For today’s entry in the 44 Days of Paranoia, I want to take a look at a film that I recently caught on cable — 1994’s Quiz Show.
Directed by Robert Redford and based on a true story, Quiz Show was nominated for the Academy Award for best picture but lost to Forrest Gump. Among those of us who obsess over Oscar history, Quiz Show is often overshadowed by not only Forrest Gump but two of the other nominees as well, Pulp Fiction and The Shawshank Redemption. When compared to Pulp Fiction, Quiz Show certainly feels old-fashioned. At the same time, it’s not quite as much of a sentimental crowd-pleaser as Gump or Shawshank. Perhaps for those reasons, Quiz Show never gets quite as much attention as some other films that have been nominated for best picture. However, taking all of that into consideration, Quiz Show is still one of the best films of the 90s.
Quiz Show takes us back to the 1950s. The most popular show on television is 21, a game show in which two contestants answer questions, win money, and try to be the first to score 21 points. The American public believes that all of the questions asked on 21 are locked away in a bank vault until it’s time for the show. What they don’t know is that the show’s producers have instead been rigging the show, giving the answers to contestants who they feel will be good for ratings.
When Quiz Show begins, nerdy Herbie Stempel (John Turturro) has been the champion for several weeks. However, both the show’s producers and sponsors feel that the untelegenic Herbie has peaked. Hence, the handsome and charismatic Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes) is brought on the show and Herbie is ordered to lose to him. Reluctantly, Herbie does so.
Charles is initially reluctant to cheat but, as he continues to win, he finds himself becoming addicted to the fame. Charles is the son of the prominent academic Mark Van Doren (Paul Scofield) and his success on television finally gives him a chance to escape from his father’s shadow. Indeed, the film’s subtle and nuanced portrait of Charles and Mark’s loving but competetive relationship is one of the film’s greatest strengths.
Herbie, however, is bitter over having to lose and has subsequently gambled away all of his winnings. When 21′s producer (David Paymer) refuses to help Herbie get on another TV show, Herbie reacts by going to the New York County district attorney and publicly charging 21 as being fixed. Though the grand jury dismisses Herbie as being obviously mentally unbalanced, his charges come to the attention of a congressional investigator, Richard Goodwin (Rob Morrow).
Goodwin launches his own investigation into 21 and discovers that the show is fixed. (As the ambitious Goodwin puts it, he wants to “put television on trial.”) Along the way, he also meets and befriends Charles Van Doren and finds himself torn between his desire to expose the show and to protect Charles from the bad publicity. Again, the film is to be applauded for the subtle way that it uses Goodwin’s investigation of both Charles and Herbie as a way to explore issues of both class resentment and class envy. Goodwin may have come from the same ethnic background of Herbie but it quickly becomes obvious that Goodwin has more sympathy for the genteel (and very WASPy) world that produced Charles Van Doren. When Goodwin tries to justify protecting Charles, his wife (played by Mira Sorvino) responds by calling him “the Uncle Tom of the Jews” and it’s hard not to feel that she has a point.
While I greatly enjoyed Quiz Show, I do have to say that, on one major point, the film fails. Try as he might, director Redford never convinces us that a rigged game show is really as big of a crime as he seems to be believe it to be. Perhaps in the 1950s, people were still innocent enough to be shocked at the idea of television reality being fake but for cynical contemporary viewers, it’s hard not to feel that the “scandal” was more about Richard Goodwin’s ambition and less about any sort of ethical or legal issue. Towards the end of the film, one character suggests that television will never be truly honest unless the government steps in to regulate it. “What?” I yelled back at the TV.
Seriously, it seemed like a bit of an overreaction.
As I watched Quiz Show, I found it hard not to think about the reality shows that I love. For instance, I know that The Bachelor and The Bachelorette are largely staged. I know that the previous season of Big Brother was largely set up so that Amanda could win. (And, believe me, if Amanda hadn’t sabotaged her chances by turning out to be a mentally unstable racist bully, she would have won and she would probably would have been invited back for the next all-stars season.) I know that shows like Storage Wars and Dance Moms are “unscripted” in name only. I know that reality shows aren’t real but my attitude can basically be summed up in two words: “who cares?” Perhaps I would be more outraged if I lived in the 50s which, to judge from both Quiz Show and a host of other movies, was apparently a much more innocent time.
