An Icon With a Few Questions : Robert Redford’s Personal Films Examine America’s Merchant Mentality


In December of 1969, I walked along Fifth Avenue with Robert Redford amid a throng of holiday shoppers. No one seemed to recognize the 32-year-old actor, although he was starring in three major movies at the time.

He would never again be another face in the crowd, as he was obviously “on the threshold of that breakthrough which comes to few actors--superstardom,” I wrote in an article then.

Redford was smart, likable, funny, self-aware. It was easy to see why he had impressed Paul Newman, who generously shared the spotlight with him in “Butch Cassidy”; they were alike in many ways. And it didn’t take a Sherlock Holmes to figure out what women saw in him.


Even then, Redford was pragmatic. He was able to reconcile working within the Hollywood system on big-budget commercial pictures with his maverick need to also make personal, modest-budget movies that would stand up for the underdogs of the world.

In his passionate explanation of his first personal project, “Downhill Racer,” which he co-produced and had to promote without help from its distributor, he told me back in ’69: “We wanted to deal with the corruption of the merchants who exploit the athletes. The cruelty of the press. The athletes’ one-dimensional existence. The hollowness of victory.”


I recently heard an echo of the same tough-minded words from the director of “Quiz Show,” when he was criticizing “the merchant mentality” that had corrupted television and destroyed Americans’ confidence in it. Redford has stuck to his guns.

Redford, now 57 and a grandfather, remains a durable romantic icon in crowd-pleasers such as “Indecent Proposal” (1993). It is, however, as a director of modest-budget films about American life in which he demonstrates his continuing personal growth, by bringing to bear his painterly eye and his social conscience.

Starting with his Oscar-winning directorial debut in 1980, “Ordinary People,” through “The Milagro Beanfield War” (1988), “A River Runs Through It” (1992) and, now, the elegant “Quiz Show,” Redford’s films have become more technically accomplished and dramatically complex.

“Quiz Show,” which opens Friday in Los Angeles, dramatizes the late ‘50s congressional investigation of NBC’s rigged game show “Twenty-One.” The film stars Ralph Fiennes as Charles Van Doren, an intellectual seduced by greed and the glamour of celebrity; Rob Morrow, as idealist / opportunist investigator Richard Goodwin, and John Turturro, as Herbert Stempel, a klutzy Everyman who blows the whistle on the corruption.


The week has been grueling for Redford. He has spent the first few days at a Chicago hospital with his son, James, who “had a rough go” with a second liver transplant. David, a writer, lives in Denver with his wife and son. (Redford’s eldest child, Shauna, an artist, just moved to New York from Vermont; his youngest, Amy, a recent graduate of San Francisco State, will be moving to New York this fall to pursue acting.)

He offers a quick checklist of what’s on his plate: a Rob Reiner romantic comedy in which he’ll play “a President who tries to find love in the White House,” then “Up Close and Personal,” about NBC anchorwoman Jessica Savitch. Then he’ll direct “The Education of Little Tree,” from the controversial book “about a half-breed young boy in the South in the ‘30s--it’s a wonderful story.”

He then settles down to why and how he made “Quiz Show,” a movie that is for him both the story of an era’s end and a personal evocation of the excitement of New York in the late ‘50s, a time when he arrived there to take art and acting classes. “I’ll never forget this city at that time, because it was when I began my life,” he says.

He has vivid memories of watching Van Doren on “Twenty-One,” which was broadcast from NBC’s studios at Rockefeller Center, recalling “this mixed feeling, almost being angry that I was sucked into it. Not able to resist it. Yet thinking something was funny about it: ‘How can anybody answer that many questions that well?’ And, ‘That guy looks like he’s acting to me.’ ”

But he figured Van Doren for a stiff trying to spice up his performance, not a cheat. Redford said he was as incredulous and disillusioned as everyone else when Van Doren confessed that his performance was a sham engineered by the show’s producers.

“Until then,” recalls Redford, “we still trusted what we saw on TV. I did. I think that quiz show scandal was really the first in a series of scandals . . . that have left us numbed, unsure of what or who to believe.”

Two years ago, Redford read a rough draft of Paul Attanasio’s screenplay for “Quiz Show,” inspired by a chapter in Richard N. Goodwin’s 1988 book, “Remembering America: A Voice From the Sixties.” Redford had just finished “A River Runs Through It,” whose directorial style was dictated by the rhythms of nature. “I was looking for something edgier, faster-paced, urban, where I could move the camera more.”

After some false starts when the film languished briefly at TriStar, the project ended up at Disney. With Disney’s backing, “I was able to make an independent film for $20 million,” says Redford. “I filmed in New York for 62 days, which is a comparatively short shooting schedule. It was so much fun. Every morning was a thrill to go to work. I couldn’t wait to get in the set. New issues kept bubbling out as I was filming.”

After an extensive search, two British actors, Paul Scofield and Fiennes, were chosen to play real-life American father and son Mark and Charles Van Doren.

“I could not find the combination of elements I was looking for in Charles Van Doren” among the American actors he tested, he says--"a shell of something patrician . . . a way of speaking and behaving that is slightly peremptory . . . an erudition and sharp intellect . . . a certain Aryan charm . . . and most important, a shadow, a haunted look around the eyes suggesting a demon within.”

Redford originally asked Paul Newman to play Van Doren’s father, the poet and Columbia professor. Newman declined. He then settled upon Scofield, who brings to the role a dignity and paternal warmth.

Redford thinks his having to cast British actors to play well-bred American characters--as Martin Scorsese did casting Daniel Day-Lewis as the upper-class 19th-Century New Yorker in “The Age of Innocence"--is a sign of “the illiteracy that has overtaken our industry. We work in such an action-oriented, high-tech mode.

“So one of the joys for me about this movie is . . . having words to work with almost as a musical instrument. I saw staging the scenes as dance. The way the two quiz show producers moved around in their office and always settled on the desk, for instance, was choreographed like Hekyll and Jekyll.”

Redford also enjoyed giving fellow director Scorsese acting tips for his cameo as the imperious quiz show sponsor.

“I said, ‘Marty, look, you’re a high-wired guy. How would you feel about playing a guy who’s so totally comfortable with himself, so comfortable with all the marbles being in his basket that he doesn’t have to worry about anything? Just play this (being grilled by a relentless congressional investigator) as relaxed and friendly and warm as you possibly can. So everything gets slow. We don’t have to play anything ominous.’ He loved that idea.”

Redford hopes that even the most outrageous behavior by “Twenty-One’s” producers, sponsors, host and network president has an inner logic that prevents them from becoming caricatures.

“Every character has to be given a moment,” he says, “no matter how villainous their activities are, where we say, ‘I get it. I understand why they’re that way.’ We even gave them that line at the end of the movie, when the producer is asked, ‘So you don’t think you did anything wrong?’ And he says, ‘Look at it this way: The producers made out, the sponsor made out, the public was entertained. Who got hurt?’

“That’s a real valid argument, from the merchant point of view. But there used to be a thing called ethics. And there was a thing called shame. It doesn’t exist anymore, because corruption has become a way of life.”