Quiz Show as Persuasive Docudrama
by Steve Lipkin

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A Capsule Guide to Docudramas

Due to the hybrid nature of its form, docudrama demands a particular kind of suspension of disbelief from its audience. The docudrama viewer becomes immersed in a blend of documentary and melodrama. One's involvement begins by accepting certain hypothetical premises implicit in this coupling. We are asked to accept that in this case re-creation is a necessary mode of presentation. If we accept the historical substance of the pre-filmic events, then we are also asked to grant that these events might have happened in much the way we are about to see them depicted.

Ralph Fiennes as Charles Van Doren in Quiz Show.

Re-creation and fictionalization will warrant (justify) suspension of disbelief to the extent that the resulting docudrama indicates its connections to actuality. As it imitates the look and sound of past events, docudrama both models and interprets its subject. Modeling allows one of several possible links between actuality and re-creation. Robert Redford's Quiz Show (1994) offers a case study in how modeling warrants the larger arguments this docudrama makes.

Persuasion and Docudrama

In making its persuasive appeal, a docudrama offers us a case, a position toward its story's subject. Consistent with its functions as melodrama a film in this mode advocates not only a moral truth in its re-presentation of the actual people, places, events and actions at its source, but also serves up an argument highly appealing to its audience, as suggested by the frequency of production and reception of docudrama [note #1]. The form's popularity offers some of the strongest evidence of its effectiveness and its pervasive influence as a means of ideological reinforcement.

The persuasiveness of docudrama begins, however, with the very interplay of the modes that form it. By definition, docudrama is intertextual; that is, in developing its story a docudrama is also "about" certain preceding texts. These include the "known" stories, figures, and events that the docudrama works to recoup, re-create, re-present, comment upon and ultimately argue about. As spectators, we are positioned within contrasting texts. We are offered a melodrama, with all its heightened involvement with dramatic conflict and character desire, based upon a factual, preexisting historical discourse. Our position in the docudrama text results from the relationship between these primary, forming discourses. This interaction also forms the warrant for any argument the film might forward. Warrants link data (the evidence upon which an argument is built) with claims (the position the argument advocates) [note #2].

The key to any docudrama's retelling of history is its degree of closeness to the actual people, places, actions and events that offer story material. A number of types of proximities arise between the iconic and indexical signs that form a film: icons in and of themselves offer close resemblances to their original referents; icons and indices can follow and precede each other, in sequence; and indexical material can coexist on screen with staged, re-created image elements. In each possible permutation it is proximity, the re-creation's degree of closeness to actuality, that validates the film's claims and affects the strength of its persuasive arguments.

Perhaps the most common kind of docudrama warrant arises when re-created material asserts that it has been modeled on its historical referents. The film presents entirely re-created versions of actual people, places, actions and events, approximating to some degree the "look" of the known. Modeling is strictly iconic, its validity depending then (as with any model) on the degree to which analogies exist between signified (original, actual subject matter) and signifier (its cinematic re-creation). Modeling invites the viewer's collaboration by asking acceptance of the very premise that the model, the analogy, is valid.

Modeling offers figurative proximities. It functions through a series of "what if" premises: modeled material suggests, based on the presupposition that if everything depicted looked, sounded and happened "this way," that the rest, the unknown, uncertain, more speculative material must be the consequence. Modeled material has the potential to be persuasive as it situates its viewer as a collaborator in pretense. If we accept the resemblance to original appearance, then we are that much more likely to accept the film's view of historical and moral truth. History here entails morality. The model, as a model, sets up the validity of the larger moral argument of the film.

Ralph Fiennes in Quiz Show.

Quiz Show

Robert Redford's Quiz Show (1994) illustrates how resemblance can be made morally persuasive. Both general and broadcast histories offer a well-documented sense of what happened in the 1950s TV quiz show scandals, who the major players were, and how their public images were established and shifted as events evolved [note #3]. In this view the quiz show scandal in general and the case of Charles Van Doren in particular reveal a moral weakness in the American social fabric, exposing a willingness to compromise intellectual integrity and public trust for the sake of celebrity and material gain [note #4]. The film re-creates this chapter in the history of television, however, to deliver an even more particularly focused moral argument: the source of the scandal was contestant, network and sponsor greed, ignited by an incendiary spark of anti-Semitism. Charles Van Doren was brought down by his own social and intellectual elitism. Based on Richard N. Goodwin's account of the scandal and investigation [note #5], Quiz Show depicts the known event framework, re-creating the established images these people and events entail, and then building onto this more personal and speculative material.

John Turturro as Herbert Stempel in Quiz Show.

Consistent with preexisting accounts, the film shows Van Doren replacing Herbert Stempel as a contestant on Twenty-one. Stempel's anger at the dismissive treatment he receives leads to the charges he brings publicly, contributing to the subsequent series of investigations, first by a New York grand jury, then by a House of Representatives special subcommittee on legislative oversight [note #6].

Herbert Stempel (John Turturro) learns he's taking a fall in Quiz Show.

