The Filmmaker as Historian

THE OPEN MIND
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Robert Redford
Title: “The Filmmaker as Historian”
VTR: 5/20/94

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. Indeed, I began to produce this weekly series 38 years ago. And because for more than half of this time, 20 years, a long time, let me tell you, I also chaired the motion picture industry’s self-regulatory effort to substitute voluntary film classification for governmental film censorship, a sense of propriety rather much steered me away from choosing OPEN MIND topics that had anything to do with film and filmmakers, however much I’ve come to believe that, alas, the media tend to make us what we are today. It may not be, as the kids used to say in the Sixties, that we are what we eat, but surely we are ever more and more a function of what we see and hear on film and television.

Well, those constraints are gone now. I’ve served my time. And I feel free now to invite to THE OPEN MIND the most intriguing of those media mavens who reflect and help make us what we are today. Indeed, I’ve wanted to invite Robert Redford to join me here ever since I say his brilliantly produced “All the President’s Men”, then “Ordinary People” in which he made his directorial debut, and “A River Runs Through It”, which he produced and directed. And now that I’ve twice seen “Quiz Show”, a most extraordinary film he has directed with such exquisite sensitivity and skill, that as an erstwhile American historian I’d swear he has in tone and feeling truly recreated a major part of our national past, I’ve had the temerity to do just that.

Now, when Oliver Stone presented “JFK”, his masterly interpretation of the Kennedy assassination, I expressed concern in a Los Angeles Times op-ed piece that moviemakers might soon aspire to Pulitzer Prizes in history rather than to academy Awards. But after seeing and appreciating “Quiz Show”, too, I find that I’m rather beginning to embrace that idea. For as a historian, and as one who lived so intensely through the 1950s, when America first experienced a media revolution in manners and morals that has yet to end, I’m convinced that his evocation of the quiz scandals that marred entertainment’s first decade, interprets it for us more perceptively and more accurately that professionally trained devotees of the muse Cleo have, or likely will. Indeed, at the end of Mr. Redford’s film, a pivotal figure says of the congressional investigation that revealed but that also rather much whitewashed the quiz scandals, “I thought we were going to get television. The truth is, television’s gonna get us”.

And I want to ask my guest to carry that thought further and to explain what he meant in telling Bernard Weinraub in The New York Times, “Something changed irrevocably with this even, the quiz scandals. It really marked the end of a period of innocence in our social history”. So, historian Redford, explain yourself.

REDFORD: As a historian? Or as a…

HEFFNER: Well, you are a historian now.

REDFORD: I think probably that’s true. I mean, it sounds kind of, it sounds heavy, and it sounds a little slightly heavy-handed, but I think it’s true. I think my interest, as long as I’ve been able, as long as I’ve had the authority to be able to sort of author my own work in film, it always goes in the area of history, socio-history, sociology, anthropology, if you will. In other words, what we’re about as a culture, what we’re about as a society just is endlessly fascinating to me, because I’m in it. It’s part of me, who I am. It’s part of my heritage, and it’s now part of my children’s. So it’s a matter of great interest. So, yeah, this event interested me because if I look at it from the historical point of view, which I now can because it’s 35, you know, 40 years later, I can see certain things I couldn’t see then, I could only feel them. I could only feel things like the energy of the times. I don’t think you can feel your innocence. You only know about your innocence when you get past it, when you get to the point where you don‘t have it anymore, and you go, “Oh, I see. That’s what I had. Innocence”. But that’s what it was. It was the energy available at the time in this city in particular, New York, where it was the energy of innocence, and it was also the energy of hope. And that innocence was directly related to television in the sense that, I think, that was the time – and I can speak first-hand on this – that that was a time when we still believed that what we got on television was the truth, or the way things were. And I think that sort of incredible shock was the first real shock to hit a nation uniformly, that began a series of other shocks. Kennedy’s assassination. Bobby’s assassination. Martin Luther King’s. One shock after the other. And along with these shocks, I think, came a series of crushed hopes. Because these were figures that brought with them a certain degree of hope. As television did. And I remember those early days of television, I was, I bought into the miracle that it was advertised to be. I bought it hands down.

