Directed By: Robert Redford
Starring: Ralph Fiennes, John Turturro, Rob Morrow
Tag line: "Fifty million people watched, but no one saw a thing"
Trivia: Before filming began, Ralph Fiennes wanted to speak with Charles Van Doren in person. But the feeling was that Van Doren wouldn't want to help with the film at all. So Fiennes and one of the film's staff drove to the town where Van Doren lived, and found him sitting on a chair outside his house. Fiennes then pretended to be a lost driver and asked him for directions
Quiz Show, director Robert Redford's take on the corruption that rocked the television industry in the 1950s, is a dramatic look at one of television's earliest scandals.
The current champion of Twenty One, America's most popular TV quiz show, is Herbie Stempel (John Turturro). For a while there, audiences seemed to like this clever but oafish guy from New York, which the network used as justification for supplying Stempel with the answers to all the questions, thus ensuring their popular contestant would remain champ for a long, long time. But the ratings have been dropping as of late, meaning America was getting tired of Herbie Stempel, so word comes down from the top that his reign is over. This pushes Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes), a literature Professor and the son of a prominent poet, into the limelight, making him Stempel’s chosen successor for the Twenty One crown. At first, Van Doren is reluctant to receive the answers in advance, but eventually gives in and wins more money than any contestant in the show’s history.
The whole shebang threatens to blow up, however, when Stempel, furious that the network won’t allow him to take part in another show, says he’s bringing his case to court, where he promises to reveal all. A closed-door meeting is held with the New York DA, during which Stempel’s claims are rejected as the ramblings of a mentally disturbed individual. Yet the story receives a small by-line in a New York newspaper, attracting the attention of Dick Goodwin (Rob Morrow), a hot-shot Harvard law grad working for the regulatory commission in Washington. Goodwin decides to look into the matter further, leading to an investigation that would shake the very young entertainment medium to its core.
I found Quiz Show utterly fascinating, partly because it’s based on a true story, and features real-life personalities whose names I recognize. As a kid, I remember watching the host of Twenty One, Jack Berry (here played by Christopher McDonald) on the ‘70s game show, The Joker’s Wild, which was, in turn, produced by Dan Enright (wonderfully portrayed in the film by David Paymer). More than this, though, Quiz Show is engaging because it delves into the consciences of its characters, not only Stempel and Van Doren, but Dick Goodwin as well, the man who brought the scandal to the forefront (the screenplay was based on his book). At the outset, Goodwin had no qualms whatsoever about dragging the nebbish Stempel before the grand jury, exposing him to ridicule, yet balks at doing the same to Van Doren, the all-American boy, and someone he’s grown to admire and respect. By relating this tale from multiple points of view, we’re given insight into the motivations of all three men, making Quiz Show as complete an exposé of this fiasco as it could possibly be.
What’s more, Quiz Show challenges us to ask ourselves the tough questions, namely: if a major TV network offered us a chance to win a boatload of cash, then provided the answers to ensure we’d do just that, how would we react?
Me? What would I do? I have absolutely no idea.