Who could ever have believed that the American late night quiz show broadcasted live nationwide could be anything but good, clean, honest television with no possibility of foul play or dishonesty in sight? Well apparently the entirety of the American public up until the mid 1950’s thought exactly that before a series of scandals revolving around the popular television show Twenty One emerged thanks to ousting of longterm series winner Herb Stempel. The scandal, the first of its kind within the industry, would begin to shine a light at the codes and ethics practiced by such big name corporations whilst disgracing the life of an up and coming Columbia University student whose only crime was in giving the people what they wanted.
Robert Redford’s “Quiz Show” is an insightful look into the steadily growing universe that became the American television industry, whilst also generating one of more touching performances from British actor Ralph Fiennes’ during his earlier career. Following the real-life tale of one Herb Stempel (John Tuturro), a successful contestant on the quiz show Twenty One who is deceived into being replaced as the winning candidate by the more ‘American friendly’ Charles Van Doren (Fiennes), son of Pulitzer prize winning author, literary critic and playwright Mark Van Doren (Paul Scofield). Doren, then an up and coming academics professor is brought into the television arena when show producers Dan Enright (David Paymer) and Albert Freedman (Hank Azaria) decide to replace Stempel’s continuously winning streak by ousting him with a more “typical” or alternatively phrased ‘non-Jewish’ personality. Antisemitism aside, congressional lawyer Richard N. Goodwin (Rob Morrow) decides, along with Stempel’s assistance to take a closer look at the rumors surrounding so-called “rigged” shows within the American television market. What follows becomes a tragic tale of fame and notoriety after the pressures of becoming a national celebrity begin to wear down Van Doren’s once promising career and honest demeanor.
Robert Redford is no stranger to directing films containing high-caliber writing, production and above all performance, with his debut into the fray as director earning him the Oscar for 1980’s “Ordinary People“. This combined with his creation of the Sundance film festival and a plethora of notable acting performances makes him a titan within the Hollywood system. So much so that one of the central themes of Quiz Show becomes immediately apparent when viewing: reputation. Every character featured within Paul Attanasio’s screenplay struggles with the motifs of tradition and the honest value of a name. For the show’s producers it’s the reputation of televisions good name, with Van Doren it’s his reputation as a scholar and as a son of his fathers ilk, with Stempel it is his constant drive at reclaiming his celebrity, the list goes on. The before mentioned pressure that Doren succumbs to after becoming television’s next big star is lovingly told through the performance of Ralph Fiennes, an at the the time up and coming actor. Finnes, I’ve no doubt thanks in part to Redford’s direction, comes across as more of a child than a fully grown man in that despite his well-read intelligence and his excellently pronounced lexicon, he is still very much just a boy only wanting to please the success story that is his father and earn his approval.
What begins as an intriguing and I might add very well produced look at the televised world of 50’s America soon becomes a more tragic and slightly depressing story of fame and ego overcoming old fashioned common sense, Every character within the film is a victim of aspiration when boiled down to the lowest common denominator. In one touching sequence Van Doren confesses to his father, played magnificently by Scofield, about how he knows the answers to the quiz master’s questions before they are readout; leaving his father’s legacy in disarray when Van Doren is dealt with the brunt of the nations reaction, thus ruining his career. In once sense Quiz Show acts as a telling recreation of a scandal from a time we would now take for granted. In another, perhaps more emotional capacity Redford’s honest direction reveals to us the simplistic, yet still true nature of greed overpowering the good in all of us. What makes this story unique however is with how Finnes embodies for us such thematic qualities in one of the most surprisingly impressive performances to have ever come out of the actor’s entire body of work.