Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Unsung!: Quiz Show

I was bemoaning the lack of a moral center in this weekend’s disappointing Man of Steel; here is a movie that is 100% moral center.

I often wish that popular movies were about something. Modern blockbusters are all about… two hours long. Quiz Show was released in 1994, is Robert Redford’s finest work, received four Oscar nominations, did not win any of them, and today is largely unsung.

The entertaining part of popular art is supposed to be the “spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down.” The clever dialogue, the realistic performances, and the spectacle of the piece itself are supposed to be what draws us to narrative drama, but is it not the “working out” of a moral or ethical dilemma that serves to keep us there? I am so impressed by the questions that Quiz Show asks, the places it goes philosophically, and the conclusion it reaches about modern life. Lately, most contemporary films impress me as chocolate-covered cotton candy: there is nothing at their center but sugar and air.
The Plot In Brief: Richard Goodwin (Rob Morrow), a recent Harvard law school graduate, is working for the Senate Committee for Legislative Oversight when he discovers, and becomes obsessed with, some legal anomalies regarding the popular television quiz show Twenty-One. After beating longtime champion Herb Stempel (John Turturro), handsome and popular Charles Van Dohren (Ralph Fiennes) begins a ratings-record-breaking thirteen-week run on the program. No one can beat him.

The problem is that (spoiler!) Twenty-One is rigged. Van Dohren gets the questions and answers in advance from the show’s producers. The entire program is a charade. Van Dohren is rehearsed to give the show maximum dramatic impact, and his return each week is guaranteed because he is the only contestant given the answers. The program’s network, NBC, wins in the ratings; the program’s sponsor, Geritol, sees its sales skyrocket; and Charles Van Dohren collects money he could not earn as a college instructor in several lifetimes. What could possibly go wrong?

Not only does Quiz Show feature a wonderful cast of some of my favorite character actors (Christopher MacDonald, Illeana Douglas, Mira Sorvino, Elizabeth Wilson, Hank Azaria, David Paymer, Timothy Busfield, Griffin Dunne, and directors Martin Scorsese and Barry Levinson), and not only are they given interesting things to say and do, but the actors also have the privilege of appearing in a narrative that functions as a meditation on morality for its audience. Is this not the highest function of art—to invite the audience to consider their own lives? A majority of modern films abdicate this responsibility completely.

As Charles Van Dohren asks near the end of the film, “If somebody asked YOU to appear on a rigged quiz show—the money, the women, the cover of Time, the fame and everything—would YOU do it?” He is talking to Richard Goodwin, but he might as well be talking to the audience.

My two favorite scenes in Quiz Show both involve Paul Scofield as Van Dohren’s father, the poet and Columbia University professor Mark Van Dohren. In the first, Charles comes home to escape the hubbub of fame and shares a piece of chocolate cake with his Dad. The honest sincerity and caring Scofield projects here is the stuff of great acting, especially when one considers that the two are only discussing cake. In the second, Charles must confess to his father that he is a fraud, that the quiz show that has given him his sudden fame and notoriety is rigged. A long-standing game between the two involves quoting Shakespeare and seeing if the other can name the source play. When Charles starts doing this as a way of deflecting his guilt, his father abruptly cuts him off and says, “This is no time for games.” Charles continues the game with the quote: “it was mine own.” Again, his father cuts him off, shouting, “Your name… is mine.” Silence. In this moment the film achieves the Shakespearean profundity and moral clarity that earlier it was content to merely quote.

Also, Scofield (who is British) uses an American accent that sounds exactly like Joseph Cotton in Citizen Kane! It is uncanny.
Like Apollo 13 made the following year, Quiz Show is based on historical fact. How then do filmmakers sustain interest and suspense when the story is well known? Screenwriter Paul Attanasio pulls off a neat trick, and I will not spoil it here. Although we know from the start that the quiz show is fixed, Attanasio does withhold one pertinent piece of information that acts like a bombshell when it is revealed midway through the film.

I screen Quiz Show at the end of the year in my AP English classes to begin a dialogue about cheating. AP students are under a lot of pressure to do well. They are also very smart, so they are good at cheating and at getting away with it. This year in my four class sections, there was more cheating (and I am defining the term “cheating” pretty narrowly here) than in the past four or five years combined. Maybe I am just getting better at catching them. The prevailing ethic among many of my students seems to be that cheating is okay… as long as you get away with it.

In one of Quiz Show’s pivotal scenes, Richard Goodwin recounts a family scandal between his uncle and aunt. The uncle had an affair, and confessed to his wife. The funny thing was that the affair had happened ten years prior; he had “gotten away with it.” The uncle confided to his nephew that it was the “getting away with it” part that he could not live with. I wish more of my students had a bigger problem with “getting away with it.”

Maybe I should start showing Quiz Show at the beginning of the year.

19 comments:

  1. Quiz Show is really great and everyone should see it. I'll admit that I haven't watched it in quite a while, but I do own it and like it and feel that it is sadly underrated. I appreciate that you wrote about it.

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    1. Happy Birthday, buddy - you don't look a day over...25?

