Quiz Show (1994)

Director: Robert Redford

Producers: Robert Redford, Michael Jacobs, Julian Krainan, Michael Nozik (Baltimore Pictures)

Writers: Paul Attanasio (screenplay), Richard Goodwin (book)

Photography: Michael Ballhaus

Music: Mark Isham

Cast: John Turturro, Ralph Fiennes, Rob Morrow, Paul Scofield, David Paymer, Hank Azaria, Christopher McDonald, Mira Sorvino, Martin Scorsese, Allan Rich, Johann Carlo, Elizabeth Wilson

In the wave of stud actors-turned-directors in the ’80s and ’90s, none hit the ball out of the park farther than Robert Redford in Quiz Show. Nominated for four Oscars, including Best Picture, Redford’s depiction of the 1950s quiz show scandals went under the radar in the year of Forrest Gump (1994), Pulp Fiction (1994) and The Shawshank Redemption (1994). But make no mistake about it: Quiz Show could very well be the best fourth-best-movie-of-the-year of all time, right up there with Ninotchka (1939) and All the President’s Men (1976). That is if it’s even fourth best. In many ways, it’s better directed than Pulp, with characters just as strong as Shawshank and with just as good an eye for history as Gump. Above all, it is undoubtedly Redford’s best from the director’s chair, a true forgotten gem of the last 25 years.

It’s 1957, and television is the latest invention, the latest mode of mass communication. Every day after work, millions of people across the country gather around their television sets to watch the popular quiz show Twenty One, hosted by Jack Barry (Christopher McDonald), sponsored by pharmaceutical giant Geritol and televised on NBC. The current star is a Jewish nerd from the Bronx named Herbie Stempel (John Turturro). He’s crusing along, enjoying his fame as a trivia master, until NBC Chief Robert Kintner (Allan Rich) and Geritol C.E.O. Martin Rittenhome (Martin Scorsese) send the word that ratings have plateaued and Stempel must go. It’s now the job of NBC Executives Dan Enright (David Paymer) and Albert Freedman (Hank Azaria) to find a ratings-boosting replacement.

Promising Stemple a future in television, Enright and Freedman convince him take a dive to the show’s new golden boy, Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes), a professor at Columbia University, where his father Mark (Paul Scofield) holds a position of great prominence. Van Doren is the the perfect clean-cut, intelligent, handsome (Gentile) man to rejuvenate the ratings. Though he’s at first resistent to fixing the shows, he is slowly lured into it by the promise of fame and fortune. Before long he’s the next Ken Jennings, a TV star on the cover of Time magazine and appearing on the Today show.

It’s his fame that rouses a jealous Stempel to blow the whistle on the entire operation, inciting a grand jury investigation, led by tough young lawyer Dick Goodwin (Rob Morrow). Through his casual questioning, Goodwin actually befriends Van Doren, putting him in the awkward position of likely having to smear a man he actually likes. After all, Goodwin’s not in this to get Van Doren —  he’s going after the big fish — NBC and Geritol. But as he tragically realizes, the big industries like television and pharmaceuticals are too powerful to bring down, and it’s only those being used who are the ones that get hurt.

The story is rich for a number of great performances, and here the entire cast is first class, from top to bottom. Starting at the bottom, if you look really hard, you’ll see the random bit actors of Calista Flockhart, William Fichtner and Ethan Hawke (“You act like a knight”). Look less hard and you’ll see cameos from writer/directors Barry Levinson (Rain Man), Douglas McGrath (Bullets Over Broadway) and, in a much bigger role, Scorsese. Moving up the ladder some more, you get Mira Sorvino, giving her husband some perspective as to being a better man, and McDonald, testing his hosting skills years before Requiem for a Dream (2000). Then, in possibly the two most enjoyable performances, there’s Paymer (Mr. Saturday Night) and Azaria (The Simpsons) as the slimy NBC execs. Watch the commitment to bullshit as they try to convince Van Doren of cheating. When Van Doren is reluctant, saying, “I’m just trying to imagine what Kant would make of this,” Freedman turns to Enright and says, “I don’t think he’d have a problem with it.” Golden slimeballs.

With this lineup in the peripherals, Quiz Show has a solid foundation for its heavy hitters. One of the leads goes to Morrow, Emmy-nominee for TV’s Northern Exposure (1990). Despite a somewhat forced Boston accent, Morrow has us rooting for him the entire way. We can not say the same for Turturro, who creates a character that’s at once compelling for his wit and repelling for his compulsion. He is utterly disgusted that the world thinks he didn’t know a question he actually knew — the Best Picture winner of 1955 — and he’s out to prove that he has been cheated by the very system of cheating he agreed to. He is the perfect experiment in the price of fame, telling the media at the end, “You know what the problem with you bums is? You never leave a guy alone, unless you’re leavin’ him alone.” The performance earned him Golden Globe and SAG Award nominations, and serves as the midway point between two of his more memorable Coen Brother roles in Miller’s Crossing (1990) and The Big Lebowski (1998).

