Quiz Show (1994)

Director: Robert Redford
Screenwriter: Paul Attanasio
Adapted from: Remembering America: A Voice From the Sixties by Richard Goodwin
Cast: John Turturro, Ralph Fiennes, Rob Morrow, David Paymer, Paul Scofield, Hank Azaria, Christopher McDonald, Mira Sorvino
Nominations: Picture, Director – Robert Redford, Supporting Actor – Paul Scofield, Adapted Screenplay

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The 67th Academy Awards ceremony is often seen as a face-off between Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994) and eventual winner Forrest Gump (Robert Zemeckis, 1994), with Tarantino’s film symbolically ushering in a new independent aesthetic to filmmaking and cinema, and Zemeckis’s film representing epic studio filmmaking and the “average man” who accomplishes great things story of Americana.  I think the more interesting head-to-head matchup is Forrest Gump against Quiz ShowForrest Gump celebrates innocence and living life simply—even if everything around you is changing drastically.  Quiz Show peels back the façade of innocence of simpler times in the United States, showing us that moral ambiguity, corruption, and deception have long been a part of pop culture and America itself.

While Dick Goodwin is essentially our point-of-view character, the film doesn’t hide the quiz show scandal from us.  Because of this, we’re able to give our allegiance to Charles Van Doren.  Sure, many of us would be like Dick, doggedly digging into every corner to find any evidence of games being fixed, but the real question of the film is what would we do if we were in Charles’s (and to an extent, Herb Stempel’s) place?  At what price would we give into temptation?  Also, both Charles and Herb had every opportunity to throw their winning streaks.  Basically, at any point in their respective appearances on 21 they could have chosen not to participate in the fix, to give the wrong answer and walk away with some of their dignity and honor intact.  Instead, they take the easy way out and let the powers-that-be dictate their lives.

What we learn from Quiz Show—that is still unfortunately true today—is that having power of any kind can provide one with immense protection.  The sponsors and the heads of the networks were never punished for their roles in fixing the outcomes of the game shows; even Dan Enright and Jack Barry had enough cushion to be ostracized for a short time before returning and finding more success in television game shows.  The real victims, of course, were those who had nothing to fall back upon.  Even in 2020, if someone knows about the quiz show scandals the first (and usually only) name they’ll be sure to mention is Charles Van Doren.  It’s almost the opposite of a conspiracy theory—an anti-JFK (Oliver Stone, 1991), if you will—in that there were a number of persons/agents/actors involved in the entire web of deceit, yet only one man shoulders the responsibility.