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Cultural critics love to pinpoint the exact moment when America lost its innocence, as if a vaguely defined development in mass psychology can be boiled down to a single event. Some people claim that we shut down our collective faith after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Others name the assassination of John F. Kennedy, or the nightmare of Vietnam, or even the more recent horror of September 11th as the turning point. If you buy into this theory, it would seem that the Civil War beats every other earth-shaking event to the punch, but Robert Redford maintains that our simplicity was forever shattered by a rigged TV game show called 21!
Quiz Show (1994), Redford's Oscar®-nominated depiction of a theoretically bygone era when Americans believed almost everything they were told - see modern politics for ample evidence of our continuing gullibility - is a meticulously designed period piece that features several fine performances.But not everyone was buying it. Although the film was well-received by critics and audiences alike, Redford was accused in some quarters of turning 21's producers into outright villains, rather than decent men who pushed a piece of disposable entertainment way too far.
The movie opens in New York in 1957, where a rather dumpy intellectual named Herbie Stempel (John Turturro) is the current champion of 21. The network, however, wants a more photogenic title holder that viewers will want to root for. So producer Dan Enright (David Paymer) convinces a well-bred Columbia University professor named Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes) to take part in a little ruse that will eventually snowball into a national scandal: Van Doren will be coached in subtle ways to increase the dramatic tension on the show...and, of course, he'll be fed the proper answers.
Van Doren, whose father (Paul Scofield) is a respected Pulitzer Prize winning author, becomes America's first instant TV star, and Stempel angrily re-adjusts to his previous standing as an unattractive schmuck. But a Congressional lawyer named Richard Goodwin (Rob Morrow, attempting a Boston accent) catches wind that something fishy may be going on, and proceeds to "befriend" Van Doren while investigating whether or not Charlie and the show's producers have been pulling the wool over the American public's eyes.
Redford gets most of the details right, although he and screenwriter Paul Attanasio had to compress characters so they wouldn't greatly exceed a two-hour running time.In real-life, CBS went through a lot of trouble to "cast" their contestants.Five employees sorted through 15,000-20,000 letters a week, looking for people who seemed to be smart enough to answer the arcane questions that would be lobbed at them, but could also be manipulated into appearing as certain archetypes.
"You want the viewer to react emotionally to a contestant," Enright said."Whether he reacts favorably or negatively is really not that important.The important thing is that he react." Enright felt there was something intrinsically smug and unlikable about Stempel, and that viewers would sit with baited breath waiting for him to lose. And he was right.
Stempel knew what was going on: "The reason I had been asked to put on this old, ill-fitting suit and get this Marine-type haircut," he later said, "was to appear as what you would call today, a nerd, a square." All Van Doren had to do was show up with his smooth self-effacement and a casual suit and tie to seem like an urbane intellectual. His real tragedy probably wasn't that he participated in such a massive ruse, but that he grew to love it so much he didn't know when to stop. He now stands as a uniquely tragic American figure.
Redford claims that he was never fooled by Van Doren's performance when the show originally aired. "There was an arrogance about (Van Doren)," Redford says, "yet he feigned a kind of innocence. And as I watched him coming up with these incredible answers, the actor in me said: I don't buy it. I remember that vividly. But what's weird is I never doubted the show. I didn't take it to the next step and say, 'The show is rigged, it's all bullshit.' I just didn't, I couldn't."
Strangely enough, Redford himself participated in this sort of thing in 1959, a year after the scandal occurred, when he appeared on a Merv Griffin-hosted show called Play Your Hunch. The producer wouldn't accept the fact that Redford was merely a struggling actor from Los Angeles, so they goosed him into saying - truthfully, it should be noted - that he was also an artist.
When Griffin interviewed Redford on the air, he was ready with a string of witty one-liners about the good-looking contestant who was an artist. "Oh, it was so awful," Redford later said, "just so horrible. But what impressed me was that I could feel the hype. I mean, people would talk to me normally backstage, and suddenly the show went on and EVERYBODY WAS TALKING LIKE THIS. Everybody was hyperventilating. At first I said, 'Jesus, this is cornball.' It was so calculated, but then it got to me."
Redford put up with the embarrassment because he had a pregnant wife and badly needed the $75 he was promised for appearing. But it didn't quite work out that way: "When (the game) was over, the announcer cried, 'And now the prize for our subjects. From Abercrombie & Fitch- a fishing rod!' Afterwards I went up to the guy and said, 'Where's my dough?' And he said, 'Well, the rod's worth $75.'"
Director: Robert Redford
Producers: Robert Redford, Michael Jacobs, Julian Krainin, Michael Nozik
Screenplay: Paul Attanasio (adapted from the book, Remembering America: A Voice from the Sixties, by Richard N. Goodwin)
Cinematographer: Michael Ballhaus
Editor: Stu Linder
Music: Mark Isham
Production Design: Jon Hutman
Art Design: Tim Galvin
Set Design: Samara Schaffer
Costume Design: Kathy O'Rear
Principal Cast: Ralph Fiennes (Charles Van Doren), Rob Morrow (Richard Goodwin), John Turturro (Herb Stempel), Paul Scofield (Mark Van Doren), David Paymer (Dan Enright), Hank Azaria (Albert Freedman), Christopher McDonald (Jack Barry), Johann Carlo (Toby Stempel), Elizabeth Wilson (Dorothy Van Doren), Allan Rich (Robert Kintner), Timothy Busfield (Fred).
C-133m. Letterboxed. Closed Captioning.
by Paul Tatara