Essay Quiz Show

Quiz Show Essay

Charles Van Doren has a life that many people would be envious of. He is a member of one of the country’s most intellectual and well respected families. His uncle, Carl, is a noted historian and his father, Mark, is a distinguished professor at Columbia University as well as Pulitzer-prize winning poet. Even his mother, Dorothy, is a well known author with several highly recognized pieces of literature. Charles is following in his father’s footsteps as he works as an instructor at Columbia preparing to take over for his father once he retires. Unfortunately for Van Doren, he feels that he lacks an identity in this family of overachievers. At this point in his life, he believes that he should have accomplished enough that people don’t have to refer to him as “the son” but rather address him by his name. Clearly Van Doren doesn’t realize how fortunate he is and that compared to nearly all the men in America, he is still more of a success than any of them will ever be. This insecurity and tragic flaw will ultimately lead to his demise over the course of the film. The question becomes not whether or not this tragic hero will do anything to gain the spotlight that his relatives have gained but rather to what extent will he be willing to compromise his values in the process.
The second scene of the film displays the seemingly secure process in which the questions for the show are taken to the studio. They are taken from a vault at the bank by police officers and there is a large procession that hand delivers the questions to the studio. It makes the viewer think that the whole quiz show thing is completely fraud-free. The camera then shows how such shows have captivated audiences around the country. Everyone wants to be a part of the phenomenon of quiz shows even if it means simply watching the show on television from their home. The audience ranges from couples to families to even nuns. Yet the corruption is shown very early in the show as an executive makes a phone call to inform a producer that they want to get rid of the current winner on the show, Herbert Stempel, because he is getting tired of him. Stempel, who is a working class Jewish man from Queens, NY, has had an amazing run on the quiz show “Twenty-One”. He has won a great deal of money and is milking the glory for all it’s worth. When he returns to his modest neighborhood, he is treated like a king; something he has never experienced in his life and likely will never again. He does not have to take the subway back but rather arrives in a town car furnished by NBC and all of his neighbors are outside waiting to praise him. Walking into his house, he proclaims, “The Genius is home, the rich genius is home.” The glory and fame has gone to his head and he refuses to take his good fortune with modesty.
The third scene of the film goes to a book signing where the viewer meets the Van Doren family for the first time. Mark Van Doren has recently released a new book and he is there to sign copies...

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The nominal focus of "Quiz Show" is the patrician, erudite Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes), whose string of canned victories on "Twenty-One" once riveted the nation. He is seen in pointed contrast to the other main characters: Herbert Stempel (John Turturro), the wild-eyed, nontelegenic contestant whom he unseats; Dick Goodwin (Rob Morrow), who investigates the quiz show scandal for Congress, and Mark Van Doren (Paul Scofield), the literary lion whose reputation casts a long shadow over his son.

Charlie is also contrasted with the television talent that winds up shaping his fate, including Jack Barry (Christopher MacDonald), the professionally suave host of "Twenty-One." Glimpsing the authentically refined Charlie for the first time at NBC's offices, Barry asks amazedly, "Why would a guy like that want to be on a quiz show?"

That's the $64,000 question. The film's answer is clearest during a bravura garden party set in Connecticut, where Mark Van Doren's birthday is being celebrated by family and friends. The latter group includes Thomas Merton and Edmund Wilson (presented with perfect casualness by Mr. Redford), and the conversation runs to erudite quips and quotations from Shakespeare. But the young women at the table are more interested in asking Charlie about Dave Garroway, the "Today" show celebrity. And everyone's ears prick up at the mention of Charlie's substantial winnings.

Charlie, enjoying a family supremacy that has not been his before, then presents his father with a television set, something the senior Van Dorens have never owned. Mr. Redford and Paul Attanasio, who wrote the perceptive screenplay, suggest just how easily a television-based culture will sweep this world away.

