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I was growing up during the Charles Van Doren scandal, and I remember
his face on the front page of the paper and my mother crying. When I
asked her what happened, she said, "He told a lie." He told a whole
bunch of them, in fact, and was part of the quiz show scandal of the
'50s, which Quiz Show so beautifully dramatizes. Robert Redford does a
fantastic job of recreating the atmosphere in perfect detail, as well
as the fascinating story of the '50s version of reality TV, the quiz
shows, going awry.
Paul Scofield is absolutely mind-boggling as Van Doren Sr., and Ralph Fiennes is wonderful, handsome, and charismatic as Charles Van Doren. The rest of the cast is marvelous - John Turturro, David Paymer, Hank Azaria, and Rob Morrow.
Van Doren was a dream contestant - good-looking, educated, with a beautiful speaking voice - and captivated the country with his intelligence. Unfortunately, it wasn't reality at all, just fantasy. But, as Van Doren says while verbally sparring with his dad, "It was mine own." It sure was, and he went into oblivion because of it.
"Quiz Show" is the type of movie that invites viewers to ask themselves
how they would act under similar circumstances. If you were a
contestant on a TV game show and the producers offered you a load of
money to do a fixed show where you're given the answers in advance,
would you do it? Or would you turn your back on the producers and walk
away? In this film, Charles Van Doren does not walk away, but he does
hesitate. As played by Ralph Fiennes, he's a bright, likable fellow who
seems like a good man despite his willing participation in a fraud.
The film is smartly written, tightly plotted, and populated by interesting characters. It is also entertaining. It unfolds like a great detective story, except that no murder has taken place. There isn't even any crime. As shocking as it may seem, there were no laws against rigging a quiz show back in the 1950s, because no lawmaker had considered that such a thing would ever happen. When the scandal came to light, those working behind the scenes who engineered the fraud managed to survive with their careers intact, and the people who suffered the harshest consequences were the contestants, who were simply pawns. That says something about the distortions of television culture, but this theme, among others, is nicely understated in the film.
Director Robert Redford has a gift for finding the drama in seemingly mundane topics, but not in a contrived or manipulative fashion. The '50s quiz show scandal is the sort of topic that could easily have made for a preachy and artificial TV movie. It's a great credit to Redford's film that it doesn't contain any long moralizing speeches. Though the movie has many great quotes, the characters talk like real people, and the situations grow out of their personalities. We end up rooting for several characters at once. We want Richard Goodwin (Rob Morrow), the lawyer sent to investigate the show, to succeed in uncovering the scandal. But we also feel for Van Doren, who almost comes off as a tragic hero. We even feel a little for the pathetic and unlikable Herb Stemple (John Turturro), the whistle-blower who's been bamboozled and humiliated by the producers.
The movie works on the most basic level as simple drama, the high points being those scenes where Goodwin uncovers each new layer to the case. The first time I saw the film, I was put in mind of a detective story like "Colombo." There's no mystery, of course, since we know from the start who the perpetrators are, what they did and how they did it. But the labyrinth of corruption that Goodwin must probe is fascinating to behold.
Goodwin naively assumes he's practically taking down the network (the movie hints that the scandal goes to the very top) even though no laws were broken. The situation has the feel of a conspiracy, the people talking in euphemisms like they were mob bosses or something ("For seventy grand you can afford to be humiliated"). The contestants themselves are no dummies: they are smart, knowledgeable people who could very well have been used honestly on a trivia show. The producers simply wanted to control the responses to make the show more dramatic. What made this unethical was the amount of deception it required. It's one thing to have entertainment that everyone knows is fake (e.g., pro-wrestling), it's quite another to pass off something phony as something real. Of course now I'm getting preachy, something I praised the movie for not doing. But that's exactly my point. In a lesser movie, there would have been characters explaining the distinction. Here, it's left to us to assess the situation. That's the best kind of movie, the kind that invites further discussion.
Above all, the movie is about integrity and what defines it. Goodwin (in a classic reversal of our culture's typical view of lawyers) is the boy scout in the story, who says at one point that he would never have participated in the fraud if he were in Van Doren's shoes, and we believe him. But a large part of the film involves his relationship with Van Doren, a man he likes and doesn't want to hurt. His desire to protect Van Doren (but not Stemple) from ruin while bringing down the true perpetrators of the scandal leads to one of the movie's most memorable lines, when Goodwin's wife calls Goodwin "the Uncle Tom of the Jews," because he's sticking up for a corrupt Gentile. We respect Goodwin and admire his reluctance to hurt Van Doren, but we, too, wonder whether he's handling the case with the proper objectivity.
