Quiz Show (1994) – Robert Redford examines the dark side of the American Dream


Quiz Show is based on the famous “Twenty-One” quiz show scandals that rocked America in the 1950s. This is Robert Redford’s fourth directorial effort and I must say, he has done a splendid job. Even though he admitted in an interview that he had taken some creative liberties, most of the film’s historical accuracy seems to be spot-on. It was based on Richard N. Goodwin’s memoir Remembering America: A Voice From the Sixties.


“Twenty-One” was a quiz show that was launched in 1956 by Dan Enright, a successful game show producer at the time. The show’s initial performance was seen as a disaster by it’s sponsor Pharmaceuticals, Inc. (They used the show to market a tonic named Geritol.) It was then that Enright and his co-producer decided to rig the show. The show still failed to improve it’s ratings. They then decided to invite guests who were more distinguished in the hope that audiences would have someone to look up to and root for, just as they would do movie stars.


Charles Van Doren (played by Ralph Fiennes) was one such a man. He was a Columbia University professor and was brought in as the replacement of Herbert Stempel (played by John Turturro), an ordinary office clerk who also happens to be very intelligent. Stempel had a nice, long run as the winner of every single episode of the show. When he learns about Van Doren, he gets bitter and blackmails Enright saying he would tell the whole world about the rigging.


Enright agrees to keep him on television by asking him to be Van Doren’s rival. As instructed by Enright, he gives the wrong answer to a question that he knew the answer to, in order to allow Van Doren to win. Van Doren keeps winning repeatedly and becomes a big star. Meanwhile, Stempel loses a major chunk of his prize money gambling. He is also awaiting for his chance to be called on the show once again. Growing increasingly frustrated, he decides to go public about the show. He approaches a District Attorney named Frank Hogan. Meanwhile, a lawyer named Richard Goodwin (played by Rob Morrow) becomes curious with the case and starts to investigate.


The “Twenty-One” quiz show was not that different from the scripted and staged reality shows that you see today. The public were crazy about these quiz shows back in the 50s. Just like the movies, they provided them with some good drama, suspense and laughs. It was all about the American Dream and Americans were dreaming a lot. These shows gave them hope and encouragement. The general public, seeing that they knew the answers to some of the questions asked, were thinking of participating in the shows themselves. They hoped to become wealthy and maybe famous too. But all that changed in 1958. The scandals shocked everyone. People saw their dreams being shattered. But they were not fools anymore.


Quiz Show is an examination of the dark side of the American Dream. The film benefits from Redford’s skillful direction and the excellent performances from the entire cast. Legendary British thespian Paul Schofield (A Man for all Seasons) plays Van Doren’s father. His scenes with Ralph Fiennes are among the highlights of the film. Also, Martin Scorsese has an amusing cameo as the sponsor. There is also a cameo by Barry Levinson.


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