Like Turturro, Fiennes must also portray a liar, and thus act like he’s acting. He’s also a superb test case in the lure of fame; just watch his giddiness as he pretends to tie his shoe long enough so he can be mobbed by a crowd of adoring students. Fresh off his Oscar-nominated, career performance as the Nazi antagonist in Schindler’s List (1993), Fiennes looks to another notorious historical figure in Van Doren to provide what I believe to be his most memorable role. Tim Robbins was the first choice, but he thankfully took the lead in Shawshank instead. I cannot for my life imagine anyone other than Fiennes in this role. He’s the perfect elusive actor for the perfectly elusive character. It’s said that while preparing for the role, Fiennes wanted to speak with the real Van Doren so he could mimick his voice pattern. But, doubting Van Doren would willingly participate in the film, Fiennes drove up to his home pretending to be a lost driver asking for directions (B). You see, he was practicing his lying even then.

Yet with all these great performances, the only Oscar-nominee is Scofield, who lost Best Supporting Actor to Martin Landau in Ed Wood (1994). The nomination came 28 years after winning the statue in A Man for All Seasons (1966). His Mark Van Doren in Quiz Show came the same time Patrick Keiller tapped him voiceover on London (1994) and Robinson in Space (1997). Of Scofield in this voiceover, David Thomson writes, “It’s not just that Scofield catches the rhythm of eighteenth-century prose. Just as important, he has the authority and the casual charm for a kind of movie voice that really has no equal.” (D) He’s in a class with Morgan Freeman and James Earl Jones.

Thus, the biggest treat in Quiz Show is watching him duel with Fiennes in a family “name that Shakespeare” game. Together, the father and son hurl Shakespeare passages at each other, asking the other to name what play it’s from. The first time we see this is at a family gathering in Connecticut, where Attanasio is allowed to throw out all sorts of juicy moral foreshadowing under the guise of Shakespeare. Mark says to his son, “Some rise by sin and some by virtue fall,” foreshadowing Charlie’s rise to fame by a sin (cheating) and his fall because of virtue (admitting it). Charlie follows by saying, “To do a great right, do a little wrong,” describing his own motto for cheating in order to promote education to the masses. When he finishes with “What’s done is done,” it’s his way of saying he’s already cheated and there’s no going back. Not only is this word game a great device to reveal character motivation, it’s also a beautiful set-up for later, when Charlie must admit to his dad that he cheated. During his confession, he falls back upon Shakespeare as a crutch, saying, “An ill-favored thing, sir. But mine own,” his father charges back, “Your name is mine!” Powerful stuff.

This relationship between father and son is truly the best part of Paul Attanasio’s script, a subplot woven throughout that gives us insight into Van Doren’s backstory and underscores the guilt he feels. It begins with mention that Van Doren’s been “living in his father’s shadow.” After all, it’s his father’s fame that has NBC so excited to put him on the show. Thus, it’s only fitting that when he becomes a TV star, he would splurge on his dad and buy him a television set. At this point, Van Doren has a kind of celebrity arrogance, telling his dad, “At this level, it’s a bit more complicated,” to which is dad says, “I never thought of myself having a level, Charlie. What level might that be?” He’s slightly offended. It’s here Attanasio sets up a huge pay off for later — the name “King Baudoin.”

The father-son subplot evolves as Van Doren’s confidence is shattered. He returns to his father’s kitchen table in the middle of the night to eat cake over a glass of milk. It reminds him of the “simplicity” of his childhood, he says, a statement not so different from Charles Foster Kane’s yeaning for Rosebud. The talk also reminds me of Spencer Tracy and Liz Taylor in Father of the Bride (1950), perhaps another of Redford’s references to the ’50s. It’s in this scene that Van Doren comes close to admitting his cheating to his father, but can’t quite do it. Eventually, he must tell him, providing a great scene where his admission floors his father back into his professor’s chair — “They gave you the answers?” Finally, in his testimony before Congress, Van Doren does some soul searching as to his own flaws — “I’ve had all the breaks. I have stood on the shoulders of life, and I’ve never gotten down into the dirt to build, to erect a foundation of my own. I have flown too high on borrowed wings. Everything came too easy.” No doubt his father is proud to hear this realization, but when he learns the repercussions of his son’s dishonesty, the look on his face is heartbreaking.