That said, I really enjoyed Quiz Show. A lot of that is because I’m a history nerd and, therefore, I have a weakness for obsessively detailed period pieces. But even beyond that, Quiz Show is a well-made, entertaining film that features three excellent lead performances and several strong supporting turns. If you love to watch great actors playing great roles then Quiz Show is the film for you. Rob Morrow lays his Boston accent on a bit thick but otherwise, he does a good job of suggesting both Goodwin’s ambition and the insecurities that lead him to desire Charles’s friendship even as he tries to expose him as a fraud. John Turturro brings an odd — if manic — dignity to Herbie Stempel while Johann Carlo is well-cast as his wife. Best of all, Ralph Fiennes makes Charles Van Doren into a sad, frustrating, and ultimately sympathetic character while Paul Scofield is the epitome of both paternal disappointment and love as his father. The film is full of great supporting turns as well, with David Paymer and Hank Azaria perfectly cast as the show’s producers and Christopher McDonald playing the show’s host with the same smarmy charm that he brought to a similar role in the far different Requiem For A Dream. Perhaps best of all, Martin Scorsese shows up as the owner of Geritol and gets to bark, “Queens is not New York!”
Even if Robert Redford doesn’t quite convince us that the quiz show scandal was as big a deal as he obviously believes it to be, Quiz Show is still an uncommonly intelligent film and one that deserves to rediscovered.
Other entries in the 44 Days Of Paranoia:
Firstly, there is no such thing is as show being “largely” staged—it either is or it isn’t. Also, it’s no use trying to comb through all these “reality” shows and discover which ones are real and which ones aren’t real. They are all, without a singular exception, totally staged. The same goes for any talent contest show—but of course, the idea is not to find the biggest talent, but the “contestant” who will best be able to sell soft drink and aftershave to the masses (believe me, the die is cast even before they walk in front of the cameras). What I will say is find it rather amusing that, as a wrestling fan, I endured for many years the ridicule from people who would say, with a certain condescending smugness “You know it’s all fake, don’t you?” Now these same people are obsessing over “reality” television shows as if they are real, and these shows feature a bunch of “actors and actresses” who are nowhere nearly as convincing as the larger-than-life characters in the world of pro wrestling.
“And, believe me, if Amanda hadn’t sabotaged her chances by turning out to be a mentally unstable racist bully, she would have won and she would probably would have been invited back for the next all-stars season.”
I know nothing of this, but even sight-unseen, I can tell you right now that this too, is all a part of the act. In fact, I knew these shows were fake just by looking at the promotional clips. One can even go so far as to ask the question “are documentaries real or are they fake?” After all, documentaries often warp public perception of a subject not so much by what they show, but what they don’t show. It’s often what you don’t see that is real.
The 1950s were certainly a different time for television, and audiences were obviously deliciously naive and ripe to be exploited by television producers. Television, being a relatively new medium, was perhaps something that the masses could embrace after losing faith in scandal-ridden newspapers and trashy magazines, because seeing is believing. But if you can’t trust your own eyes, if you can’t even believe something that you’ve seen happen on the box in front of you, what can you believe?
“Quiz Show” was a film that I was very much interested in seeing when it first appeared at cinemas many years ago. For whatever reason, I never got around to catching it at the cinema. It was only in the last few years or so that I managed to take a look at it. It’s certainly one of the best movies I’ve seen from the 1990s—I’d take it over both “Pulp Fiction” and “The Shawshank Redemption”, as I feel it’s more widely relevant to our times and better executed than both. I believe the point to the film is not so much that a game show was rigged, but the fact that millions of people saw it happen, and everybody was taken along for a ride. The film demonstrates the tremendous pull of television, and of course, the short memories of it audience. You can violate their trust, insult their intelligence, feed them subpar programming, but the television audience will always forgive you, because they’ve been taught to lower their standards—that’s how bad television continues to sell.
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