The historical docudrama formula was executed to near-perfection in 1994 with Quiz Show, Robert Redford’s film about the 1950s scandal in which it was discovered that popular television game shows were in fact rigged.
It’s since become a tiresome cliche for a movie to go out of its way to point out that the story it’s telling isn’t about the movie’s ostensible subject, but rather about America itself (Hustlers, just this month, did exactly that.) But Quiz Show, which arrived 25 years ago this month, is the rare film in which such cliche actually resonates.
Yes, it’s a film about the Quiz Show scandal, but it’s also about class, social mobility, Judaism, respectability politics, the power of television…
Yes, it’s a film about the Quiz Show scandal, but it’s also about class, social mobility, Judaism, respectability politics, the power of television, and the ways we remember (accurately and inaccurately) 1950s America. It might be the most quintessentially American film of the 1990s.
Directed by Redford, written by Paul Attanasio, and set in 1957 and 1958, Quiz Show tells the story of the popular game show Twenty-One, and how TV producers and executives conspired to rig it.
Meet Herb Stempel
At the start of the film, Herb Stempel (John Turturro), a loud, working class Jew from Queens, is the defending champion on the NBC game show Twenty-One. But TV executives Dan Enright and Albert Freedman (David Paymer and Hank Azaria) ultimately depose him in favor of Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes), the scion of a wealthy, old-line WASP family, and Van Doren’s good looks and intellectual respectability bring the show’s popularity to new heights.
Caught in the middle is Richard “Dick” Goodwin (Rob Morrow), a investigator with a Congressional committee who is looking into the scandal. Goodwin is Jewish, Harvard-trained, relatively wealthy, and very much wanting in to the American power elite. But as the film makes clear, he’s clearly lower on the social totem pole than Van Doren. (The film takes the memoir of Goodwin, who indeed reached the elite as one of President Kennedy’s “best and brightest,” as its source material).
Goodwin takes it as his mission to bring down the evil TV executives, therefore overlooking Van Doren, who befriends him and brings him to such WASP enclaves as a tony lunch club, his family’s country estate, and a powerful poker game. Goodwin’s wife (Mira Sorvino) later calls him out for siding with the wealthy Van Doren over the Jewish Stempel, calling him “the Uncle Tom of the Jews.” Goodwin, following his first wife’s death, would marry the famed historian Doris Kearns Goodwin.
Get in the Ring
The way the Quiz Show rigging scheme is presented in the film is clearly reminiscent of professional wrestling. The outcome is pre-determined, and the bosses make decisions about who’s going to win based on the charisma of the competitors, the way the public responds to them, and who can draw the most money. Even Enright and Freedman’s “the real downfall of Herbert Stempel was Herbert Stempel” was echoed a few years later with Vince McMahon declaring “Bret screwed Bret,” about the “Montreal Screwjob.”
There are even parallels to today, both with the celebrated long runs by Jeopardy champions like Ken Jennings and James Holzhauer, and even to modern politics itself, with the cynical question of which candidate “you want to have a beer with.” And the way the executives continue to justify appalling behavior in the name of good ratings has unmistakable Trumpian echoes. As does the scene at the end in which members of a Congressional committee, ludicrously, go full sycophant after Van Doren’s confession.
Beyond all that, Quiz Show is an all-around triumph of filmmaking, and by far the best film Robert Redford has ever directed. It has a beautiful, 1950s look, and begins with a song so perfect, Bobby Darin’s “Mack The Knife,” that it’s hard to imagine any other in that spot. The script by Attanasio, the film-critic-turned-screenwriter who created Homicide: Life on the Street, is a masterpiece of both structure and dialogue.
All of the actors are great in it, too. John Turturro, throughout his career, has played just about every American ethnicity there is – something he probably wouldn’t be allowed to do these days – but in Quiz Show he plays Jewish to great effect. As Van Doren, Fiennes plays both Van Doren’s natural charisma and his guilt over what he’s putting forward.
…nominated for 4 Oscars, including Best Picture, but it ran into the Forrest Gump/Pulp Fiction buzzsaw and won none.
I’m still not entirely clear on why Rob Morrow, who made Quiz Show coming off the great TV series Northern Exposure, didn’t have a better movie career. The more David Paymer in a movie, as far as I’m concerned, the better. And Christopher McDonald’s Jack Barry might be the best game show host character in the history of movies.
In a smaller role, look for the young future Ally McBeal, Calista Flockhart, and showing up in one pivotal scene, as an executive with sponsoring company Geritol, is Martin Scorsese (in a rare acting role).
Quiz Show, which didn’t perform especially well at the box office, was nevertheless nominated for 4 Oscars, including Best Picture, but it ran into the Forrest Gump/Pulp Fiction buzzsaw and won none. It’s since emerged as something of a cable TV staple.
Quiz Show holds up beautifully a quarter century later, as films set decades before their time tend to do.
And speaking of time, the principals depicted in this film have the special skill of living an uncommonly long time. Charles Van Doren died earlier this year at 93, while Richard Goodwin died last year at 86. But Herb Stempel got the last laugh – he’s still kicking at 92.