all you need to know."

Though Dick makes Charlie nervous, the two form a near-instant friendship. Charlie invites Dick to the Van Dorens' country house to celebrate his father's birthday. In this scene, the audience witnesses both the resentment and love that Charlie feels for his father, Mark. At the table, Mark is attempting to read his "birthday poem," but he is interrupted by the impatient teenage girls at the end of the table who eagerly ask Charlie what his life is like as a game show champion. Mark lightly says: "I'm like Leopold, he was eclipsed by his son before his time!" Charlie answers: "That makes me King Baudouin." This exchange foreshadows the final question of Charlie's Quiz Show career. Mark's small show of jealousy also mirrors Charlie's darker, deeper feelings of jealousy towards Mark. When Charlie complains about all of the stockbrokers eager to invest his winnings, Mark tells his son, "I don't know why you don't just put your money in the bank-- that's what I've always done." When Charlie replies that his money is at a different level than his father's, Mark coolly replies to this condescension by saying, "At my level? I didn't know I had a level." Mark loves his son, but even he sees Charlie's hubris emerging. When Charlie says that he "earned his money," Mark scoffs, saying that we live in a nation "full of proctors." As the rest of the family laughs, Redford focuses on Charlie staring at his father. Charlie's face reveals wounded pride and resentment at his father's refusal to take him seriously. Even so, Charlie obviously loves his father and longs for his approval. When Mark laughs pleasurably at the television Charlie has given him, Charlie kneads his neck in a gesture of nervousness, but his eyes show his love as he replies, "I thought you might like it, Dad."

As Dick continues to investigate, Charlie continues to cheat. Dick's growing suspicion and Charlie's own hypocrisy is becoming a burden that is almost too much for Charlie to bear. Charlie tries to escape the accumulating weight of self-knowledge (Heilman 2) by traveling to his father's country house in the middle of the night. Redford opens this scene with a dolly shot on a wall filled with Van Doren photographs of family members either posing for group shots or winning awards. The camera zooms out to show Charlie staring at these pictures, and we realize that this reminder of his family's prestige adds even more weight to Charlie's burden of guilt. As Charlie stares at the photos, he presses a carafe of milk to his cheek, a vulnerable gesture symbolizing Charlie's wish to return to a time when his aspirations did not tragically cloud his life. As Mark enters, Charlie explains why he has escaped to the country. Mark is both sympathetic and incisive-- he says he approves of Charlie's Quiz Show participation "as long as it doesn't interfere with your teaching." Mark has unwittingly cut to the heart of the matter-- by his deception, Charlie has compromised his integrity as a human and as a teacher. When Mark says, "Your mother always said you were the actor in the family," this is almost too much for Charlie. He stares at his father, prepared to finally heed the imperative for honesty, but at the last minute, he again yields to impulse and changes the subject.

Though Charlie cannot bring himself to be honest to his friends, family and the public, he no longer feels capable of adding to the weight of his dishonesty. He enters what will be his final show on "Twenty-One." When the game comes to Charlie's final question, Redford shows shots of all those who are tense with anticipation of Charlie's answer-- his parents, Dick, the producers, Herb Stempel, the studio audience, and the national viewing audience (which includes a group of nuns that serve to emphasize audience "purity"). Redford then uses a Hitchcockian technique-- a slow zoom on the back of Charlie's head while all of his surroundings quickly zoom forward-- to expressionistically show this human pressure that Charlie feels. Where he once rationalized that lying was the only choice under all this human pressure, Charlie now gives a smile of relief after he incorrectly answers "Leopold" to the question "Who is the king of Belgium?" Inconspicuously standing at the back of the studio, Dick is so focused on Charlie that he sees this small smile. When the host of the "Today" show comes on stage to offer Charlie a job as the show's cultural correspondent, Charlie equivocates, saying, "Well, I had hoped to get back to my teaching..." From afar, Dick entreats Charlie to refuse, saying, "Come on, Charlie... Walk away... You don't need it." But a combination of Charlie's hubris and his continuing impulse for money and fame lead to his signing of the contract.

