Quiz Show (film)

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Quiz Show
Quiz Show theatrical poster
Directed by Robert Redford
Produced by Robert Redford
Michael Jacobs
Julian Krainin
Michael Nozik
Screenplay by Paul Attanasio
Based on Remembering America: A Voice From the Sixties 
by Richard Goodwin
Starring John Turturro
Rob Morrow
Ralph Fiennes
Music by Mark Isham
Cinematography Michael Ballhaus
Edited by Stu Linder
Distributed by Buena Vista Pictures
Release dates
  • September 14, 1994 (1994-09-14)
Running time
133 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $31 million[1]
Box office $24,822,619[2]

Quiz Show is a 1994 American historical comedy-drama film produced and directed by Robert Redford, and written by Paul Attanasio, based on Richard N. Goodwin's memoir Remembering America: A Voice From the Sixties. It stars John Turturro, Rob Morrow, and Ralph Fiennes, with Paul Scofield, David Paymer, Hank Azaria, and Christopher McDonald appearing in supporting roles.[3][4]

The film chronicles the Twenty One quiz show scandals of the 1950s, the rise and fall of popular contestant Charles Van Doren after the rigged loss of Herb Stempel, and Congressional investigator Richard Goodwin's subsequent probe. Goodwin co-produced the film. Though the film was a box office disaster, it received generally positive reviews and was nominated for several accolades, including a Best Picture Oscar and several Golden Globes.


From a secure bank vault, the answers to the questions on Twenty One, a popular television quiz show, are sent into a television studio as studio producers Dan Enright (David Paymer) and Albert Freedman (Hank Azaria) watch from the control booth. The evening's main attraction is Queens resident Herb Stempel (John Turturro), the reigning champion, who answers question after question. However, both the network, NBC, and the corporate sponsor of the program, a supplementary tonic called Geritol, find that Stempel's approval ratings are beginning to level out, meaning the show would benefit from new talent.

Enright and Freedman find a new contestant in Columbia University instructor Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes), son of the renowned poet and intellectual Mark Van Doren (Paul Scofield) and the novelist Dorothy Van Doren (Elizabeth Wilson). The producers subtly offer to rig the show for him but Van Doren uprightly refuses. Enright soon treats Stempel to dinner at an upscale restaurant, where he breaks the news that Stempel must lose in order to boost flagging ratings. Stempel begrudgingly agrees, only on the condition that he remains on television, threatening to reveal the true reason of his success: the answers had been provided for him.

Stempel and Van Doren face each other in Twenty One, where the match comes down to a predetermined question regarding Marty, the 1955 winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture. Despite knowing the correct film, Stempel gives the wrong answer of On the Waterfront, allowing Van Doren to get a question he previously answered while in Enright's offices; he provides the winning response.

In the weeks that follow, Van Doren's winning streak makes him a national celebrity. Buckling under the new pressure, he begins to let the producers directly give him the answers instead of researching for them himself. Meanwhile, Stempel, having lost his financial prize winnings to a fleeting bookie, begins threatening legal action against the NBC network after weeks go by without his return to television. He is shown going into the office of New York County District Attorney Frank Hogan.

Richard N. "Dick" Goodwin (Rob Morrow), a young Congressional lawyer from Harvard Law, becomes intrigued when he reads that the grand jury's findings from Hogan's proceedings are sealed. He travels to New York to investigate rumors of rigged quiz shows. Visiting a number of contestants, including Stempel and Van Doren, he begins to suspect Twenty One is indeed a fixed operation. However, Stempel is a volatile personality and nobody else seems to corroborate that the show is rigged. Goodwin enjoys the company of Van Doren, who invites him to social gatherings, and doubts a man of Van Doren's background and intellect would be involved in the hoax.

Stempel desperately confesses to being in on the fix himself, and further insists that if he got the answers in advance, Van Doren did as well. This wins Stempel an angry tell-off from his wife, who believed in him. With the evidence mounting, Van Doren deliberately loses, but is rewarded with a sizable contract from NBC to appear as a special correspondent on the Today show.

