Movies We Like
Quiz Show is a quintessential tragic American story. The great subject of the film is television and the point at which it came to define American culture for better or worse (mostly worse). With television itself having an almost operatic power as a thematic backdrop, the film tells the story of a son tarnishing his family’s good name, the architects of television’s pop cultural dominance cynically duping an entire nation, the casual anti-Semitism of the 1950s, the cultural clash of WASPs and ethnic New Yorkers, and a young Washington investigator who wants to make a name for himself and winds up destroying his friend in the process.
The year is 1958. An NBC quiz show called 21 is a national obsession that 50 million people tune into each week to see what they think is an honest display of intellectual acumen and knowledge. What they don’t know is that the show’s producer, Dan Enright (played by character actor David Paymer), in cahoots with the show’s principal sponsor Geritol and with the implicit approval of NBC itself, is fixing the results of the show to boost the ratings. The film begins as the current reigning champ of 21, Herbert Stempel (played with wiry desperation by John Turturro), is given the boot for being too goofy looking, too unrefined, and, though they won’t say it, it’s clear that he is too Jewish. As the president of NBC muses, they want a guy on 21 who looks like he can get a table at 21. Enter the elegant, educated, and super dreamy Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes playing the Ralph Fiennes type) who innocently drops by NBC to try out for a different game show at the behest of his friends. When Enright and his sleazy sidekick Albert Freedman (played by Hank Azaria) spot him, they can barely contain themselves. Charles Van Doren is from a celebrated American literary family. His father Mark (played by the recently deceased Paul Scofield) is an English professor at Columbia University, where Charles also teaches. Charles has amazing hair and Ivy League manners. He is the perfect little lamb for Enright to lead to the proverbial slaughter.
Before he can think it through, Van Doren proves to be easy prey for Enright’s promises of easy money, instant fame, and a series of dubious reasons given as to why Van Doren should not feel guilty about getting the answers in advance and taking part in a rigged game show. “When Gregory Peck parachutes behind enemy lines do you think that’s really Gregory Peck?” they offer. Van Doren’s good looks and sweet, thoughtful nature belie a young man who is woefully, tragically naïve. He has no street sense, he trusts too easily, and lets himself get conned by Enright, the consummate snake oil salesman. He has lived his life of privilege in the shadow of his dad and sees this silly game show as a way to come into his own, and ultimately throws everything away in the process.
Once Herbie Stempel, the ex-G.I. from Queens, gets the axe from Enright and takes a dive on the one question even the audience knows the answer to, he sulks back to his neighborhood where he grows obsessed with Van Doren, threatens to blow the lid off of the cover-up, and tell the world that 21 is a fraud. Dan Enright dismisses him as a neurotic weirdo, but a restless congressional investigator named Richard Goodwin (played by Rob Morrow at the peak of his career), who wants to make a name for himself, decides to poke around. He can tell there is something off about it.
Goodwin befriends Van Doren as he mounts his investigation into the operations of 21. Van Doren is, at this point, at the peak of his ascendency to a national phenomenon. He appears on 21 week after week, reciting the answers to questions he got in advance, and is a hero to millions. Goodwin, determined to put television itself on trial and avoid going after individual contestants, hangs around Van Doren. Both men identify with each other to some extent. Charles is just grateful to have a friend amidst the chaos of instant fame. Goodwin is soon welcomed into the literary Eden of life with the Van Dorens with their al fresco lunches with Edmund Wilson at their home in Connecticut. But there’s a growing tension between Van Doren and Goodwin and, as his investigation widens, he realizes that not just some contestants got the answers, but that they all did, Van Doren included. Although at the hearing Goodwin tries to emphasize the role that NBC and Geritol played in the wholesale fraud perpetrated on the public, what the media is really interested in is vilifying Van Doren as he’s the public’s golden boy, and what goes up must come down.
One of the things that I love about this movie is the way that every line of the screenplay is part of the thematic whole. There isn’t a note wasted. I also love the melancholic humanism that infuses the story. There’s a gentleness to the treatment of the characters. Even Enright is less than a monster; he’s just a cog in the wheel of television itself. The real villains of the story are the cynical and phony overlords of NBC and Geritol who think nothing of lying to the public, confident that people are really tuning in to watch the money, and that the cultural force of television will go on long after Van Doren and Stemple and Enright and even Goodwin, who are historical footnotes at best. And they’re absolutely right. It reminds me of Octave’s line from Renoir’s The Rules of the Game: “The awful thing about life is that everybody has their reasons.”
Quiz Show was nominated for 4 Oscars: Best Director (Robert Redford), Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Paul Scofield), and Best Adapted Screenplay.