So when that show was on, I remember that, as a young person having just arrived from California and New York. I was 19 years old, and I looked at those shows. And I couldn’t help but look at them, because they were hypnotic. They were meant to be. They were purposely made mesmerizing by the producers. And so that part worked. Where I was critical was in the performance of the contestants. I didn’t buy it. But I was not buying it because I was an actor.

HEFFNER: You mean they weren’t good enough actors?

REDFORD: They were not good enough actors. And my eye, the intent of truth of an actor was out. And so, of course, I was critical of everything then, because I was a young actor, and most young actors are critical of most other performances, no matter what.

So, I remember looking at these characters on television and thinking, “I don’t buy this. Something’s just too weird here. I don’t buy it”. On the other hand, they were doubting the context that it was in. They were doubting the show. Because the show seemed to have all this integrity. Yeah, it was hyped-up, but not nearly as over-the-top and cartoonish as the shows are today. It had more integrity to it. So did television at large. And so you bought it. You bought the idea that the show was okay, but there was something weird inside of it. So that was my impression. So I had that, and a number of other reasons. I had my own. I was actually on a quiz show once. And…

HEFFNER: Did you get the answers ahead of time?

REDFORD: Well, no, I got the whole show ahead of time. I got the whole program ahead of time. I was told what to say, what to do, and so forth. So I had that kind of first-hand experience. It was on a show…I can’t remember a show…Merv Griffin, Merv Griffin had a show, I think it was called “Play Your Hunch”. And I was not one of the contestants. I was one of the subjects. I had to stand behind a screen and be or not be somebody’s twin brother. And my silhouette behind this screen, there were two other screens with two other guys there. Is it Y, is it X, or is it X, Y, or Z? And the contestants would argue back and forth and they’d say, “Well, I think it’s…” and the guy would stand in front of the screen, you know, and you could see him. And there was this, kind of this nerdy-looking guy standing in front of the screen. And they said, “Now, which guy”, in that booming, you know, voice, “Which man behind the screen is this man’s twin brother?” Pretty heavy material. So I stood back there being this guy that wasn’t his twin brother. So when they said…Then they debated whether it was X, Y, or Z. And they said, “Well, he’s too tall, he’s too short, he’s too fat, his shoulders are too wide, they’re too narrow. I mean, it looks like he has a big head”. And everybody would laugh, on cue of course. And I felt like a complete idiot standing behind there, because I didn’t know what I was getting into. I went down there for the money, because I was in dramatic school and I was married, and my wife was pregnant at the time, and we had no money, and I was desperate to get some money from somewhere, because we were living off of her earned salary to get me through school. So I went down there because I was told it was going to be $75 to $100. So I go down and they put me through the interview. And they said, “What do you do?” And I said, “I’m an actor”. He said, “No, you’re not”. I said, “Yeah, no, I am”. He said, “No, no, no. Please. You don’t understand. You can’t be an actor. We can’t have an actor on the show. Are you kidding?” I said, “Okay”. So then he said, “What else have you done in your life?” And so I told him. Construction, you know, I’d worked as a laborer, and that I had been an artist. He said, “Art. I like that. That’s good. Artist.” So he writes down: Artist. He said, “So, Merv will come out and ask you a few questions after it’s over, you know, about yourself and where you’re from and about your profession. But remember: Artist, not an actor”. I said, “Okay”. And I said, “So when do I get the 75 bucks? At the end of the show?” He said, “Okay”.

So then I go behind, I do this thing, and they’re arguing whether it’s X, Y, or Z, and I’m feeling pretty stupid. And the things come up. And they say, “Okay, now we’re going to find out who it is. Is it X?” And I was X, right? The screen comes up, the audience sees me, and they boo. So my first experience in front of an audience is that I was booed, because I wasn’t the twin.

HEFFNER: (Laughter) I trust that was the last booing.

REDFORD: So then Merv comes out… And then the other guy, the final guy was his twin. Everybody applauds like it’s a big deal. And then Merv comes out and talks to me, and he says, “So, you know, what are you?” I just felt so stupid. So that was my experience actually on a quiz show. That was 1959. And that was actually the year that this thing broke, that the scandal broke. So I was aware of the scandal and I had seen the show, and there was something wrong with it, but you didn’t want it to be wrong, so you bought it. And along with everybody else who was buying it. You know, 55 million people at once were buying the show. So when It came time for me to come across the script that had been laying around for about a year to a year-and-a-half, it hit a nerve not only from my own personal experience of remembering the country and New York City at a time that is now pretty well done, but also the, it raised issues that I thought were important to look at, such as ethics.