These issues of morality are what constitute Quiz Show as one of the finest movie tragedies. All tragedy means is a character forced to make an ethical decision, and choosing the option that leads to his own heartache. In Quiz Show, Van Doren is like Landau’s Judah in Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), both characters living with an incredibly amount of guilt. The most poignant line in the entire film may be when Goodwin tells Van Doren about a man who confessed to an affair years after he’d already gotten away with it. He says, “It’s the getting away with it part he couldn’t live with.”

Attanasio’s character study of Van Doren is masterful. Throughout the script, he drops little hints that stick as rocks of guilt in Van Doren’s gut. On the Today show, Van Doren is asked how “Honest Abe” would have done on Twenty One, and the word “honest” visibly jars him. When Goodwin quotes Keats’ “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” Van Doren is again uncomfortable. Later, just before Van Doren finally loses, the host actually says, “It’s Van Doren’s moment of truth.” And most powerfully, Goodwin stares down Van Doren during a poker game and says, “I know you’re lying.” When Van Doren says, “Don’t you mean bluffing?” Goodwin doesn’t say a thing. You can cut the tension.

How does Van Doren cope with this guilt? It’s all about justifying his actions. Instead of getting the answers, you have them give you the questions and you look up the answers yourself. Somehow that’s more honest. As viewers, it’s easy to see how ludicrous this is. It’s easy to condemn Van Doren, just as it’s easy to condemn ballplayers for using steroids. But if we were in their shoes, how would we act? This is what Van Doren means when he poses this question to Goodwin: “If someone offered you all this money to be on some rigged quiz show, instant fame, the works, would you do it?” With this statement, Attanasio puts us in Van Doren’s shoes, asking which road we would take — the easy money or the moral high ground?

Attanasio’s ability to place us in the moral dilemma of the antagonist is one of his script’s biggest strengths. The screenwriter earned his first of two Oscar nominations (Donnie Brasco), but lost to Gump‘s Eric Roth. Roth’s adapted screenplay for Gump surely deserved the award as a work of stunning originality. But Attanasio’s is a fitting runner-up. It’s completely original, dealing with the issue of game show scandal a full decade and a half before Slumdog Millionaire (2008). His screenplay was adapted from the book, Remembering America, the real-life Goodwin’s chronicle of his quiz show investigation. Critics of the film will point to its several historical inaccuracies, like the fact that Barry was replaced by hsot Monty Hall by the time the scandal broke. But the truth of the piece, the message, the tone, is alive and well. Purists will love the fact that the real Herb Stempel has a cameo as one of the former contestants Goodwin interviews. And Redford’s recreation of the time period is more than adequate, cloaking his actors and sets in drab greys and browns from top to bottom.

Redford knew the material well. He himself watched Twenty One while attending acting school, and claims he spotted Van Doren acting on live TV. (B) He is control of the film from the get-go, cross-cutting shots of the show’s “secret” answers being transported from a vault, with shots of people hurrying home after work to watch the show. The shot of them suffling up the stairs recalls Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936), where the shuffling wokers fade into a shot of shuffling sheep. While Redford doesn’t turn them into sheep overtly, their urgency to all get home and watch the same show conveys the same message. Fittingly, the montage ends with a low-angle shot tilting up to reveal a towering 30 Rockefeller Center. It looks down on us like some mighty god that has the power over all of us. And in Redford’s film, NBC has all the power.

The meaningful director’s choices continue like this throughout the film. Most impressively is Redford’s choice of shot to denote moments of extreme ethcial decision, the point of no turning back. That shot is a high-angle camera looking down on the quiz show booths, like God looking down in judgment. One could argue such an analysis is reading too far into the shot; that it’s a coincidence. But the fact that Redford uses this shot more than once for similar emotional moments — as Stempel must choose whether to take a dive, and as Van Doren must choose whether to cheat — it can’t be coincidence. Redford is masterful in drawing out these moments of decision, using the focus lense to start focused on the contestant in the booth, then throw that out of focus to concentrate on the background, where the NBC executives grip the railings tightly hoping for the hoax to materialize. There’s even a moment of Hitchcock’s Vertigo shot, dollying in while zooming out on the back of Van Doren in the booth.

Elsewhere in the film, look for the scene where Enright and Freedman pounce on a naive Van Doren in their office, each entering the side of the frame to visually trap Van Doren between them. Look also for the low-angle shot of Van Doren descending a spiral staircase after winning his first game. As the camera spins round and round, it mirrors the swirling thoughts of morality vs. money inside Van Doren’s head. Later in the film, there’s a brilliant “split” image of Van Doren looking into the mirror while talking to Kintner. We know this is intentional because Kintner does not have a reflection. And why should he? He’s one-sided: evil. It’s only Van Doren who is divided inside. He even looks down at a contract finds a “split-infinitive.”

