QUIZ SHOW


Starring: Rob Morrow, Ralph Fiennes, John Turturro, Paul Scofield, David Paymer, Hank Azaria, Christopher McDonald, Johann Carlo, Mira Sorvino, Elizabeth Wilson and Martin Scorsese
Directed by: Robert Redford
Written by Paul Attanasio
Based on the book
“Remembering America: A Voice from the Sixties” by Richard N. Goodwin
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 2hr 13mins

WINNER – BAFTA Awards – Paul Attanasio)
Directors Guild of America – WINNER – New York Film Critics Circle Awards – Best Film
NOMINEE New York Film Critics Circle Awards – Best Supporting Actor (Paul Scofield) and Best Screenplay Paul Attanasio)

“This film features at least four directors in small roles: Martin Scorsese, Griffin Dunne, Barry Levinson, and Douglas McGrath; and two lead actors who directed films: John Turturro and Ralph Fiennes.”  IMDB


1994 gave us its share of memorable movies. To this day, people are still quoting FOREST GUMP (“Life is like a box of chocolates”), THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION continuously battles with THE GODFATHER for the number one spot on IMDB’s top 250 list and PULP FICTION is considered one of the greatest and most influential movies of all time. So, why is it that my favorite film of 1994 has become mostly forgotten? Director Robert Redford’s wonderful QUIZ SHOW is a fascinating movie that presents its version of the real-life Quiz Show scandal that deceived American audiences in the 1950s. It explores interesting themes of trust and honor while also setting an authentic tone to the overall backdrop of the time. QUIZ SHOW is a well-directed film filled with great performances that effectively bring an intelligent script to life. It works as both an engaging procedural and an interesting character piece. Ultimately, it’s a film whose themes are just as relevant today as they were when it came out. It draws the viewer in, teaches them a thing or two about humanity and effectively presents the very different world of pre-streaming television and its hold on the American audience.

The story centers around one of the most popular game shows of the time, “Twenty-One,” produced by NBC and sponsored by Geritol. During the show, contestants were told to stand in separate isolation booths while being asked trivia questions by the host. The scandal occurred when it was suspected that the show’s producers were giving certain contestants answers to the questions. This was a way for them to control the ratings by keeping only the people they thought would draw in big audiences on the show. The movie opens with a neurotic underdog that the studio heads initially felt audiences would route for, Herb Stemple, as the show’s champion. His success on “Twenty-One” has made him famous and he can’t walk down the street without being recognized and called out to. Then, when the show’s sponsor decides that Stemple is the wrong image type to help promote their product, he convinces the producers that it’s time for Stemple to take a dive so that they can bring in a new, more relatable contestant. Enter Charles Van Duren, a man that studio executive Dan Enright feels is perfect because, as he describes Van Duren, he’s “young, clean-cut and comes from a prominent family.” None of this sits well with Stemple, though, as he decides to try and blow the whistle on the crooked show, bringing about an investigation run by a Congressional investigator Dick Goodwin.

At the time of this film’s release, Redford was best known by most moviegoers for his acting rather than directing career. Yet, in 1980, he won the Oscar for best director for his film ORDINARY PEOPLE and with QUIZ SHOW, he hit another homerun. The film is not just a history lesson, but it also works as a thriller, a drama and a solid piece of cinematic entertainment. Right from the film’s opening moments, he sets the perfect pace and tone for the movie. With the help of cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, Redford creates a look that feels as old-fashioned as the time period itself. His direction is apparent right from the start, where he effectively brings to life the mood of the fifties and the importance of television to the American public. Redford opens his film with a solid six and a half minutes that introduces the modern-day audience to a time when shows weren’t as accessible as they are now, when you can just stream them at your own leisure. This was a time when TV shows were shown at a certain time, and if you missed the episode, it would be a while before you could see it again. This played an important part in the average American home as people gathered together to watch their favorite programs as a family.

