In a 1985 interview Robert Redford said of his film Downhill Racer (1969): “it represented what was happening in this country—the slow realization that you’ve been given a false legacy growing up as a kid. Namely, it wasn’t whether you won or lost but how you played the game. But that just wasn’t true. It was whether you won. People don’t remember who finished second. And you could get away with anything so long as you were winning.” As a profile on the man in Film Comment observed, Redford has been fascinated with “the American obsession with winning and capitalism’s inevitable exploitation of the winner.” This time, working behind the camera as director, he examined these ideas with Quiz Show (1994), an engrossing look at the television quiz show scandals of the 1950s.
Redford focuses on one show in particular, Twenty-One, and the rigged loss of the popular program’s reigning champion in favor of a more attractive and media-friendly contestant to help boost ratings of the NBC network and sales of the corporate sponsor Geritol. When rumors of the show being rigged surface, an investigation is launched and Redford tracks the ensuing fallout. In a rather ironic twist, charges in the press claimed that Quiz Show played fast and loose with the facts and this may have contributed to a lack of interest from mainstream moviegoers. More probably, audiences didn’t find the subject matter that interesting and did not want to watch a film that explored the darker side of America. It failed to make back its $28 million budget despite receiving numerous critical accolades and being nominated for several major awards. Quiz Show is a smart film that looks back at the past and anticipates the glut of reality shows that has since risen to prominence, often focusing on beautiful, wealthy “winners,” but in fact is just as fake as their fictional counterparts.
Redford spends the first six minutes of the film cutting between people all over America scrambling to get to their T.V.s and watch this week’s episode of Twenty-One, and a peek behind-the-scenes at how the show comes together just before it airs. In doing so, he establishes how popular the show was at the time and how the medium of television dominated people’s everyday lives. Herbert Stempel (John Turturro) is the returning champ, but the powers that be aren’t happy: the ratings are starting to slip because, despite his everyman quality, he’s not the most attractive guy and acts awkwardly in front of the cameras. Word comes down from on high that Stempel is finished and the show’s producer Dan Enright (David Paymer) is ordered to orchestrate his exit from the program.
His ideal replacement comes in the form of Columbia University instructor Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes) who is the perfect package: handsome, wealthy and, oh yeah, smart. He comes from a privileged background being the son of famous poet and intellectual Mark Van Doren (Paul Scofield) and novelist Dorothy Van Doren (Elizabeth Wilson). Redford foreshadows this fateful decision by cutting back and forth between the decision to get rid of Stempel with Van Doren watching the show and marveling at how well the champ does on it while his father dismisses it offhandedly. At the coaxing of his friends, Van Doren decides to try out for one of NBC’s game shows and is asked to go on Twenty-One where Enright pitches a scenario where they would give him the answers. This makes Van Doren uncomfortable and he agrees to be a competitor but only if it’s on the up and up.
Enright goes to Stempel and tells him to throw the next game, implying that he got as far as he did because it was rigged. He agrees and loses on a ridiculously easy question while Van Doren is given a question that had already been asked in Enright’s office. I like that Redford shows both men struggle with their respective dilemmas – Stempel is told to throw the game on a softball question because his approval rating has declined and Van Doren is given a question he was already told and answered and has to decide if he wants to remain honest or go for the money. The rest of Quiz Show plays out the ramifications of their respective decisions, which is further complicated when aspiring Congressional lawyer Richard Goodwin (Rob Morrow) investigates the rumors that quiz shows are fixed.
John Turturro demonstrates a refreshing lack of vanity by portraying Stempel as not terribly attractive – he has bad teeth, he sweats profusely on camera and has hints of a weasely voice – but he’s trying to support his family. Unfortunately, he’s doing it dishonestly by playing a game that is fixed. Turturro manages to make the abrasive Stempel sympathetic and unlikable. He’s a complex character that the actor brings vividly to life.
Fresh from his memorable role in Schindler’s List (1993), Ralph Fiennes shifts gears to play a very different person – an intellectual born with a silver spoon in his mouth. He initially wants to be honest, but is quickly seduced by fame and money. One suspects Charles is motivated by living up to his family’s lofty reputation. His parents are successful writers that exist in their own rarified atmosphere of intellectuals while he is a struggling writer and merely an instructor, not even a professor. Fiennes has a nice scene between Van Doren and his father. One can see the internal struggle play across his eyes as he comes close to telling his father what he’s doing but cannot and instead reminisces about simpler times. Charles wants to tell him and the secret is eating him up inside but he still can’t because he’s in too deep. It’s a quietly heartbreaking scene that Fiennes performs so well as does Paul Scofield who drops his character’s intellectual pretensions when he senses something is wrong with his son.
