CLASSIC REVIEW: Quiz Show (1994)

Theatrical Release Poster – Hollywood Pictures.

The following is a classic review of Quiz Show (1994), a Robert Redford film.

Delbert Mann’s Marty – the Academy Awards Best Picture winner for 1955 – the answer that Herb Stempel wasn’t allowed to give on the quiz show ‘Twenty One’. That is what sets this adaptation of Richard Goodwin’s Remembering America: A Voice From the Sixties in motion. It took me a long time to finally sit down and watch Robert Redford’s Quiz Show, don’t make that same mistake. Quiz Show is a must-watch film, one of the best of the 90s, and arguably Redford’s best film as a director.  

Quiz Show follows the investigation of the quiz show scandal involving NBC’s ‘Twenty One’, in which it was revealed that multiple contestants, including Herb Stempel (played by John Turturro) and Charles Van Doren (played by Ralph Fiennes), were coached to help the show’s ratings and sponsors. The film remarkably deals with the sense of familiarity that comes along with celebrity, as well as age old ideas of deception and one’s 15-minutes of fame.

Quiz Show was Robert Redford’s fourth film as a director, and is, in my opinion, his very greatest. In the film, he brings out these very bare and real performances, particularly from Paul Scofield, who plays Van Doren’s father. It is a very genuine performance, and his conversations with Fiennes feel honest, at least his side of the conversation. His character needed a warm, bare, yet unassuming portrayal, and that is exactly what earned Paul Scofield an Academy Award nomination.

John Turturro and Ralph Fiennes, however, were overlooked by the Academy. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen Turturro better than he is portraying Herb Stempel, though he doesn’t do anything out of the ordinary for that class of actor he just is perfectly cast. Fiennes is the actor who steals the movie, in my opinion. He steals the spotlight away from both Murrow and Turturro, and it is probably one of my favorite Fiennes performances. One of the minor roles in the film is played by Martin Scorsese, which I hadn’t expected. Also, one odd cameo caught my eye. Ethan Hawke appears as a student of Mark Van Doren, I would like to know the story behind that cameo, but I digress.

My very favorite scene in the entire film comes at the very end, as Charles Van Doren reads his statement at the hearing. Redford perfectly illustrates a point that had been made earlier in the film. On NBC’s ‘Twenty One’, they had created everyone’s best friend. Charles had been put on a pedestal, and become admired as ‘the professor’, but also as an acquaintance. People wanted him to win, and his statement turned the crowd sour.

You see the photographers almost not believing what they’re hearing. You see the crowd change their opinion of him gradually. Where they once showed distrust of the hearing, they now showed resentment for one of the many men implicit in the scandal. The only difference between Charles and the others was that he was their ‘friend’. It is a masterful scene.

If the film fails in any way, it is to properly find its point of view, which is to say that Richard Goodwin should have felt more like the main character of the film, whereas the writers and the director focused too much on the Van Doren-family to make that happen. Thus the bittersweet feeling at the end of the film isn’t due to what happens to Goodwin’s case, it’s due to the treatment of Van Doren.

9 out of 10

I’m Jeffrey Rex


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