The movie has some interesting subtexts dealing with the anti-Semitism coming from Jewish producers themselves. In one scene, producers Dan Enright and Albert Freedman basically explain to Van Doren, in so many words, that Stemple is too Jewish for the show. This is a phenomenon I've rarely seen dealt with in the movies, possibly because there aren't too many films depicting the history of television.
The film is often criticized for departing significantly from the facts of the case. For example, the real Goodwin actually played a minimal role in exposing the scandal. I can understand why those involved in the case may have resented these inaccuracies. But filmmakers do have dramatic license. Probably this film should have changed the names of the characters from their real-life counterparts, to reinforce the fact that it's not an exact account of what happened. The purpose of movies isn't to duplicate real life, but to reflect on real life, to gain fresh insight, and "Quiz Show" achieves that purpose with dignity and style.
As a twelve year old growing up in Brooklyn, I did not even know the name of
the show I was watching every week; to me it was just a vehicle to see if
hero Charles Van Doren could hang in. He was handsome, articulate, witty,
and all the girls thought him incredibly attractive (although their pre-teen
minds did not yet understand sexuality). Growing up in a Jewish
neighborhood as I did, Herb Stempel did not come off so nerdy as he looks
now in retrospect. When it came out that everyone had cheated, us kids felt
not only betrayed, but sleazily cheated personally. The girls felt somehow
Here Redford turns in an understated masterpiece. He sets the stage and the standard, and gets fantastic performances from his actors:
John Turturro as Stempel is excellent, but a fine job by Johann Carlo as his principled wife, which may be overlooked in such company, is the rock upon which his family can really rely.
Ralph Fiennes, as the hapless Charles Van Doren, manages to get across his character's dilemma: a mere achiever in a family of ultra-achievers. In any other family he'd have been prime, as a Van Doren he would always be an also-ran.
Many have pointed out the great job of Paul Scofield as Mark Van Doren, Charles' father. He is the epitome of the WASP-intellectual padrone. And he has our sympathy when his son so sorely disappoints him and disgraces the family.
David Paymer is excellent and believable as Enright, the unsavory producer. He makes it almost seem disloyal not to cheat!
Bit parts are all little plums: Martin Scorsese as Martin Rittenhouse, the Geritol exec, smugly contemptuous of the public and the government. George Martin as the network president, clearly Jewish, and just as clearly a "Teflon Don" in his own world.
The scenes at the Van Doren estate are designed to convey investigator Goodwin's (Rob Morrow) culture shock and outsider status, and they represent the academic WASP world of the time accurately and wonderfully.
All in all, a great movie.
I watched this film for about the fifth time last night. I first saw it a
couple of years ago when my mum brought it home, she'd picked it out of
bargain bin at the supermarket, and what a bargain!
It is a superb tale, I notice some have said 'who cares it was just a dumb quiz show', well that is hardly the point, many films are made where, what was seemingly the subject is actually just a background for the real story to be told.
Quiz Show is a brilliantly told morality tale, but that is not to say it preaches. It can get away with not preaching because the consequences of their actions didn't harm anyone. It doesn't say, 'if you do something wrong you will be punished'. It says 'If you do something wrong, can you live with yourself'. "It's the getting away with it I couldn't stand" Charlie says at one point.
A classical tragedy of a man with the world at his fingertips who throws it all away at his own volition. As a classical Shakespearean actor Fiennes is perfect for the role.
A wonderful intelligent and literate script, the pieces between Charlie and his father in the Athanaeum and at the picnic are wonderful.
Subtle music and stylish presentation are the icing on the cake.
Although `Quiz Show' is entirely concerned with morality and the nature of
moral choices, I can't think of a single moment when it isn't obvious
whether or not a character is doing the right thing. There are no moral
dilemmas whatever. And a good thing too - thorny ethical issues would only
turn it into an episode of `Star Trek'. If you think a film needs to be
confused about right and wrong in order to be interesting, watch `Quiz Show'
and realise your error.