Rob Morrow is quite good as the lawyer that doggedly pounds the pavement and does the legwork, like seeking out former contestants, to uncover the truth behind NBC’s quiz shows. He is not just seeking the truth but also fulfilling an ambition to improve his lot in life, something he shares with Charles and Stempel. The actor has a nice scene where Goodwin confronts the head of Geritol (a nice cameo by filmmaker Martin Scorsese) and the businessman lays it out for the lawyer when he tells him, “The public has a very short memory but corporations, they never forget.” This nicely-written scene sums up rather well the corporate point-of-view and how it manages to steer clear of scandals that could ruin them. Morrow does a nice job of conveying Goodwin’s conflict of wanting to spare Van Doren the public embarrassment of testifying to a grand jury because he admires and even looks up to the man.
At their peak more than 50 million viewers watched quiz shows in the United States. Twenty-One was conceived and created by producer Dan Enright. It involved two contestants competing against each other in dual isolation booths. The goal was for each contestant to get 21 points by correctly answering questions that ranged from one to eleven points in value. Herbert Stempel first squared off against Charles Van Doren on November 28, 1956, and after three weeks of tie games, the latter defeated the former. Van Doren, in return, was defeated by Vivienne Nearing on March 11, 1957. In 1959, a grand jury investigation into quiz show fraud was completed in New York City but the findings were sealed prompting Richard Goodwin to conduct his own investigation for a congressional committee on legislative oversight.
In 1988, Goodwin published his book Remembering America: A Voice from the Sixties and one of the chapters focused on the quiz show scandals of the ‘50s. It drew interest from actor Richard Dreyfuss and his partner Judith James who approached Barry Levinson to direct. Paul Attanasio was brought on board to write the screenplay based on the chapter with the focus on the Twenty-One show. The script was then given to Robert Redford who had starred in Levinson’s film The Natural (1984). He had gotten his start in New York with early roles on T.V. during the late ‘50s and early 1960s and connected with the subject matter. He was even a quiz show contestant in 1959 on a show called Play Your Hunch.
When it came to casting Quiz Show, John Turturro was chosen early on. He had met Redford at the Sundance Institute and was the first choice to play Herb Stempel. The actor gained 22 pounds and had his hair cut like the man but was not interested in “doing a mimic of the character, but finding the overall qualities instead.” To prepare for the role, Rob Morrow met with Richard Goodwin and his wife at their home in Massachusetts. The actor said of the man, “He comes from a time when there was a general sense of hope that government could change the world for the better.”
Redford heard about Ralph Fiennes working with Steven Spielberg on Schindler’s List and agreed to meet during filming to discuss the role of Charles Van Doren. Fiennes agreed to play the man but was unable to meet with Van Doren as he had become somewhat reclusive after the quiz show scandals. The actor studied kinescopes of the man’s appearances on Twenty-One. He found Van Doren to be a “very gifted actor. He had a quality of being slightly diffident yet charming.” The actor went straight from making Spielberg’s film into Quiz Show and he was thankful because it “rescued me from waiting until Schindler’s List came out, and everyone thinking ‘Uh-oh this is the actor who played that Nazi.’”
Quiz Show was in theaters for a few months before being pulled by the studio due to its poor performance. Once it received Oscar nominations, the film was placed back in theaters with a new T.V. campaign and print advertisements. At the time, some industry insiders suggested that the film didn’t do well because it was a period picture with no sex or that Fiennes was not enough of a box office draw or that the rather enigmatic poster Redford designed didn’t work.
Redford was upset by several articles that came out when Quiz Show was released claiming it distorted history. One of the more extreme examples came from the Los Angeles Daily News who quoted retired New York judge Joseph Stone, the man that led investigations into the scandal. He said, “This movie is filled with fabrications and distortions from beginning to end.” He argued that most of the film was complete fiction.
When asked how accurate his film was, Redford said that he used “dramatic license, to make either a moral point or an ethical point and move too far out of what could possibly have happened.” He did admit to compacting three years of quiz show scandals into one year and gave Goodwin a more important role in the film than he had in breaking the actual case. Furthermore, he said of the film’s failure to connect with an audience: “Either we don’t want to face our loss of innocence, because it’s asking us to admit we’ve lost one of our virtues. Or we don’t want to face it because we’re as shallow as people accuse us of being, and as spoiled.” Paul Attanasio said, “What we attempted to do was criticize the culture, and that’s never going to be terribly popular.” ABC correspondent and news analyst Jeff Greenfield summed it up best: “To tell today’s audience that powerful institutions and people lie is not compelling. It isn’t that we fear confronting our loss of innocence. It’s that it bores us.”
