As much as I find myself to be the Political Antithesis of the 'Sundance Kid', Johnny Hooker, Waldo Pepper and Roy Hobbs; I do admire most of his work, both in front of and behind the Motion Picture Camera. Mr. Redford' talents match up to his 'Movie Star Good Looks' and as long his directorial jobs avoid heavy handed propaganda for the New American World Socialist Party (the Michael Moore/Jimmy Carter wing of the Democratic Party); such as that LIONS FOR LAMBS (2007) project of his.
However, 'Sundance' has proved that he can really give us a top rate 'Film', as opposed to just another 'Movie'. Just one cursory glance up and down his list of Directorial Credits, we find ORDINARY PEOPLE (Directorial Debut, 1980), A RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT (1992), THE LEGEND OF BEGGAR VANCE (2000) and today's victim, QUIZ SHOW (1994).
The story here, in this film with the most generic sounding of titles, is that of the Television's Quiz Shows' rigging scandal of the 1950's. Accusations of TV producers' providing contestants with answers to questions that would later be asked as a part of a tensely fought on-air "contest." Though there had been some early rumblings about "fix" by disgruntled Ex-Champion on TWENTY ONE, Herb Stempl, no one seemed to give any credence to such talk until there was an angry contestant on the Daytime Quiz Show, DOTTO, got angered about being double crossed. This started small, but soon now-balled into an avalanche; engulfing not only DOTTO'S and its fellow daytime 'Minor League' programs, but it also reached its tentacles up to Primetime and to THE $64,000.00 QUESTION (CBS)*, THE $64,000.00 CHALLENGE (also CBS ), but also the Jack Barry-Dan Enright production of TWENTY ONE (NBC).
Having been an eyewitness of 10 years of age, I can remember well how this series made its debut, doubling the number of "Isolation Booths" over THE $64,000.00 QUESTION'S one (1); they added the element of competition between two (2) contestants to the suspense of one contestant's sweating it out, racking his own brain in pursuit the answers. Its first few weeks on TWENTY ONE, we saw a parade of moustaches, scholarly looking spectacles and goatees; all decked out double-breasted and tweed suits. Locked in intellectual jousting, fighting to the ultimate gray matter finish, no one seemed to catch-on with the public, personality-wise . With none of these Albert Einstein and Dr. Zarkov look-alikes getting any sort of substantial advantage toward holding that coveted "21 Championship Belt", Emcee Jack Barry abruptly stopped and removed the 2 competitors; promising to bring them back at a future date. (A surefire "Kiss of Death", if you've ever heard one!) Enter the self-taught, super nerd, Herb Stempel (John Turturro).
Herb racked up an impressive string of victories over the period of several weeks, managing to eek out wins over whoever came his way. The show was gaining a following, but the seemingly colorless Mr. Stemple was just not getting over with the public. His knowledge was admirable, of course; but lacking the charisma needed in the TV Business. TWENTY ONE needed a little tweaking to get it up to the level of a Star of the First Magnitude.
Bring on Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes).
Hailing from NYC, as was reigning Champion Stempel, he and Professor Charles were nothing alike otherwise. Herb was a Jew, educated in NYC's Schools and at the City College of New York, employed as some sort of clerical job. On the other hand, the WASP, Van Doren, was the son of a long tenured Literary Professor at the Ivy League, Columbia University. Charles qualified as an aristocrat, a blue blooded upper crust socialite. The Van Dorens no doubt, did not cross the Atlantic on board the Mayflower, but they surely were there when the trinkets were traded for Manhattan Island.
Furthermore, the youthful, handsome and very eligible Charles proved to have a wide appeal to men and even wider sex appeal to the lovely, young ladies. Either way, Van Doren's entry into the fray created a super charged interest in all things academic. His face appeared everywhere, even on the cover of Time Magazine. ** So the nation was now witness a series of long, and drawn-out matches, all of which led them to ties, no decisions and great serialized TV fun and excitement. The "Nervous Nerd" Stempel vs. "Prof" Van Doren was truly a 15 Round Bout, winner take all.
And finally the day, or rather, the evening came along when, at last the Van Doren-Stempel feud would be decided with Herb's answering "ON THE WATERFRONT", instead of the correct "MARTY". *** Mr. Van Doren began a long run in the King's Chair; one in which he lost a lot of weight and began looking frail and worn; until he also lost to whoever. Then it became readily apparent that a real problem existed and a Congressional Sub-Committee had convened with the purpose of getting to the bottom of things, PDQ.
Yes, Mr. Redford, we heartily concur that this was a great production of a story that had to be told. Thanks Bob and by the way, who was this Mamie? (Mamie Van Doren, not Mamie Eisenhower, Schultz!)
NOTE: * On the Radio, during its Golden Era, there had been a program titled "THE $64 QUESTION; hence
NOTE: ** Perhaps in an indirect way, this infatuation with book learnin' was responsible for CBS TV's COLLEGE BOWL and the Local Market Franchised IT'S ACADEMIC.
NOTE: *** The Question that Herb Stempel was forced to blow was "What was the Movie that won the 1955 Oscar for Best Picture?"