Here's most of the ethics in a nutshell: the star contestants of a popular quiz show are cheating, with the connivance of the producers, the sponsor, and the network. That they shouldn't be cheating is never in dispute. The interesting questions are: Why are they cheating? and, What is it like for them, and how do they maintain dignity, when they're found out? Of course, in an intelligent character study like this there are plenty of other questions. I won't ruin your pleasure by giving away any of the answers. The best scenes, probably, are the ones in which a character must admit to someone or some group of people that he has cheated. All these scenes are very good and each is handled in a different way. But they're just cherries in a rich fruitcake. `Quiz Show' is one of my personal favourites. It was nominated for Best Picture of 1994 - an unusually fertile year - although the award went instead to some big dumb propaganda piece.
It would be pretty surprising if Quiz Show, Robert Redford's film about the
1950's quiz show scandals was anything short of excellent. The principal
actors give phenomenal performances: Fiennes' Van Doren is usually
unflappable and cold, but manages to allow vulnerability to surface at
times, and Turturro's Stempel is a study in almost sociopathic and manic
behavior. What allows both actors to transcend mere greatness is their
ability to make the viewer both admire and detest their characters with
something as subtle as a glance or body language. Morrow's character of the
`whistle-blower' is there as the moral fiber; the outsider who looks upon
the situation both with objectivity and as the devil's advocate.
Redford's direction is rich and well-paced. There were not any slow moments in the film, and he did not have to adhere to rapid-fire editing to achieve the momentum of the film. Perhaps the subject matter is a factor, but I have found that with the exception of `Ordinary People', the films I have seen under Redford's direction have been good in a technical respect but lean toward the maudlin. With Quiz Show, he does what should be done when telling a true story he does not resort to preaching, rather he directs with an objectivity that allows the viewer to come to their own conclusions.
Quiz Show is an excellent film that I highly recommend, especially to see the razor-sharp performances of Fiennes and Turturro.
The other day when I was renting movies I passed this one called Quiz
Show, never heard of it, wasn't too sure if it would be good or not, so
I figured I would just wait and check it out on IMDb. When I saw the
rating I was very impressed, not to mention how this was nominated for
best picture of '94, considering it was up against: Forrest Gump, Pulp
Fiction, and Shawshank Redemption, it didn't really stand a chance. But
I rented this movie and I'm convinced that 1994 had to be one of the
best years for films. Quiz Show is an incredibly impressive film by
Robert Redford, which I didn't even realize that this guy could direct!
The story is just a perfect one for any type of a debate conversation
on what is right and what is wrong.
21 is a popular TV quiz show in the 50's where they ask very hard questions and the guests win lots of money, Herb Stempel has been the reigning champion for weeks. But he's not exactly what you would call the TV hunk, he's got the "radio face". Charles Van Doren is a huge fan of quiz shows, so he auditions, and when the executives see him, they go crazy over him, he's handsome, he's smart, he's charismatic, and his family is famous. They tell Herb to "dive down" and get a wrong answer so that Charles can take over as the champion. Everything seems to go smoothly, that is until Harvard grad government agent Dick Goodwin is convinced that there's something wrong. He is determined to prove that the show is rigged and that 21 is ripping of America's intellects.
Quiz Show is a great film, the acting, the picture, the editing, everything about this film is pretty much flawless. I couldn't believe that this film is not anywhere near the top 250, I don't see any problems with the film. But I know every film has a hater or two. But for me the film, acting wise, the film went to Ralph Fiennes, he did an incredible performance and was so touching during his statement to the jury. I just would highly recommend this film to anyone, this is a great film and Robert Redford did a terrific job.
The ratings of 1950's quiz show `21' are in freefall due to the dominance of
dorky Jew Herbie Stempel. The sponsors and network owners put pressure o
the producers to replace him. When WASP Charles Van Doren comes to audition
for another show they offer to ask him the questions that he already
answered at the practice. Herbie is told to take a dive and Van Doren
becomes an audience draw. However when Herbie starts making noise about a
fix, a congress employee, Dick Goodwin, decides to go after the
This is a glossy, professional piece of work that sadly was never as huge as hit as it deserved to be (probably not enough explosions for the US audience). The story is based on a true story that happened in the 50's and it's used here partly as a bit of history but also as a look at television in terms of it's most basic desire to sell and entertain at any costs if that means fixing shows or getting the `right' ethnic groups on screen then s be it. It is effective on that level because it's hard to imagine anything has changed since 1950. The actual human drama comes between Van Doren and Stempel the film makes them both real people, neither good nor bad but having a bit of both.