The film departs from the general tenor of printed accounts and establishes a more unique perspective by underlining Stempel's Jewishness and his claims of anti-Semitism in the rigging of the shows [note #7]. The film foregrounds Stempel's ethnicity. One of the show's producers calls Stempel "an annoying Jewish guy with a sidewall haircut." When Stempel reveals to his family that he has been ordered to lose, he says viewers of that night's show will get to see Charles Van Doren "eat his first Kosher meal." Class and ethnic similarities and differences between Stempel, Van Doren and Goodwin emerge strikingly in subsequent scenes. Goodwin interviews Stempel in his Bronx apartment. Stempel's wife, Toby, hair in curlers, blouse unbuttoned, and inhaling nasal spray, leaps from her overstuffed chair as Herb admits Goodwin to their living room. She hustles out to serve coffee and rugullah, a pastry Goodwin "knows." Stempel asks Goodwin how a guy "like him" was able to get into Harvard. He asserts that the fix is anti-Semitic, that "a Jew is always followed by a gentile, and the gentile always wins more," a charge that Goodwin later confirms. By way of contrast, in the next scene Goodwin visits the Van Dorens at their Connecticut estate. He walks past Charlie's brand-new red Mercedes convertible and sits down to a family picnic lunch with Edmund "Bunny" Wilson, Thomas Merton, and a flock of Van Dorens. The gossip is about how one of the aunts had an affair with Wendell Wilkie.

Rob Morrow as Rick Goodwin in Quiz Show.

Quiz Show further departs from established historical accounts by asserting that Van Doren was in fact intellectually and visually comparable to the scandal's primary investigator. Scenes scrupulously give "Charlie" and "Rick" equal visual weight as they test each other. During a lunch at the Athenaeum Club (Van Doren orders a Waldorf salad, Goodwin the Reuben) an exchange of similarly composed close-ups shows that Goodwin refuses to be intimidated by Mark Van Doren, Charlie's famous father, in pointing out the ethnically segregated nature of the clientele. The film employs a similar cinematically dramatic strategy during a poker game when Charlie and Rick confront each other about "lying" and "bluffing." Reinforcement of the visual equality of investigator and the one investigated also occurs when Goodwin reluctantly must serve Van Doren with a subpoena to appear before the House subcommittee. The leading two-shot shows both men to be dressed almost identically as they walk and discuss how they've come to be on opposite sides of legal and moral issues stemming from the choice of wealth and fame on the one hand, and retaining one's integrity on the other.

Through its cinematic presentation of Van Doren and Goodwin, Quiz Show adds a broader set of arguments regarding the implicit anti-Semitism in the network's actions to the re-creation of known history, the corruption and greed underlying the scandal. The proximity of re-creation warrants the film's moral position. From the premise of the "look" of the time, setting, characters and actions, the film suggests that Van Doren's downfall results from a double moral weakness. His cloistered office, family home, and upper-class Eastern family life can't shield him from being exposed as a cheater. Perhaps worse, however, is that he would allow himself to benefit from and then be ruined by the anti-Semitism of others, a prejudice, his friendship with Rick Goodwin would suggest, he himself does not necessarily share.

The action of Quiz Show's argument, its infusion of a particular moral view into re-creating documented history, illustrates the most basic issue raised by modeling relations in docudrama. Modeled warrants are entirely iconic and function by virtue of resemblance to their referents. The first question these warrants raise then becomes understandably, "resemblance to what"? Quiz Show's arguments suggest that resemblance to people and setting in modeled docudrama proposes a more limited, clearly defined set of claims than depicted resemblances to actions and events. The second set of appearances, dependent upon the first, will then be more likely to raise ethical implications of historical representation.

The interrelationship of iconic and indexical material is crucial to the persuasive power of film docudrama and associates cinematic proximity with the moral truth the film will advocate. Several strategies can create the sense of proximity that invites a docudrama viewer's suspension of disbelief. A strategy of modeling, such as the kind offered by Quiz Show, builds upon accepting close resemblances. Also possible are alternating indexical and iconic material as distinct sequences, and profilimic interactions of actual elements (settings; nonactors) with created/re-created elements within a scene. Several implications arise from these modeling, sequencing, and interaction strategies that link re-creation and actuality. First, the warrants can be interdependent. Sequencing relies upon modeled material, and interaction incorporates both models and sequences. Second, proximity increases and therefore strengthens as strategies shift to the more complex relations of sequencing and interaction. Third, as proximity strengthens, so does the warrant; therefore, so does the apparent validity of the argument and ultimately the film's potential persuasive power.

The sense that docudramas such as Quiz Show show us what "really happened" derives, then, from the warranting strategies that link documentary material and melodramatic perspective. The cues that signal that models, sequences, and interactions have shown us a logical path from actual premise to melodramatic conclusion set up an almost purely cinematic process of persuasion, a spatial association of what was "there" with the sense the film suggests we make of it. Docudrama warrants employ strategies based upon perceived proximities, so that docudrama, at its most powerful, convinces us that it is properly both logical and emotional to associate cinematic proximity with moral truth.

Steve Lipkin teaches film and video at Western Michigan University. His discussion of Quiz Show is an excerpt from a longer study of film docudrama that he is currently preparing for publication.

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Photo Credits: Hollywood Pictures Home Video.