January 2, 2014

Quiz Show (1994)
Grade: 87/100

Director: Robert Redford
Stars: John Turturro, Rob Morrow, Ralph Fiennes

What it's about. Set in New England between 1956 and 1959. Television quiz shows are highly popular, and on "Twenty One", the reigning champion is Herb Stempel (John Turturro). The show's producers, Dan Enright (David Paymer) and Albert Freeman (Hank Azaria), decide that the Jewish and somewhat obnoxious Stempel is wearing thin with audiences.

Stempel is instructed to lose to contestant Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes), an upper class intellectual and the son of celebrity Columbia University professor Mark Van Doren (Paul Scofield). Stempel agrees to take a dive if he is made a panel member of a different television show. Stempel follows through but not the producers. The disgruntled Stempel goes to authorities, but is discredited.

Bright young Harvard graduate Dick Goodwin (Rob Morrow) is a lawyer working for Congress. Looking for a means to simultaneously advance his career and perform a public service, he stumbles across Stempel and decides to go after the quiz shows. Complications arise when he reluctantly forms a friendship with the ingratiating Charles Van Doren.

As the investigation continues, it becomes increasingly obvious that "Twenty One" was rigged all along, and Van Doren was fed the answers. When he finally admits it, he loses his plum positions and brings disgrace upon his accomplished father.

How others will see it. Despite the advantages of a stellar cast, a magnificent script, able direction, and positive reviews, Quiz Show was a box office disappointment, falling short of its budget. The film did win Oscar and Golden Globe nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actor (Turturro by the Golden Globes and Scofield by the Oscars). Alas for all concerned, the dire crowd-pleaser Forrest Gump was the big winner that year.

Today at imdb.com, the user vote total (44K) is respectable but the user grade of 7.5 is underwhelming, given the film's blatant quality. Some viewers accuse the film of antisemitism, given Stempel's eternally obstreperous character. The jaded downplay the implications of a rigged television show: So it's fake, so what.

How I felt about it. The writer of Quiz Show is Paul Attanasio, who adapted relevant portions of Dick Goodwin's memoir. It is interesting that Quiz Show was Attanasio's first film screenplay, and although he wrote other good screenplays (e.g. Donnie Brasco) his big financial success came instead as a television producer. If you can't beat them, join them. The irony is underscored by the eventual success of "Twenty One" producers Enright and Freeman with later game shows. All is forgiven if enough people watch. Just ask Phil Robertson.

I discuss Attanasio and his screenplay because it really is remarkable. It would likely be a stretch to call the best screenplay since Casablanca. But it is damned good, particularly when compared with Forrest Gump, the most overpraised product of lowest common denominator American cultural entertainment.

True, director Redford is another reason that the film is so good, and he did direct the even more remarkable Ordinary People. But Ordinary People was about a family. Quiz Show has some of that: the ultimately devastating disappointment of Scofield in his seemingly perfect son, and to a lesser degree, the anger that Johann Carlo has when she learns that her brilliant and combative husband was also fed answers.

But Quiz Show is really an indictment of the shallowness of American society. Pleasant blueblood Charles Van Doren is the hero to be praised (and highly compensated), while genius (and Jewish) Herbie Stempel has to be sent back where he "belongs": the lower middle class. Meanwhile, the show's despicable and conniving producers are thoroughly dishonest throughout. For their efforts, they are financially rewarded, both before and (though admittedly years later) after.

The film's hero is Dick Goodwin, who helps reveal that quiz shows were faked and, ultimately, isn't beguiled by his friendship with Van Doren. To be the hero, it helps to have written the source book upon which the film is based. Likely, Goodwin's role in ending the reign of fake quiz shows is likely enhanced in the film. Such a conspiracy was bound to implode sooner or later.