HEFFNER: But you know, when you use those last lines, when Goodwin says, “We thought we were gonna get television but it’s gonna get us”, I was thinking of something that Walter Goodman wrote in The New York Times. He said, “Although the”, in reviewing a television program about the quiz scandals, “Although the quiz scandals had never been repeated, television remains a money-driven, ratings-driven operation with the same pressures and incentives prevailing, and the reach for ratings as relentless as ever, is an easy multi-million-dollar question. Not 64,000, but multi-million-dollar question. Is much of television a long-running scandal?” And I had the feeling, when I saw your show, that you have a personal stake in saying that, that much of television is a long-running scandal, and you’d win the multi-million dollar prize.

REDFORD: Well, I’ll tell you what my, first of all, my place in television is really a transitional one. Because I grew up with radio. Radio was with me at birth. And television came on when I was about 13 or 14, I guess. And my family couldn’t afford a television in the beginning. It was like this wonderful thing out there somewhere that other people had. And I remember the first time we ever experienced television, which was advertised, I think rightly, as a miracle. The idea that somebody could be on the other side of town talking, and you could see them, was just a miracle. And up to that point my involvement had been with radio. That was what I was born into. And then I watched this new technology that promised, come on as a miracle. And of course with it came all this incredible hope and promise of what it would bring with you. It would bring incredible education, it would bring phenomenal entertainment, exposure to world events, you know, all of which is true. But how much it’s done in terms of what it could do, and what it’s abuse. Certainly the scandals were a flagrant abuse of the integrity of a new institution.

So I was not, I did not grow up with what young people today do. It’s part of their lives. It’s all part of the fabric of their lives. It was not mine. So I never quite got on board with television, except as an actor in it. And I think I got quickly disappointed by what television failed to do in terms of my own expectations, what it could do. And the only way you knew it was when you saw something rally quality, it made you aware of what wasn’t there. And the continued amount of money that was thrown at a lower-grade experience was just depressing. So…

HEFFNER: And when you go to the movies?

REDFORD: Pardon me?

HEFFNER: And when you go to the movies you feel differently?

REDFORD: I don’t go to the movies. So it’s hard for me to comment on that.

HEFFNER: Yeah, but I’m serious about this. Because you’ve picked one medium. One of the two major mass media of our times: television. And when Goodwin says, “I thought we were gonna get television, but television is gonna get us”, you’re saying something.

REDFORD: Well, that had a lot to do, of course, with the subtheme of the movie, which is the motive of ambition. I mean, Goodwin’s an extremely ambitious man, young man, and the other two characters are as well. That’s something they have in common. They have ambition in common, and to a degree, greed in common. And so when he ways, I thought we were gonna get television”, he ws speaking about his ambition. Here was this guy who was first in his class at Harvard, yes. But he was a 29-year-old guy who was extremely ambitious to think that he could go, under the guise of the subcommittee, the governmental subcommittee, that he could go get television. He was extremely ambitious. And he failed at that ambition. And he also had his eyes opened to the fact of how really powerful this instrument was, and that he collusion between government and business which he just experienced was a real eye-opener. And that realization, which is a realization that I share, having to do with power and how power works in our country, was what prompted his to sway that “Television is gonna get us”. Because television, I think, at that time, was about to replace religion as the new opiate of the masses, which I believe it has. And I think he saw, he got a real lesson, first-hand. And that’s the drama of the piece for the audience, is the lesson that Goodwin gets about the collusion between those two powers, the power of law and the power of business, is what made him realize that this was going to survive, and he may not.

HEFFNER: Well, I don’t want to push you in a direction you don’t want to go in. That’s not the style of this program. But I do wonder about your choice of the one medium. And you seem if I may suggest so, perhaps unwilling to contrast it with, with that other great medium with which you have been much more familiar. Is it any different in film?