The Oscar-nominated script by Paul Attanasio takes some liberties with the facts (what biopic doesn’t?) but is smart in its execution. The film never makes Stemple or Van Duren into bad guys because of their actions but, instead, questions why anyone would go along with the deception. At one point, Van Duren comes right out and asks Goodwin, “If someone offered you all this money to be on some rigged quiz show… Instant fame… would you do it?” The placement of this question comes at a point in the film where it seems the movie might be asking the audience what they would do, causing us as viewers to look inside of ourselves for the answer. We are also given an exploration of who the bad guy in this kind of situation really is as the script explores the selfish corporate minds that decide it is okay to deceive people. One executive, Albert Freeman, defends the studios by 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.

Modern-day audiences will easily relate to the film’s theme regarding the idea of ratings and sales being the driving force in the decision-making process in the entertainment industry. Nowadays, commercial filmmakers concentrate too much on creating movies that feel very much like what is already out there. Audiences’ familiarity with superhero characters and popular franchises overshadow the creation of original content and one has to wonder what the difference is between that and making sure that the game show contestants that are popular remain on the show, no matter what.

Redford elicits some amazing performances from a near-perfect cast. The main focus is on three specific characters, all with very different ways of looking at the situation. With this film, Rob Morrow made his leap from the world of television, where he received two Emmy nominations for his role in NORTHERN EXPOSURE, and proved that he was more than ready for the world of feature films with his wonderfully understated performance as Goodwin (Why this movie didn’t catapult his career is a mystery). Goodwin sees the whole situation as wrong and even refuses an opportunity to be given his own spot on a panel show. Yet, as he gets to know and become friends with Van Duren, he makes moral compromises as he refuses to go after Van Duren and, instead, focuses on who he sees as the real culprits: the studio and its producers.

Fresh off his incredible performance in Steven Spielberg’s SCHINDLER’S LIST, Ralph Fiennes plays Van Duren as the opposite of Goodwin. Both Fiennes and Morrow work well together and even though their characters are on different sides of the scandal, the viewer can feel a real bond of friendship forming between the two. Van Doren starts his journey by rejecting the idea of being given the answers, but after getting his first taste of winning and the fame that comes with it, he begins to enjoy everything too much to stop. He even begins to find ways to justify it all and as a college professor, he uses the sudden swell of popularity in his classroom as an excuse to say it’s all okay. At one point, he even tells Goodwin, “You should see the letters I get. Kids are excited about books and learning. General knowledge.

Turturro, one of cinema’s most under-appreciated actors (check out our recommendation for another Underexposed Cinematic Treasure, UNSTRUNG HEROES), is perfectly cast as Herb Stemple. Stemple is an awkward and pushy man who doesn’t feel that the studio is treating him properly. He doesn’t seem to understand that he did anything wrong and thinks he deserves all the fame he received and more. Turturro leans into the annoying aspects of the character in such a way that we can’t help but enjoy watching him on screen. Stemple, after all, could have very easily come off as annoying, but instead, Turturro’s performance makes us laugh at Stemple while also, at the same time, feeling sorry for him, which ultimately adds some real heart to the role.

The film also has a pitch-perfect supporting cast. Performers such as David Paymer, Hank Azaria, Johann Carlo, Martin Scorsese, Alan Rich, Christopher McDonald, Mira Sorvino and Paul Scofield all give solid performances, providing some real genuine depth to their own characters while helping to create a realistic backdrop for the leads to play off of. I especially liked Paymer as studio exec Dan Enright. He’s incredibly effective as the sleazy exec who sees nothing wrong with duping not only the losing contestants but also the American audience who saw the television game show as a way to route for the average Joe while they catch their dream of riches, which would otherwise be beyond their grasp. My favorite supporting performance, though, comes from Johann Carlo as Stemple’s wife, Toby. She is a simple woman who stands by her man, no matter how badly he frustrates her, adding some real heart to the center of a film about a bunch of men making some bad decisions.

Quiz Show is not only my favorite film from 1994 but also my favorite film from Redford’s directing career. Considering that he’s also the director of 1980’s Academy Award-winning ORDINARY PEOPLE, 1998’s THE HORSE WHISPERER, and 1992’s A RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT, this is saying a lot.

 

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2 months ago

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