ALPHABET MOVIE CLUB: Quiz Show
WEEK 18: "Q"
Nominees: Quadrophenia, The Queen, The Quiet American, The Quiet Man, Quiz Show
Winner: Quiz Show
Background: Nominated for four Academy Awards after its release in 1994, Robert Redford directed an impressive historical film Quiz Show that was eclipsed that year by the awards juggernaut that was Forrest Gump and has since been overshadowed by its fellow nominees Pulp Fiction and The Shawshank Redemption. Even with a recount today, 18 years later, Quiz Show probably still finishes a forgotten fourth. It's a shame because it might be Redford's most polished work as a director.
Based on the actual Twenty One quiz show scandal of the 1950s, Quiz Show outlines three different lead points of view. We are first introduced to Congressional lawyer Dick Goodwin (Rob Morrow, right towards the end of his Northern Exposure hey-day) who is trying to fight his footing to make a difference right out of Harvard Law. He, like so many other Americans, is an avid fan of the NBC game show Twenty One, hosted by Jack Barry (Christopher McDonald). The current reigning champion on Twenty One is the awkwardly dorky Queens resident Herbert Stempel (John Turturro, in one of his best performances and one miles away from Transformers). While Herbert has the "everyman" quality of an underdog, his popularity has plateaued with control booth producers Dan Enright and Albert Freedman (the perfect pair of David Paymer and Hank Azaria). Those two want someone new and more attractive.
Enter Charles Van Doren (played by Ralph Fiennes, his follow-up to his breakout and Oscar-nominated villain from Schindler's List the year before). Charles is a good-looking, single, and successful instructor from Columbia University. He comes from money and American success through his intellectual poet father Mark (Academy Award nominee for this role Paul Scofield) and novelist mother Dorothy (Elizabeth Wilson). Once Freedman spots him at a game tryout, he and Enright position him to beat Herbert. To do so, they have to convince Herbert to take a dive and, on the other side, rig the supposedly bank-vault secret questions in Charles's favor. However, once Herbert takes his dive and is left in the cold, so to speak, by the network, he starts the legal snowball that eventually gets Dick Goodwin involved. With the ruse becoming more and more deep to keep Charles on top, the pressure of potential secrets increases.
Reaction: 4 STARS-- Along with some of my fellow Alphabet Club members and moderators, I am one of the few fans of this movie. I've always liked it and felt bad for its luck running into Forrest Gump, The Shawshank Redemption, and Pulp Fiction in 1994. In a different year, Quiz Show wins a few more awards on my ballot, but it's still fourth out of those four, but not by a large distance.
Of the eight films Redford has directed (with a ninth coming out this year) in his career, I still name Quiz Show his most polished. Filled with pitch-perfect performances from reliate actors across the board, a smart (and Oscar-nominated) screenplay from Paul Attanasio (who went on to create TV's House), and dynamite period detail, Quiz Show looks the part of an Oscar winner and gains my respect. The film, despite a setting that could have turned into a really long courtroom drama, keeps the intrigue level above average with the variety of its three leads, Fiennes, Turturro, and Morrow. Though Scofield got the Oscar nomination, either of the three could have joined him.
The whole true story behind the real-life scandal and the film is fascinating and worth some independent research beyond the movie. When compared to the movie's peers about television or national scandal, even with the luster and grandeur of its television subject matter, Quiz Show does lack the sexy sizzle and simmering boil of mysteries with more twists and scandals with more suspense and risk. While extremely well-made, the movie is, essentially, the grandest story possible of a loud slap on the wrist. Like the great line that Hank Azaria's character closes the movie with in voice-over, "It's not like we're hardened criminals here. We're in show business."
LESSON #1: TELEVISION IS A PUBLIC TRUST, OR AT LEAST WE THINK IT IS-- In one of the many parallels between the early days of television in Quiz Show and today is the perceived truth and trust on television. Back then, it was entertainment that was manipulated. Today, with bias news stations and the deluge of so-called reality and unscripted-but-really-scripted TV, the old adage of "people will believe anything they see on TV" still, unfortunately, applies. There needs to be less gullibility in our over-entertained country and we should have learned our lesson 50 years ago.
LESSON #2: ALL OF NEW YORK IS NOT "NEW YORK"-- Whether it's Martin Scorsese's clever slimy character reminding us or a movie congressman, someone from one burrough is not the same as someone from another, whether it's Queens, Manhattan, Staten Island, Brooklyn, or the Bronx. Those of us who are non-New Yorkers don't get it, but know that they are truly a different melting pot and different brand of people.
LESSON #3: THE APPEAL OF THE BEAUTIFUL PEOPLE VERSUS THE APPEAL OF THE EVERYMAN-- The manipulated winners of Quiz Show remind us of the ever-swinging pendulum of public appeal towards two extremes in more areas than just television. In one minute, we want to see an "ugly duckling" beat the shallow people around them and succeed. In the next, we want to envy and adore the hot and sexy. These are two completely different forms of appeal that grab an audience strongly, but we can't have both at the same time.
LESSON #4: THE POWER OF PRODUCERS AND SPONSORSHIP-- You could also call this the power of money. In most creative endeavors, whether it's art, the movies, television, or even sports, the result product is inevitably driven by who writes the checks. They aren't just going to give you money and not have a say. There's a reason why there will always be special interests and lobbies in more than just politics in this country and world.
LESSON #5: THE ART AND DECEPTION OF RIGGING A GAME-- Through a deep look behind-the-scenes, Quiz Show does an exceptional job showing the deception required to rig a game, plant knowledge, turn a blind eye to money, and the skill to take a dive and still have a financial parachute. The dual journeys and torment of both Charles and Herbert is greatly shown.
LESSON #6: GO WITH YOUR GUT INSTEAD OF YOUR GREED-- Finally, to dive towards the underlying and obvious common sense of Quiz Show that could only be brought clear by raging sarcasm and profanity, want to know how to NOT have a scandal? I know. Don't fucking cheat! Say no to a bribe. If it feels wrong, it probably is. If you know the answer, give it! Play to win the game! Shit! Go down honest and go down swinging. How hard is that? Both Charles and Herbert are wimps that caved when they could have controlled their own destinies, saving us scandals, heartbreak, and a nearly two-and-a-half hour movie from Robert Redford. The smartest character in the movie (besides Goodwin) is the elder Van Doren who doesn't have a television. Why? Because he has the principles of his gut and not vanity and greed.