In addition, note the placement of the characters in the film’s final image. Goodwin stands atop the court steps, on the moral high ground, looking down at Van Doren on the street, as voiceover of Enright’s testimony asks, “So who gets hurt?” You’re looking at him. Finally, Redford shows an understanding of parallelism in the opening and closing of his film. He opens with Bobby Darin’s snappy, upbeat “Mack the Knife,” and closes with Lyle Lovett’s somber “Moritat (Mack the Knife),” constantly asking, “Mackie, how much did you charge?”

For all this, Redford was deservedly nominated for Best Director, losing to Robert Zemeckis for Gump. It’s almost a shame this film came out the same year as Gump and the rest, because it’s gone unfairly overlooked. Upon release, Quiz Show was hailed by critics as “One of The Year’s 10 Best” on over 80 best lists. (A) To this day, it holds a powerful 96% rating on rottentomatoes. But for some reason, the good reviews haven’t translated into listology love. The film is yet to make an AFI list and was left out of the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die. Its only saving grace has been Peter Travers of Rolling Stone, who ranked the film #73 in his Top 100 Maverick Films of All Time, ahead of such classics as His Girl Friday (1940), Midnight Cowboy (1969) and Intolerance (1916). Come on listmakers! Follow Travers onto the Redford bandwagon. Quiz Show is too thematically rich to not be championed by more of you.

To start, it’s one of the great corporate conspiracy films ever made. It exposes the big industries like television and pharmaceuticals for being able to play by different rules than the rest of us. The same laws of justice don’t apply to them, and Redford reminds us of this hypocrisy. When NBC Chief Kintner testifies before Congress, he has nothing to worry about because he’s golfing buddies with the committee chairman. Take the last line of the film, Freedman speaking before Congress, saying, “It’s not like the quiz shows are a public utility, sir. It’s entertainment. We’re not exactly hardened criminals here. We’re in show business.” Just like that, they’ve rationalized their actions. And seconds later, we find out it’s worked. The film’s “where are they now” titles before the end credits tell us Enright and Barry returned to TV and became millionaires with The Joker’s Wild. Like Scorese’s character says, the public has a short memory. Thus Goodwin learns the hard way that he’s helpless against the big fish. His line at the end of the movie says it all: “I thought we were gonna get television. But the truth is, television’s going to get us.”

Redford suggests our society is not only corrupted from the top down, but contaminated from the bottom up. Perhaps worse than these “all-powerful” industries, is the average citizen’s apathy in letting them get away with it. To this end, Travers summed up the film’s themes as “the death of American values.” (C) And it’s all thanks to the invention of the tube. Quiz Show is mocking our modern consumer culture, the laziness and dependency it breeds. As Goodwin says, “It used to be man drove the car. Now the car drives the man.” We went from a nation of individuals with our own thoughts and minds to one ruled by the mass medium of television. Let’s face it. We are a culture of Who Wants to Be a Millionaires, Deal or No Deals and American Idols. These are all nothing but an extension of the quiz shows that began in the ’50s. Would we really know if were still being duped?

Don’t get me wrong. I love TV game shows as much as the next guy. But here Redford shows us the potential danger in the medium. Immediately, he assigns TV a negative connotation. In Goodwin’s first scene with his wife, he says to her, “You let a TV in the bedroom but not a cigar?” What is this danger? First and foremost, it’s the dumbing down of society. At the Van Doren family gathering, the father begins reading poetry but all the rest want to talk about is Charlie being on TV. The ’50s may have not been the beginning of celebrity culture, but it was the beginning of a new kind of celebrity culture, an instant gratification culture. It’s no accident that TV wins at the end of the scene. The characters’ focus, and the camera’s, is that brand new TV set sitting on the ground.

Going hand-in-hand with the dumbing down of society is our willingness to participate in it. This is the real danger, best captured in the film’s final image, a long pan of a bunch of mindless viewers laughing at a television show, prostituted, deceived, complacent. In this way, Redford and Attanasio’s vision is the biggest indictment of television since Sidney Lumet and Paddy Chayefsky’s Network (1976). How telling that both films were nominated for Best Picture, but lost to uplifting fan favorites — Rocky (1976) and Forrest Gump, respectively. I think the reason is because deep down, we don’t want to hear about the injustice we submit ourselves to everyday. Ignorance may be bliss, but it’s really dangerous. Thank God for people like Redford and Attanasio who keep poking us in the ribs.

CITE A: Quiz Show DVD cover
CITE C: Rolling Stone’s 100 Maverick Movies by Peter Travers
CITE D: David Thomson, New Biographical Dictionary of Film 

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