Turturro is the best thing in this film. His Herbie has so many levels which he must touch throughout and he does them all well whether it's humour, pride, anger or realisation. Fiennes is good but at times I did find it hard to be sympathetic with a WASP born into a lofty family who gets more given to him. That said Fiennes did him well. Morrow was a strange choice famous at the time for Northern Exposure, he does a weird performance here almost doing an impression of what he thinks a tough Noo Yark investigator would be like. The supporting cast is filled out with quality so deep that even the extras are famous now! (Calista Flockhart turns up briefly). David Palmer and Hank Azaria are good as 21's producers, Christopher Mcdonald is good as the host people like Griffin Dunne, Mira Sorvino, Timothy Busefield and Barry Levinson come and go, and Martin Scorsese has a wicked role as the money behind the scandal.
It works on many levels at it's most basic it is a true story of great interest, at best it lets you see how television works and how men with money can rarely be reached for any wrong doing. Working on so many levels this is a polished professional drama that involves from start to finish.
Robert Redford's brilliant direction and a quartet of expert performances
make QUIZ SHOW a highly interesting, thought-provoking experience.
Unfortunately, the end of TV innocence in the '50s brought us other game
shows in recent years and real life survivor series that are guilty of
shortcomings just as egregious in other ways but not to be discussed here.
Manners and morals began a fast decline in the late '50s and only got worse
with each decade, in my opinion.
The real-life story of Professor Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes), son of a famous scholar, Mark Van Doren (Paul Scofield) is told in a lively and detailed way with many sights and sounds of the '50s making the atmosphere look very authentic. When the less than charming winner of a TV show, Herb Stempel (John Turturro) is dumped in favor of the more charismatic Charles Van Doren, the story goes swiftly through a series of expertly written scenes in which all of the behind-the-scenes goings on are revealed and characterizations are sharply defined. In truth, the ratings game between Van Doren and Herb Stempel went on for many weeks before a showdown was reached.
An especially touching scene shows Charles wanting to reveal to his father the truth about his upcoming appearance before an investigative committee--relaxing as the two have an informal midnight snack in the kitchen, but unable to tell his father (played to perfection by Paul Scofield) who is a symbol of unwavering integrity. In fact, Scofield is so good in his supporting role that it's a pity the script didn't expand his role to give him more screen time.
John Turturro as Herb Stempel has the unfortunate task of appearing to be an obnoxious nerd, whose only redeeming moment comes at the end of the film when he realizes how destroyed Charles Van Doren is by the revelations. He never tries to make the character anything less than the boorish, self-absorbed fool he is and does an excellent job. Rob Morrow is sometimes less than convincing as the tenacious investigator.
Despite its lengthy running time, it all moves along at a brisk pace under Robert Redford's outstanding direction. Well worth your time, although I can't say television has raised the bar very much since its fall from grace, especially with regard to daytime talk or game shows. Are audiences any wiser today? Maybe only Regis Philbin knows...
I felt like it was very well done, great camera angles, some fairly
creative shots that spoke for the characters when they themselves were
silent...just a well done, quality film, that never drys out or leaves
you in a lurch. John Turturro is outstanding as a neurotic, slightly
obsessed and racially-sensitive Stempel, Rob Morrow carries the role of
Goodwin as if he were the man himself, and Ralph Fiennes as Charles Van
Doren was a better choice than anyone else I could imagine, also as if
the role fit his personality so closely as to blur the line between
actor and role. Hank Azaria had a relatively small part, but is always
a good fit regardless of the subject matter, a phenomenal character
actor who has finally made quite a name for himself; quite overdue, I
feel. Paul Scofield handles his role as Charles' father without so much
as the slightest effort, it comes so easily. David Paymer is a man who
seems to receive so few accolades one might hardly notice him, but he
also is tremendously talented (see Mr. Saturday Night for a strong
example of Paymer's abilities as supporting actor opposite Billy
Crystal and Julie Warner).
All in all, a wonderful film on a subject in which one might not normally find interest, but very well done and an outstanding yet understated collection of actors and actresses make this one:
4 out of 5 stars
Well worth seeing! I would highly recommend it!
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