Quiz Show – A Scandal From A Bygone Era When Americans Believed Everything They Were Told

Quiz Show is in a different category from the other films I’ve written about here, for two reasons: first, rather than being just a good film of which I’m very fond, I consider this a genuinely great film that ranks among my favorites of all-time (it was big mistake that I didn’t include it as a favorite in my bio for Movie Treasures Rediscovered). The second reason is that it achieved a level of recognition my other selections did not, including Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, Director, Supporting Actor and Screenplay. In fact, I debated whether Quiz Show was too recognized to qualify. I ultimately decided that it did for the following reasons:

  1. It was a box office flop that has never really caught on with a broad audience. People easily dismiss the idea of a film about game shows as uninteresting (they’re wrong).
  2. It doesn’t seem to be nearly as well remembered by cinephiles as it should be. When the Academy Awards for the films of 1994 are discussed, the debate tends to center around Forrest Gump, Pulp Fiction and The Shawshank Redemption. Quiz Show was actually a far more serious contender at the time than Shawshank (another of my favorite films), which was really an also ran that has deservedly gained in esteem over time. Quiz Show, on the other hand, seems to be rarely seen or appreciated by anyone younger than me.

Quiz Show is a depiction of the famous Game Show scandals of the late 1950’s and is a perfect re-creation of a time when Americans naively trusted everything they were told. The scandals shattered that perception and ushered in a new era of suspicion in American institutions.

In my opinion, this film from director Robert Redford deserves to be more widely recognized as an all-time classic. And at a time when issues of truth, trust and mass media are at the center of our national dialogue, it’s more relevant than ever. For those unfamiliar with the historical background of the story, the quiz show scandals erupted in the late 1950s when it was discovered that the popular competitive programs dominating television were rigged. In an era when America was much more trusting and less cynical than today, this came as a shock and a betrayal. The champions on these show had become beloved celebrities and role models.

One of the most popular of these programs was Twenty-One, where champion Charles Van Doren had become a superstar and a household name. Van Doren is superbly portrayed by Ralph Fiennes in only his second major Hollywood film (after his Oscar-nominated turn in Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece Schindler’s List). Fiennes is joined by the great John Turturro who gives a virtuoso performance as Herbert Stempel, the nerdy and neurotic previous champion who is none too happy to see his stardom and cash flow end. The first time I saw the film I thought Turturro was perhaps a little hammy. On later seeing the real Stempel on a PBS documentary, I found the performance pitch-perfect. The third of the film’s co-leads is Rob Morrow (then the star of the hit CBS drama Northern Exposure) as Dick Goodwin, a congressional lawyer investigating the quiz shows. Morrow’s strong performance is somewhat hampered by a not always convincing Massachusetts accent, but that’s a weakness easily overcome by the strengths of his performance and those of  the top-notch cast surrounding him. That Best Supporting Actor nomination deservedly went to the late Paul Scofield, who is outstanding and moving as Van Doren’s father, the celebrated author and professor. Scofield is joined in the supporting cast by the likes of Mira Sorvino as Goodwin’s wife, scene-stealers David Paymer and Hank Azaria as Dan Enright and Al Freedman, the producers of Twenty-One, and Martin Scorsese of all people as the CEO of Geritol, the show’s sponsor. It’s an impressive cast giving excellent performances across the board.

The entire cast of Quiz Show is a virtual Hollywood Who’s-Who featuring some sparkling supporting performances from the likes of John Turturro, Hank Azaria, David Paymer, Christopher McDonald, Mira Sorvino, Martin Scorsese as well as an Academy Award nominated performance from Paul Scofield. The cast is also ably led by Ralph Fiennes and Rob Morrow.

In addition, Redford’s direction is as masterful and assured as it was for Ordinary People and A River Runs Through It. Redford, along with cinematographer Michael Ballhaus and give the film a stylistic flourish and brisk pacing unmatched in the director’s filmography. But perhaps most important is the screenplay by Paul Attanasio. For me this is that rare screenplay that rises to the level of being a genuine literary achievement. Attanasio’s script (easily a high point to which nothing in his subsequent work quite compares) is intelligent, insightful, literate, witty and profound. The late Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert called the film “A rare American film about introspection”, and that’s exactly what makes Quiz Show so special: this is a film with layers of rich characterization and deep themes that is also briskly entertaining and at times quite funny. Not only do we get to know the characters and their moral dilemmas to a degree most films rarely attempt, we’re also forced to look into ourselves and wonder what we would do. Is it really so bad to fudge the truth on what in the end is just entertainment? Isn’t it worth it to promote knowledge, education and intelligence as traits to be emulated? What’s the harm in getting rich and famous entertaining people and promoting that? Or is a lie just a lie? Viewers may find themselves examining these questions with more complexity than they think, as characters like Van Doren, Stempel, Goodwin and Enright show us that people rarely fit into the simple categories of good guys and bad guys. And motives are rarely as clearly noble or nefarious as they may seem.

Twenty-One was only one of several game shows of the era that were proven to be rigged. Producers consulted with psychologists to determine the best ways to keep the audience on the edge of their seats and tuning in week after week. It meant big money to the network in ratings and advertising dollars so they figured why leave it to chance?

Redford and his team have masterfully recreated the time and place of the setting. From the jazzy opening credits and montage sequences to quieter, more introspective moments, the film never fails to be both entertaining and engrossing. The lack of action, thrills, special effects, romance, wacky comedy or a happy ending that wraps everything up neatly may be off-putting to some viewers looking to mentally check out and just be entertained (and there’s certainly a place for films which give us that). But for those who want to be stimulated as well as entertained, and who are willing to think a little deeper and be challenged by the ideas and themes in a film, Quiz Show is a deeply rewarding experience.  This is a film I have come back to many times over the years, and to which I will return many more. For me Quiz Show is truly one of the great ones.

⭐ For more information on where to Buy, Rent, or Stream Quiz Show, click here for the QuizShow JustWatch page.

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