These days, few people trust what they see on television. We are a much more skeptical consumer than in TV’s golden age. Back in the 1950s, game shows were some of the most popular programs but when they proved to be corrupt, America lost a part of its innocence. This is the story of that fall. It’s 1994’s Quiz Show.
When the ratings for current champion Herbert Stempel (John Turturro) of the popular game show Twenty-One “plateaus”, the producers look to make a change and find their replacement in handsome university professor Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes), the son of a famous poet and writer. The problem is, the producers can’t take a risk that Stempel can be beat without help and so make arrangements to help Van Doren win. They cheat. Upset by the aftermath, even though he’s complicit in the deal, Stempel raises a stink and soon a Harvard lawyer begins poking around. What he finds changes the face of TV entertainment.
Directed by Robert Redford, this historically fictionalized version of the real Twenty One scandal was a box office disappointment but was critically acclaimed and nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture. The story is really very compelling and Redford’s direction is sharp and innovative, but it’s the excellent performances from the entire cast that propel this film forward.
There’s little concern in spoiling the film, like revealing that the Titanic sinks at the end of that film. Even though we know the ending, it’s the characters leading us there that make it so watchable. Turturro is astonishingly good as the manipulated but highly intelligent Stempel caught in the cogs and mangled. But it is the engaging Van Doren character that is the most challenging of the leads, performed by Fiennes with a bittersweet sense of irony. He knows he’s doing wrong but once he experiences how good that wrong feels, it’s like a drug, but more accurately, a poison. There are several very effective moments in this movie, but let’s focus on a quiet scene between a man and his father.
A Father’s Pride
Charles comes from a well-known literary family. His parents are both accomplished writers and have a reputation as one of the most intellectual families in the country. Charles teaches at Columbia University and has a knack for memory. Goaded by his friends, he heads to NBC to audition for a simple game show called Tic-Tac-Dough but when producer Albert Freedman (Hank Azaria) spots him, recognizing who he is, he knows he’s got the man to finally replace the less-than-TV ready Stempel.
He is invited into the office of producer Dan Enright (David Paymer), and asked to join the more popular Twenty-One. Humble Van Doren balks, thinking he can’t beat the current champ, but the producers hint at a way around it. They’ll give him the answers. This shocks Van Doren, who outright says no, but the producers have a way with words, twisting it so it seems almost fair. In the end, it’s suggested that they were only testing him and in fact, all will be legit. Van Doren agrees. There are things happening with Stempel that he is unaware of, of course. Other arrangements are being secured. When he appears on the show, all seems in line until a crucial question is asked. It’s one he was given during the audition. Van Doren knows the answer, but he also recognizes that they lied. At a crossroads, he makes a fateful choice.
Van Doren decides to play along, convincing himself at first that he’s not cheating. The sudden fame changes him. He loves the spotlight. He adores it. Plus there’s the money. Lot’s of it. He goes on a ‘winning’ streak that sets viewing records for the station. It earns him appearances on other televisions shows. And his class at Columbia is now filled with students. Most, young women. Meanwhile, Stempel is disappointed by his treatment in the arrangement and his actions stir the interest of Richard Goodwin (Rob Morrow), a young Congressional lawyer on the House subcommittee on legislative oversight. He decides to investigate.
Goodwin suspects something is not right and heads to New York City to get answers. Eventually, he meets Van Doren and hopes the popular contestant can give him some insight on the goings on behind the show. He’s still sniffing and doesn’t suspect Van Doren. Van Doren is immediately awash in guilt and covers this by attempting to befriend the lawyer, who is his intellectual equal. It works, and Goodwin even accompanies Van Doren to a family gathering to meet Van Doren’s parents. All the while, Van Doren is feeling a weight. Goodwin begins to see the cracks.
The moment begins after Goodwin learns from Stempel that he received the answers to the questions and therefore all other winning contestants must have also. Goodwin is reluctant to believe, but digs deeper and a dark cloud of conspiracy begins to churn. He starts to think Van Doren may be in on the deceit. And he lets his new friend know it.
One late evening, Van Doren escapes the crush of his life in New York City and visits his parents home in Connecticut. They are asleep and so Charles, in the home he grew up in, cuts himself a slice of leftover birthday cake from father’s celebration, opens a bottle of cold milk and retires to darkened sitting room and reflects on some family portraits before taking a seat at a rustic table.
In walks his father, draped in a robe. He smiles at the sight of his son and joins him. Charles admits he needed a break from the city and so the two begin to talk, and soon it turns to the show.
Martin Van Doren (Paul Scofield) is an impressively intimidating man. A regal voice with nearly unmatched knowledge of history and literature, the elder Van Doren is a kindly man who recognizes something is troubling his son. He grabs a fork and begins to share the cake.
He compliments Charles on his ability to handle the lights, the money, the booths, and the host talking so fast. He comments that it would be difficult under those circumstances to even remember his name let alone complex trivia answers. He goes on to say that it’s amazing Charles can make it look so easy, extolling how Charles’ mother always said he was the actor in the family.
Naturally, it strikes a chord with Charles, who uncomfortably soaks in the compliment that is altogether too close to home. He stares with great pains at his father, the guilt seeping venomously into his famously cool façade. Martin looks in concern.
It appears that Charles is about to break, to confess to his father the unfortunate mess he’s found himself in. It would be the ideal time, and knowing what we do of Martin, one that would be handled dignified. Charles knows he must. As he learns later, he is not an island. His name is his father’s name. Reputations are for a lifetime. But Charles can’t bring himself to admit that he is cheating. Instead, he inquires about the pressure his dad felt when completing a book. Martin relaxes and delights in telling a quick story about one of his more famous works.
Not truly listening, Charles is lost in thought. He speaks of a memory of his youth, about coming home as a child to the wonder of cold milk and a piece of cake. It was so simple.
Let’s pause here and consider the cake story. It’s a touching commentary on his childhood and it reveals much to the audience. It embraces everything about the life he once had, a life without want. He has security and comfort. The cake itself represents the home life he grew up in, the rich foods and favor he now takes for granted. It’s not that he was sheltered or given false expectations, but that he was deeply cared for. That is something a man recognizes but a child cannot. So profoundly impactful is this memory, he remarks that he can’t think of anything in his life that will make that happy again. There is a pause on the other side of the table as Martin hears Charles offers praise of his youth. Then he replies: “Not ’til you have a son.”
Charles Van Doren is a good man. There is no question of this. His morality and questionable actions in the face of easy wealth and fame have crippled the fundamental values he accepted as truth and his corruption of the standards his family taught him fester in him like a disease. He knows this. He lives it. It is strangling him from the inside out. Yet he is trapped. Escaping to his youthful home, he is like a boy hiding in his room, safe from the world outside. The comfort and security of his childhood is meant to be a bastion of safety and freedom of guilt. What he finds instead is a proud father, a man so resolved to the belief that his son is as incorruptible as he, he states there is nothing better in his life than raising him. What should be the most touching moment between a father and son remains so for the father, but for the son is a scathing reminder of the letdown soon to come.
Paul Attanasio (screenplay), Richard N. Goodwin (book)
Ralph Fiennes, John Turturro, Rob Morrow, Paul Scofield, David Paymer, Hank Azaria