Meanwhile, Goodwin proceeds with the hearings before the House Committee for Legislative Oversight, with extended proof of the show's corruption. Goodwin strongly advises Van Doren to avoid making any public statements supporting the show. If he agrees to this, Goodwin promises not to call Van Doren to appear before the Congressional committee. However, at the prompting of the NBC network head, Van Doren issues a statement reaffirming his trust in the honesty of the quiz show.

Stempel testifies before Congress and, while doing so, implicates Van Doren, forcing Goodwin to call him in as a witness. Van Doren goes before Congress and publicly admits his role in the conspiracy. At first, Congress is very impressed with him, but one Congressman from New York is unimpressed and puts Van Doren in his place, turning the tide against him. Afterward, he is informed by reporters of his firing from Today as well as the university's decision to ask for his resignation.

Goodwin believes he is on the verge of a victory against Geritol and the network, but instead realizes that Enright and Freedman will not turn in their bosses and jeopardize their own futures in television; he silently watches the producers' testimony, vindicating the sponsors and the network from any wrongdoing.


Historical comparison[edit]

Journalist Ken Auletta, in a 1994 article in The New Yorker, noted that Redford conceded at a screening of the film that summer that "dramatic license" was taken in making Quiz Show. Redford made no apologies for the liberties, which included telescoping three years of scandal into one. Redford stated that he had tried "to elevate something so that people can see it ... otherwise, you might as well have a documentary."[5] Redford noted there had already been a documentary on the scandal, referring to the Julian Krainin-produced work for a 1992 installment of the PBS series The American Experience.[5]

In a July 2008 edition of The New Yorker, Van Doren writes about the events depicted in the film, agreeing with many of the details but also saying that he had a regular girlfriend (who eventually became his wife) at the time he was on Twenty-One, who is not present in the film depiction. Van Doren also notes that he continued teaching, contrary to the film's epilogue which states he never returned to doing so.[6]


Box office[edit]

The film opened in limited release on September 14, 1994. After its initial run, the film grossed a domestic total of $24,822,619 and was a box office bomb.[2]

Critical reception[edit]

As of July 15, 2013, it had a 96% rating from Rotten Tomatoes.[7] Film critic Roger Ebert gave the film 3-and-a-half stars out of four, calling the screenplay "smart, subtle and ruthless".[8] Web critic James Berardinelli praised the "superb performances by Fiennes", and said "John Turturro is exceptional as the uncharismatic Herbie Stempel."[9]


Robert Redford was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Director, the Academy Award for Best Picture (alongside Michael Jacobs, Julian Krainin, and Michael Nozik), the BAFTA Award for Best Film (alongside Jacobs, Krainin, and Nozik), the Golden Globe Award for Best Director, the Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture – Drama, and the Directors Guild of America Award for Outstanding Directing – Feature Film.

Paul Attanasio won the BAFTA Award for Best Adapted Screenplay and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, and the Golden Globe Award for Best Screenplay.

Paul Scofield was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, the BAFTA Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role, the Dallas–Fort Worth Film Critics Association Award for Best Supporting Actor, the National Society of Film Critics Award for Best Supporting Actor, and the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Supporting Actor.

John Turturro was nominated for the Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor – Motion Picture, the Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Supporting Role, and the Chicago Film Critics Association Award for Best Supporting Actor.


  1. ^ Box Office Information for Quiz Show. The Wrap. Retrieved April 4, 2013.
  2. ^ a b "Quiz Show (1994)". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved 2010-07-28. 
  3. ^ David Ansen (September 18, 1994). "When America Lost Its Innocence--Maybe". Newsweek. 
  4. ^ Maslin, Janet (September 14, 1994). "QUIZ SHOW; Good and Evil in a More Innocent Age". The New York Times. 
  5. ^ a b Auletta, Ken (September 19, 1994). "The $64,000 Question". The New Yorker: 48. 
  6. ^ Van Doren, Charles (July 28, 2008). "All The Answers". The New Yorker. Retrieved May 8, 2013. 
  7. ^ "Quiz Show, Rotten Tomatoes". Rottentomatoes.com. Retrieved 2013-12-13. 
  8. ^ Roger Ebert. "Quiz Show". September 16, 1994.
  9. ^ James Berardinelli. "Quiz Show". ReelViews.

External links[edit]