Robert Redford’s Quiz Show (1994) examines with sparkling wit, breathtaking detail and brutal honesty the scandal over alleged corruption of the 1957 hit NBC game show, Geritol Presents: Twenty-One. The screenplay by Paul Attanasio (creator of TV’s Homicide: Life on the Street) is a literate, often funny, and ultimately near-tragic morality play with three key players: Herb Stemple (John Turturro), a Jewish New Yorker with a sponge memory whose family is living off generous donations from his mother-in-law; Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes), a Columbia literature professor whose familial reputation precedes him (his father is a poet and professor, his mother wrote The Country Wife, his uncle is another famous author); and a Congressional investigator named Richard Goodwin (Rob Morrow), who begins to suspect the executives behind the quiz shows of rigging the game and doggedly pursues the truth wherever it leads, including the well-to-do Cornwall family estate of Van Doren, where Goodwin’s Boston accent sticks out like a sore thumb.
As is the case with Redford’s current film The Conspirator, Quiz Show uses one historical event in parallel to another for the purposes of commenting on it. Whereas The Conspirator uses the aftermath of the Lincoln assassination and the loss of civil liberties therein to reflect and comment on the aftermath of 9/11 in America, Quiz Show similarly – if more blatantly – utilizes its hero’s desire to “put television on trial” in stark contrast to the McCarthy witch hunts of the day – comparing the search for corruption behind the scenes of TV game shows to the search for Communists in Hollywood. While Goodwin says that his investigation is “not McCarthyism,” Redford and his screenwriter (who adapted future Kennedy speechwriter Goodwin’s book Remembering America: A Voice From the Sixties) clearly mean to draw parallels between the two in order to put Goodwin’s investigation in some kind of context in comparison to the “Red Scare” it vaguely resembles, propelling the story to nearly Shakespearian proportions in the process.
The trouble starts when Stemple is coerced into throwing the latest episode on not simply an “easy question” but one he could never have gotten wrong – the winner of the Best Picture Oscar in 1955 was his favorite film, Marty. As one executive (Martin Scorsese) claims, “Stemple’s ratings have plateaued,” forcing producer Dan Enright (David Paymer) to pay Stemple to throw the game so a more viewer-friendly intellectual can rise up. Enter Charles Van Doren, whose combination of Columbia-level wits and matinee-idol looks ensure “the fix is in.” Before long, Enright and his co-hort (Hank Azaria) are also coaching Van Doren himself.
Herb Stemple, desperate to hang on to his fifteen minutes of fame, was willing to forego morality in favor of money and a “future in television” when he was coerced first to cheat and then to leave the show in less-than-honorable fashion. As Van Doren points out, “How did they make him take a dive?” Then again, Van Doren is just as corruptible as Stemple and, indeed, loses himself first to the fame and money that comes with being on the show and then, after wanting out and throwing the game of his own volition, agrees to yet another Faustian bargain on top of the one he already made – he will take a correspondent position on The Today Show for $50,000 a year. His justification to Goodwin is that nobody would turn down that kind of money. As Enright suggests during his final testimony, “Everybody gets rich and who gets hurt?”
The film’s climactic sequence concerns Van Doren willfully testifying essentially against himself, coming forward about the corruption of the quiz show and his part in it with remarkable candor and contrition. While most of the committee appears to congratulate Van Doren for his willingness to implicate himself at long last, one lone committee member actually chastises him for not coming forward sooner and for committing improprieties in the first place. This brings up a good point: Van Doren is hardly a victim. Was he placed in a difficult moral position? Maybe. Did he do something wrong and only come forward when backed into a corner? Yes.
Meanwhile, other issues of the era also quietly rear their heads. There is a kind of racial discrimination, as claimed by Stemple. The pattern of the game show appears to be that when a Jew wins a lot of money, they are bumped off the show and replaced with a gentile who goes on to win more money. The feverish claims of Stemple are written off at first as those of a paranoid mental case desperately clinging to the spotlight he so powerfully once claimed, only to later be proven to have merit. Yet another issue enters when, during his investigation, Goodwin discovers that a former contestant of the show received the questions and answers in advance – like Van Doren and Stemple – but had the wit to send them to himself with a stamp dated before he appeared on the show. When Goodwin confronts Enright over this, he calls the former contestant a “Greenwich Village beatnik,” as if attempting to discredit the claims of the man as just more muckraking at the hands of an anti-authoritarian troublemaker. Discredit your accuser and your alleged crime becomes irrelevant.
Stylistically speaking, it doesn’t seem like an accident that the film opens and closes with Bobby Darin’s “Mack the Knife.” Derived from The Threepenny Opera, the traditional swing version of the song from 1959 plays over the opening credits as the crew prepares for the filming of Twenty-One. The mood is light and up-tempo, although the lyrics relate to a criminal being compared to a shark – subject matter befitting the story of crimes and misdemeanors committed by sharks in business suits. However, after the Sword of Damocles has finally fallen on Charles Van Doren, Dan Enright and the whole ugly business, we see the slow-motion gyrating laughter of some hypothetical studio audience ghoulishly juxtaposed with Lyle Lovett’s “Moritat,” a slow-paced, mournful dirge that shares the same lyrics as Darin’s upbeat swing number. The notion seems to be one of elegy, of loss – the end of an age of innocence and naivety.