REDFORD: Television?

HEFFNER: Yeah.

REDFORD: Well, I think…

HEFFNER: I don’t mean as an esthetic experience.

REDFORD: Well, how do you mean then?

HEFFNER: I mean in terms of the impact upon us, the influence upon us, and the nature of the influence.

REDFORD: You know, I don’t know. I think that would probably be best answered from a sociologist that’s looking at television in a very close way. I can only speak from my own experience, which is that television has become pervasive, and film is not as pervasive. Film can afford a different kind of treatment than television. Television has a real meter ticking behind it all the time. Television has become an instrument by which we get our information on a rapid, daily, regular basis, whereas film is not. We get information by film, but we don’t necessarily trust it because it’s usually fiction. And non-fiction pieces usually go into documentary or are supposed to be reserved for television. So I think it’s different in that regard.

Where it’s similar is that we are given images that we digest and it affects us one way or another. The fashion, I think…

HEFFNER: Yet, but if one were to take Oliver Stone and say, “He created, for much of this nation, which has forgotten the JFK assassination, or never knew that much about it in the first place, he’s created that historical fix”. And I think you will, in “Quiz Show”, I don’t think there’s very much question but that your picture of that time and of those events will be implanted much more deeply in my students’ minds than anything I have to say as a historian.

REDFORD: Well, that will be interesting to see. I’m not so sure about that. Maybe I’m a little on the cynical side. One would have thought, like in “All the President’s Men”. I think I was slightly disillusioned in the past with certain films I’ve made as to the impact they might have. I’m not sure they did.

HEFFNER: You don’t think that “All the President’s Men” did?

REDFORD: Uh uh. Not really. I think that, starting with “The Candidate”, that was the first one…

HEFFNER: Right.

REDFORD: …where I honestly felt that in showing our political system and its emphasis on cosmetics – and that was 1971; it was released in ’72 – but to show that how we get people elected in this country has little to nothing to do with substance; that it has to do with the cosmetics of how we present an image to the people, that really going after that in a slightly black-humorous way, but being very accurate, might have some effect, because that was the year of the 18-year-old vote. And I was, along with a huge sea of people, was very, very hopeful. I saw that as a tremendously encouraging time. And thank God that 18-year-olds were going to be able to vote, because maybe we might return to something that I had lost with the death of Jack Kennedy, which was someone of my time. I mean, Kennedy was replaced by people not of my time. Johnson wasn’t, Nixon wasn’t. And we’ve had this succession, with the exception of Carter, we’ve had this succession, and now Clinton, of people who were not of my time and that was a great loss. So here was this opportunity to get it back with the 18-year-old vote. The 18-year-olds would have a voice. And they might elect someone of their time. It didn’t happen. And I was quite taken back by that.

HEFFNER: You know, I’m astonished. Frequently when I have people here on THE OPEN MIND who come from the printed word, from the printed press talk about heir power, they say, “No one’s in here but us chickens. We don’t have power. Television does”. And they’ll say film does. And I gather you honestly don’t believe that what you have done in film has had this kind of mind-changing impact.

REDFORD: I don’t, Richard. I don’t. I really don’t. And I’m not being falsely humble, I’m not being overly cynical; I just have sort of learned that the hard way, again based on this sort of odd hope. I thought, well, this film can belong to this generation who is about to vote. They can take that. That didn’t happen. The 18-year-old vote never produced. It just didn’t. They didn’t show up at the polls. Now, the cynicism had already set in pretty hard. So that didn’t, I don’t think, it became a kind of an underground-favorite film, I’m told. Kind of a chic film, if you will. And then “All the President’s Men’ was, I mean, you know what struggle that was. I mean, that took three years to get to the screen, and I had to wade through all kinds of obstacles, including The Washington Post, and including the fear and anxiety and suspicion of the press itself about how they were going to be portrayed. But finally we got there. And it was a film that I had a lot of pride in as to its accuracy and that it was not taking an overt, cheap shot politically, which I would have probably personally loved to do, considering it was Nixon. And I did have an extremely, I carried a tremendous amount of heavy negative baggage about this guy based on my own experiences as a child growing up in California and him being a senator. But I resisted that because I felt it was more important to show that this was a film about investigative journalism, how it worked, using that incident in that time as a backdrop. And I was hopeful that the lesson to be learned would keep us from ever repeating it again. And ten years hadn’t even gone by before not only were we repeating it, but worse. So look at those events, and you say, “You know, I wonder, maybe all that gets really affected by films is fashion”. You know, somebody wears a hat in a successful film; everybody wants to wear the hat. Somebody wears a moustache…I remember when I wore a moustache in “Butch Cassidy”. Everybody at the studio didn’t want to do it. My agent said I’ll resign because of this. And I said, “It’s what I want to do. Look at the pictures. That’s what the Sundance Kid looked like. And that’s what I want to do. I want to play that character, and this is how I want to look”. Well, if you want me to preside over the demise of your career, you know, and they gave me examples of who wore moustaches in films and their careers were over and so forth. So I did it, and then, ironically, the film caught on, and what came with its success was this sort of interest in the fashion of what we were wearing in the movie. Who would have known it, you know?

