Quiz Show (1994)
It’s the late ’50s and geeky Herb Stempel (John Turturro) is on a winning streak with popular quiz show Twenty One. Quick rundown of the show: There are two contestants, one returning champ and one unlucky opponent. They meet briefly with host Jack Barry (Christopher McDonald) at the start of the show before being separated and sent to their own hot ‘n’ sweaty isolation booths. During play neither contestant can hear the opposition nor see their total points. Barry presents the category for the round and each player takes turns answering questions from that category. They may choose any point value from 1-11 and the first to twenty-one wins. It should also be noted that the questions, when not in play, are kept in a secure bank vault.
But when ol’ Herbie stops bringing in the ratings, producers Dan Enright (David Paymer) and Albert Freedman (Hank Azaria) search for a new champ. New contestant: earnest lookin’ college professor Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes) son of Mark Van Doren (Paul Scofield) a renowned poet. To ensure the smooth departure of Herbert and the big arrival of Charles, they ask Herbert to take a dive. Not just take a dive, but fail miserably and embarrassingly. Q: Academy Award winner for Best Picture 1955? A: On the Waterfront, Herb must reply – even though Marty is one of his favorite movies. Why would asking Herbert to lose of his own accord even be applicable? Oh wait, turns out those questions aren’t quite so sacred as the public thought and turns out that Stempel has been fed the answers all along. He reluctantly agrees to bow out, but only if Enright will extend further television opportunities outside of the quiz show.
They try to offer the same gig to Charles… but this too-good-to-be-true hero has a conscience, darn it. However, regardless to Charles’ initial aversion to cheating, they plant a question that Charles already knew the answer to. And he knew that they knew that he knew the answer. It’s a lot harder to exercise integrity on National TV, eh? He answers correctly. The new champ has been named and Charlie reaches stardom in the blink of an eye. The public adore this squeaky clean, ideal, all-American man. Herb disappears into the void of obscurity. Somewhere between wishing for a new car, wanting to getting his teeth capped (he probably should have taken care of that one), and hoping that Enright would hold tight on his end of the deal he should have realized it wasn’t the greatest idea to bet his money away. Complaining to your former boss will only get you so far. No one cares about Herb Stempel anyway, he’s old news.
Then Dick Goodwin (Rob Morrow), a young but talented lawyer, comes along. After hearing rumors of rigged game shows, he opens an investigation of Twenty One. He meets with Stempel, he meets with NBC producers, he develops a friendship with Van Doren. Turns out he’s stumbled on dynamite.
I totally dig this kind of stuff. I feel about this the same way that I feel about Shattered Glass. It doesn’t just document an interesting scandal, it captures a time in history. “It’s television.” The controversy was certainly enough to keep our attention but director Robert Redford took it a step further and showed us a life. It delves into Van Doren’s relationship with his father (ahh, Paul Scofield!) as well as interesting points on Jew/Gentile winners and losers.
Quiz Show was nominated for 4 Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Director. Here are what make it the bee’s knees: The acting is spectacular. Hank Azaria and David Paymer are my two particular favorite performances but the selling ticket is Paul Scofield, who was nominated for Best Supporting Actor. Ralph Fiennes should also be credited who managed to embody this character with style, likeability, and emotional depth. Also, have you ever seen so many cameos? Martin Scorcese? Barry Levinson? Douglas McGrath? Even if the acting wasn’t solid, this sharp script could make Megan Fox seem almost credible. Lastly, you can almost feel Robert Redford walking through the set. He leaves his mark in the most positive light. It’s a film that wouldn’t be the same without his magical touch. The only negative thing I have to say is perhaps geared towards its long running time.
It’s thought provoking and intelligent – a must see. 9/10