Quiz Show enjoyed positive notices from most of the major critics at the time. Roger Ebert gave the film three-and-a-half out of four stars and wrote, “The screenplay, by former Washington Post film critic Paul Attanasio, is smart, subtle and ruthless. And it is careful to place blame where it belongs.” In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “Mr. Redford, always a fine director of actors, elicits knowing, meticulous performances. One hallmark of this film’s high caliber is that its smaller performances are impeccable.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film an “A” rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “As Charles Van Doren, the sleek Columbia English professor who succeeded Stempel as champion, Ralph Fiennes is an ambiguous light charmer, fascinating in his very opaqueness.” Jonathan Rosenbaum praised the film as Redford’s “best and richest directorial effort.” The Los Angeles Times’ Kenneth Turan wrote, “So it is an especial triumph that Quiz Show, directed by Robert Redford and written by Paul Attanasio, turns that footnote of television history into a thoughtful, absorbing drama about moral ambiguity and the affability of evil.” Finally, in his review for the Washington Post, Hal Hinson wrote, “Though Quiz Show is insightful in its larger, social observations, it doesn’t allow its cultural statements to dwarf its human dimensions. As dazzling as its staging of the congressional hearings and the show itself may be, the movie is at its best in its more intimate moments.”
Herb Stempel said of the film: “There was some poetic licence here and there, but I don’t begrudge the filmmakers for that … I think John Turturro was a little too hyper. I do sometimes get a little frenetic, but he was really, really frenetic.” Charles Van Doren also saw the film and said of it, “I understand that movies need to compress and conflate, but what bothered me most was the epilogue stating that I never taught again. I didn’t stop teaching, although it was a long time before I taught again in a college.”
Redford does a nice job of showing the very different worlds that Van Doren and Stempel come from – the former eats at the nicest restaurants, buys himself an expensive sports car and visits his folks at their expansive home out in the country while the latter lives in the blue collar neighborhood of Queens trying hard to make ends meet. Redford makes a point of showing how important Stempel’s reign on Twenty-One is to his neighborhood where he’s treated like a big shot, but at home his wife (Johann Carlo) is not so thrilled with her husband’s newfound celebrity, unconvinced that they can get out from under her mother’s shadow (she supports them financially) and this causes considerable tension between them.
As Quiz Show begins, Stempel is a winner but this quickly changes when he is told to lose because he doesn’t fit the attractive public image that NBC wants to project to their viewers. Van Doren looks the part and is soon groomed for success while Stempel is relegated to the outside looking in. Van Doren may have a more attractive façade than Stempel but he is just as dishonest. Meanwhile, the public is fed a lie and accepts it because they have no reason not to believe it. While Van Doren and Stempel are hardly unwitting dupes in the scandal, Redford makes a point of highlighting its architects – NBC executives and the corporate sponsor who are only interested in making money.
Quiz Show’s commercial failure, despite being critically-acclaimed, anticipated a similar trajectory by Michael Mann’s The Insider (1999), which also criticized a powerful corporation – big tobacco – and was met with a media backlash that questioned its accuracy. Whether this impacted the public’s perception of both films is a matter of some debate, but one should remember that these films are not documentaries. Critics worried that people would see these films and perceive them as historical fact. However, in most cases, the film should only be the starting point for one to dig deeper and find out for themselves what actually happened. Fictional films take significant liberties and dramatic license to make something that will entertain and inform. In this respect, Quiz Show is a resounding success thanks to Attanasio’s insightful script and Redford’s assured direction that allows his talented cast of actors to breathe life into their fascinating characters and thereby painting a fascinating portrait of a time when the American Dream turned sour.
Auletta, Ken. “The $64,000 Question.” The New Yorker. September 14, 1994.
De Turenne, Veronique. “Inaccuracies In Redford’s Quiz Show Called Scandalous.” Los Angeles Daily News. October 9, 1994.
Needham, Dick. “Redford.” Ski. April 1985.
Quiz Show Production Notes. Hollywood Pictures. 1994.
“The Enigma of Quiz Show: No Crowds.” The New York Times. February 12, 1995.
Van Doren, Charles. “All the Answers.” The New Yorker. July 28, 2008.
Walker, Beverly. “Declaration of Independence.” Film Comment. March/April 2015.