Quiz Show (1994): Redford’s Compelling Drama of TV Twenty-One Scandal, Starring Ralph Fiennes

In 1994, Robert Redford directed Quiz Show, a gracefully intelligent, thematically engrossing screen version of the scandal around “Twenty-One,” the late-1950s TV quiz show.

Using the show as a metaphor for a nation newly hypnotized by TV artifice, the story focuses on a hotheaded loser, Herb Stempel (John Turturro), and his successor on “Twenty One,” instant hero Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes), a scion of a socially prominent and intellectual family, headed by the upright and conscientious patriarch Mark Van Doren (a terrific Paul Scofield).

Poignantly written by Paul Attanasio, based on Richard Goodwin’s memoirs, the drama contrasts the very Jewish and abrasive Herb Stempel and the WASPish Charles Van Doren, a college professor. For a while, the TV producers arrange for Stempel to win, but then they decide to terminate his winning streak and replace him with the more mainstream figure, the patrician and handsome Van Doren.

Holding that it’s a case of anti-Semitism, Stempel turns to Congress, which appoints investigator Richard Goodwin (Rob Morrow), whose examination offers a witty and in moments darkly humorous view of pop culture and race relations in America during a crucial decade.

“Quiz Show” brought the 1950s to life as no other movie has since “Diner,” directed by Barry Levinson, who has a cameo in Redford’s picture as Dave Garroway, the Today Show host. Another celeb-director makes a cameo appearance, Martin Scorsese, as Geritol, the representative of the quiz show’s sponsors.

Redford has always had a good eye for casting and the film’s entire ensemble is excellent. In addition to the above thespians, the troupe includes David Paymer as producer Dan Enright and Christopher McDonald as Jack Barry, the quiz show host.

In any other year, “Quiz Show” would have garnered more attention and kudos–except it had the misfortune of being released during the hoopla of Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction,” which became, for many reasons, the movie event of the year.

Oscar Nominations: 4

Picture, produced by Robert Redford, Michael Jacobs, Julian Krainin, and Michael Nozik
Director: Robert Redford
Screenplay (Adapted): Paul Attanasio
Supporting Actor: Paul Scofield

Oscar Awards: None

Oscar Context

In 1994, “Quiz Show” competed for the Best Picture Oscar with “Forrest Gump” (which won), the most nominated (13 categories), Tarantino’s structurally inventive “Pulp Fiction” (7 nods), the old-fashioned prison drama “The Shawshank Redemption” (also 7), and the British comedy “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” which received just 2 nominations.

Credits:

Buena Vista Hollywood Picture Production