HEFFNER: But you know, if you have ambitions, if that’s the word, to function as a historian – and I hark back now to the beginning of this program – how are you going to maintain the sense of responsibility in your historical interpretations if you don’t recognize the power of what it is you do as a historian?

REDFORD: I don’t recognize so much the…One wants to assume that, and you would like to think it. But I don’t so much…If I recognize the power of it; it’s not so much in the hope of what, how it can affect people, as the responsibility it carries to be accurate. That’s a big thing with me. Because you‘re in a business that fictionalizes very easily. You’re in a business where the public at large is just buying these images. There’s s many images coming at them so rapidly, there’s so little digestion time, there’s so little analysis time. I mean, there’s not a whole lot of analysis going on about our information age that we’re now in, as to whether it’s good or bad. It’s just accepted that it’s a new technology, therefore it’s got to be good because it’s progress. Okay, as long as that’s going on, then the public is going to be less inclined to say, “Wait a minute. Is this true or not? Or is this real or not? Or is this…” The blurred line between fiction and reality gets worse and worse and worse. So what do I do with that? You can only hope that it carried more impact. But I’m not so sure it does. But what you do accept is a certain amount of responsibility to be accurate.

HEFFNER: But if you say increasingly, or if you say consistently, “This didn’t have that much impact. I wanted it to, but it didn’t. My moustache did, but that’s just about all”. Or about “All the President’s Men”, aren’t you setting the stage for saying, in fact, “I don t’ have to take responsibility, that kind of responsibility you’ve been talking about, because “nobody’s in here but us chickens”?

REDFORD: Well, then that becomes a matter of your own personal integrity or your own personal preference. I mean, it’s just the way I am. I feel that obligation because, maybe it’s because I know what it feels like to have my life put in other people’s hands. When my life is put in the hands of the press and they make assumptions and they don’t ask me about it or they don’t verify, they make assumptions because it’s good copy of because it fits the image they want, and there’s an irresponsibility to that, and I’ve been through the hurt of that. And so you put yourself in the position of the person. You say, “All right. I’m putting his person on the screen. And there have to be some assumptions made here because it’s not unlike the book that Woodward and Bernstein did on…”

HEFFNER: (???)

REDFORD: Well, no. “Nixon: The Final Days”. And there was all this, you know, a lot of assumptions made about dialog as to who said what to whom under private, in privacy. I had very mixed feelings about that. I wouldn’t want to run that kind of risk. I would not take that kind of a chance. But there is some of that that goes on. Has to. Because you’re making a dramatic, you’re delivering a dramatic product. Otherwise you do a documentary. And there is documentary on this issue of the quiz shows. And it was a very good one.

HEFFNER: And do you know what’s not good? Is that I’m getting the sign that our time is up. It’s unreal, but I’m getting the sign.

REDFORD: Where do you get it? Through my head? Where are you looking?

HEFFNER: Yes, in fact. There’s a machine that goes right through your head.

I’m sorry. Our time is up.

REDFORD: That’s all right.

HEFFNER: But I hope you’ll join me again…

REDFORD: Sure.

HEFFNER: …Robert Redford, come back to THE OPEN MIND.

REDFORD: Okay.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, my unique guest, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order.

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

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