If Charlie is the film's supposed center, he also poses a dramatic problem. Even without knowing the facts that shape this story, viewers will sense that some figures, who either are dead or cooperated with the film makers, lend themselves to more dramatic license than the reclusive Mr. Van Doren, who has refused to talk about these events and remains out of reach. The film has a fine idea of how the Van Dorens' genteel father-son rivalry might have contributed to Charlie's cheating, but it's barely plausible about the other particulars of his life. (Not mentioned: that he married a woman he had hired to answer fan mail.)

So the role is thin, but Charlie still successfully embodies something Mr. Redford himself has conveyed as an actor: that when golden boys elicit special treatment, they are left with a special sense of failure. "I have flown too high on borrowed wings," Charlie says ultimately, making his extraordinary confession to a Congressional committee. "Everything came too easy. That is why I am here today."

Nothing comes easily for Herbert Stempel, played with such glee and fury by the scene-stealing Mr. Turturro that he becomes the film's most magnetic figure. An improbable television star as the story begins, he wears a look of frenzied disbelief as the quiz show's masterminds throw him overboard. ("I guess the sponsor wants a guy on 'Twenty-One' who looks like he could get a table at '21,' " someone acknowledges early in the story.)

In a restaurant scene that is another of this film's high points, Stempel loses his fragile composure when told by Dan Enright (David Paymer), the show's producer, that he is expected to lose in a particularly embarrassing way. As Stempel grasps the full extent to which the Van Dorens of this world will always outdo him, the camera (beautifully handled by Michael Ballhaus, in a film of deep, burnished colors) gives the moment an added cruelty by simply gliding away.

Mr. Redford, always a fine director of actors, elicits knowing, meticulous performances. One hallmark of this film's high caliber is that its smaller performances are impeccable. There are memorable cameos from Barry Levinson as Dave Garroway and Martin Scorsese as the quiz show's cool, ruthless sponsor. Allan Rich, as NBC's president, has the gruff assurance of a real executive, and all of the principals' family members look and sound right.

Among the principals, Mr. Fiennes sometimes appears to be working in a vacuum as the bland, idealized Charlie, who can be as dreamily pretty as an old-fashioned crooner. But he is brought into focus by his razor-sharp scenes with Mr. Scofield, and by the memory of "Schindler's List," which underscores his astonishing range. Mr. Scofield is a marvel, managing in one brief performance to convey so much about an American as particular as Mark Van Doren, and so much that is universal between accomplished fathers and their sons.

Mr. Morrow faces a difficult job, since the film ascribes too much crusading nobility to Mr. Goodwin, and since Mr. Redford's own acting career has helped make the heroics of the lone investigator look so familiar. But the performance is vigorous, and when the film sets Goodwin between Stempel and Van Doren, it touches currents of anti-Semitism, self-deception and golden-boy quicksand that once again lift it out of the ordinary.

Also deserving special mention are Johann Carlo as the long-suffering Mrs. Stempel and Hank Azaria, as the NBC executive who makes a comic foil to Mr. Paymer's grim Enright. Together, these two lure Van Doren into his Faustian deal. But "Quiz Show" is too good to make them easy villains. "I've learned a lot about good and evil," Charlie finally tells Congress. "They're not always what they appear to be." Seldom has a movie about dissolving morality made that more clear.

"Quiz Show" is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). It includes no violence, no sexual situations and occasional mild profanity. It is quite suitable for older children.


Produced and directed by Robert Redford; written by Paul Attanasio, based on the book by Richard N. Goodwin; director of photography, Michael Ballhaus; film editor, Stu Linder; music by Mark Isham; production designer, Jon Hutman; released by Hollywood Pictures. Running time: 120 minutes. This film is rated PG-13. WITH: Hank Azaria (Albert Freedman), Ralph Fiennes (Charles Van Doren), Rob Morrow (Dick Goodwin), David Paymer (Dan Enright), Paul Scofield (Mark Van Doren) and John Turturro (Herbert Stemple).

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