Quiz Show - Movie Review

By Monica Sullivan

The world has restored its lost innocence so many times throughout recorded history that I always worry what the hell is meant by that meaningless phrase "a more innocent time".  A more unconscious time, maybe?  A more oblivious time?  In the case of the quiz show scandals of the late fifties, I'm inclined to think so.  Advertisers who had already drummed real or imagined commies out of the television industry, were quick to realize that enormous ratings meant increased sales of their products.  It was a short hop from that realization to their decision to dictate programming content.  What was cheaper to produce or more profitable than a game show?  But you couldn't have just anyone guessing who was the world's fastest land animal, it had to be someone that consumers would tune in to watch week after week.   Big surprise.

The quiz shows were rigged so they would seem like real contests, not scripted entertainment.  Robert Redford's 1994 film "Quiz Show" skillfully recreates the manufactured excitement of that brief era.  The focus of the story is on Herbert Stempel and Charles Van Doren, two contestants who willingly took dive after dive for big bucks.   Even 37 years later Van Doren's fall from grace seems far more poignant.  He came from a large literary family.  He was young, gifted and single.  He was an intellectual role model for kids, as if the makers of Geritol gave a hoot about that.  Redford lovingly focuses on the elegant Van Doren family picnics presided over by the regal Paul Scofield and Elizabeth Wilson.  As played by Ralph Fiennes, young Charles in every way is the ideal heir apparent.  In contrast, John Turturro plays Stempel like a cockroach:  Invasive, sleazy, and in every way an unsightly nuisance.  Even confronted with the reality that both men did essentially the same thing, Van Doren claimed national sympathy then and now.    Of course the world was 99% male then.

Left out of the "Quiz Show" story, even marginally, are the facts that the quiz shows put Dr. Joyce Brothers on the map when she honestly answered every imaginable question about boxing.  Or that a female contestant won nearly twice as much as Van Doren, or that entertainment personalities like Xavier Cugat and Patty Duke admitted that they'd been coached before their game show appearances, too.  Well, you can't say everything in a movie and the acting in this one is splendid, but the film's theme that both bugs and lions alike yield to temptation is a bit thin for its weighty treatment.  Or, maybe we're all too cynical to react to the stunning realization that a monolith like television could ever be dishonest, with anything but a shrug.

© 1994 - Monica Sullivan - Air Date: 09/14/94
Movie Magazine International