A national scandal that arguably inflicted an early wound on the American postwar moral fiber is smoothly dramatized in Robert Redford’s Quiz Show, with colorful, bright characters playing out a lamentable true-life scenario against the lively backdrop of ’50s television and the vibrant New York City of the era.
Redford and screenwriter Paul Attanasio [working from Richard N. Goodwin’s book Remembering America: A Voice from the Sixties] telescope history rather severely in squeezing the events of the three years into a matter of months. But if the film lacks an edge of excitement and daring, the story still proves strongly engrossing.
Set in 1958, pic sweeps the viewer into a live broadcast of the NBC game show Twenty-One. King of Twenty-One is Herbie Stempel (John Turturro), a brainy, ill-mannered Jewish grad student from Queens. The show’s producer, Dan Enright (David Paymer), asks Stempel to take a dive for a large fee, thus allowing the handsome, brilliant, patrician Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes), to be crowned.
Van Doren goes along with the ruse, persuaded that it’s been done that way all along and no one will ever know. But shadowing it all is young Dick Goodwin (Rob Morrow), a similarly bright Harvard grad holding down a Washington entry-level job on the House Subcommittee on Legislative Oversight. Goodwin scours Gotham checking things out for himself.
Quiz show sequences are craftily done, and New York in the city’s heyday of the ’50s is deftly evoked. Turturro, who put on considerable poundage for the role, is a perfect Stempel – pushy, nervous, uncouth. Morrow captures a quiet wryness along with Goodwin’s intelligence and drive, but his Boston accent ranges all up and down the Eastern seaboard. Similarly, Fiennes cuts a winning figure as Van Doren, but he can’t keep his English accent suppressed for long.
1994: Nominations: Best Picture, Director, Supp. Actor (Paul Scofield), Adapted Screenplay