Later, Dick arrives at Charlie's townhouse. Though he has enough evidence to hold a Congressional hearing without Charlie, Dick is intent on hearing the truth from his friend. When Dick asks why Charlie missed an answer that he knew, Charlie, nervously kneading his neck, says, "I must have had a mental block." They sit down, and after Dick persists in nagging Charlie for the truth, Charlie impatiently rises from the table and manages an attempt at moral seduction even as he admits his guilt. Charlie defiantly asks whether Dick would participate in a rigged game show for the money and the fame, but Dick says, "no." Charlie peremptorily replies, "And I would." Perhaps the desire to escape his father's shadow is the impulsive motive that makes Charlie's internal division greater than that of Dick's.

Though Charlie could have gotten away without the nation or his family ever knowing of his deceit, he can no longer live with his compromise between impulse and imperative. After a long, unsuccessful attempt to escape self-knowledge, he must yield to the overriding obligation (Heilman 1) in order to find some kind of internal peace. Prepared to testify honestly in Washington, Charlie enters at the end of one of his father's classes. Charlie sits in a student chair, both subordinating himself in relation to Mark and acknowledging that he is in no moral position to assume the place of a teacher. After a few moments of stalling ("I can't tell the truth... It's complicated,") and pacing through the aisles, Charlie finally bursts out, "I was one of those frauds!" This admission stuns Mark speechless. All Mark can say is: "What?" Though Charlie has already made the decision to be publicly honest, having to justify his darker impulses to the man who partially cause them makes Charlie defensive. Consequently, Charlie tries to rationalize his egregious decision: "Was I supposed to disillusion the whole damn country?" Mark will not tolerate this excuse: "You make it sound like you had no choice!" Charlie further tries to justify his choice by relying on Shakespearean quotes, but Mark cuts him off by saying, "Your name is mine." In a way, Charlie has achieved his impulsive motive: by indiscriminately ruining his whole family's reputation, his deceit and resulting infamy will succeed in finally slaying his father's shadow.

However, the impending pain from this tragic outcome is not without its worth. In his speech to Congress, Charlie says that he "lied-- like a child who refuses to admit a fact in hopes that it will go away." But Charlie emphasizes that by finally surrendering to honesty, "I have found myself." Charlie sees that "I'd been acting and thinking I'd done more than I had. I've stood on shoulders and never gotten down in the dirt to build a foundation of my own." Charlie's realizations follow Heilman's ideas of tragedy: "... out of such terrible experiences may come the understanding of the nature of oneself... and that such understanding has value" (Heilman 2). Even after the hearing, as Charlie stares into the cruel lights of the cameras he used to adore, even after he learns that both NBC and Columbia are asking for his resignation, and even as he witnesses the physical near-defeat of his parents (his mother closes her eyes and tiredly droops her head, his father lifts a shaky hand to his brow), Charlie is able to nod and smile a little at Dick as they see each other for the final time. Charlie will pay for his mistake for the rest of his life, but he has come away relived, a little freer, and much wiser than before.

Charlie Van Doren's public admittance was a milestone in the end of American media innocence, but by focusing on Charlie's internal division, the film Quiz Show makes it clear that Charlie's mistake was very human and, in a way, inevitable. Charlie was only one in a string of contestants who were morally seduced, sacrificing honesty for wealth and fame. Being clean-cut, good-looking, intelligent, and well-bred, Charlie was more highly adored than any other contestant. However, it is this phenomenal popularity, combined with Charlie's deep impulse to find prominence beyond his father's influence, that catapults Charlie to tragic proportions: he "is a large enough Everyman" with "ambition [that] images all the cravings for expansion and domination latent in the human personality" (Heilman 1). Though he "flew too high on borrowed wings" (Charlie's speech to Congress), it is no surprise that Charlie Van Doren's tragic story will always be etched in national memory.

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