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    2. Thank you, my friend. I'll take that as a great compliment. I'm 29, actually! So begins the end of my 20s. It's been a good run.

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    3. Also, a happy belated birthday to you, too!

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    4. Thanks man and enjoy it - I'm only 33 but still, 29 sounds pretty good right now. Bah, actually I'm not that hung up on it - it's either get older or be dead, right?

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    5. Right. I prefer the former. To relate this back to movies, I am looking forward to my "birthday movie" tonight, which this year will be This is the End. I still haven't seen it, and it sounds great.

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    6. That was my birthday movie! Loved it - hope you do too!

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    7. Happy birthday, John, and many happy returns. You will love This Is The End; it was the best surprise of this movie year so far.

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    8. Thanks Adam!

      This Is the End was really fun! It was clever and interesting and very funny. Michael Cera, specifically, was hilarious, and I think Craig Robinson was my favorite of the main cast. I also loved all of the awesome cameos in the movie (as to not spoil anything, the words "sex slave" and "rape" spring to mind). I appreciated that the movie had some things on its mind to say, too. This was a movie full of great surprises, and the fact that it was so enjoyable was the most pleasant surprise of all.

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  2. I rewatched this last month for the first time since '94. The film does a lot of things well but I find it a bit awkward in how it deals with anti-semitism. It seems to want to condemn the producers of Twenty-One for how it rigs the show to portray Gentile contestants for favourably than Jewish ones but at the same time the movie itself portrays Van Dohren more sympathetically than Stempel.

    I think Goodwin is intended to offset Stempel and provide a straight Jewish character but Rob Morrow seems more preoccupied with providing his character a Boston accent than giving him any charisma.

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    1. I'm just happy it brings up the issue at all; I love it when Mira Sorvino calls Rob Morrow, "the Uncke Tom of the Jews."

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  3. Great article, JB, especially the tie-in with your own experience as a teacher dealing with cheating students - I never once cheated in high school, but at that point the Internet was still at a stage of relative infancy - I can't imagine how I would have dealt with the temptation that exists today, though I probably would've been too busy masturbating to do much of anything else.

    I remember watching and liking Quiz Show when it came out but I'm sure I didn't pick up on a lot of the finer points (I had no JB-equivalent to show me the way - I went to a small-town school with zero fine arts courses and melting-pot English 10, 11 and 12 classes with no advanced offerings - imagine!). I haven't seen it or even thought about it since - unsung, indeed! - so thanks for putting this back on my radar - I'll try to watch it again soon!

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  4. I think my favorite part of this movie is when Goodwin faces off with the head of Geritol, played with seductive charm by Martin Scorsese. It's his character who finally schools Goodwin as to what this has all been about. The audience didn't care so much that Van Doren was supposedly so smart, or so charismatic: "They just wanted to watch the money." That final pan across the audience during the closing credits gives me chills.

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  5. That's my son's favorite scene too. Well-written and Scorsese is such an amazing actor; he should act more.

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  6. "Quiz Show" is that rare movie (like "Goodfellas," "The Third Man" and "Casablanca") that, the more times you see it, the better it gets. As a TV/Radio major I love the was-fake-to-begin-with portrayal of the innocence of the then-developing relationship between trusting TV audience and crafty TV entertainers/providers that got away with it until they couldn't (and even then, Jack Barry went on to have a successful gameshow hosting/producing career).

    There's a direct line between the accusatory credits shot of the laughing audience and the TV audiences that have embraced reality TV's trashy personalities and concepts... and this was years before "Survivor" and reality TV took off in the States. It's a visual reminder of the line from Howard Beale in "Network": 'We'll tell you any shit you want to hear.' In this case TV will show us any shit we want to see, and as long as enough of us watch good and/or bad TV programs, we'll get the televised entertainment we deserve. It's not that there's no good TV around (there's plenty if you know where to look: "Dexter," "Game of Thrones," "Mad Men," etc.) as much as that we, as a society and media culture, have allowed the bad TV to have a permanent place at the table, a foothold that purveyors of cheap generic crap that's easy to churn won't let go of anytime soon.

    The entire cast is excellent (I can't think of one bad actor, including the extras playing the bobby soxer students that swoon over Van Doren at his school) but I'd like to stick up a little for John Turturro. Like Keira Knightley in Cronenberg's "A Dangerous Method," Turturro gets top-billed and does career-best work in a movie in which the supporting actors get all the attention and ink. But the more times I rewatch "Quiz Show" the more I realize how much it is about Herbert Stempel. He was obsessed with TV fame and would do anything to get it, including taking a dive on "21" because he was smart-enough to figure being tight with the TV producers gave him a shot at a future in television. Stempel was clearly angling for a starring role in the then-popular panel show genre, the "I've Got A Secret" and "What's My Line?" shows that were to decades past what reality shows are to today's wannabe reality TV stars. Then Stempel's obsessed with nailing Van Doren, as much as Morrow's Dick Goodwin (though he's after the truth whomever it implicates) but mostly because he wants to unleash on someone the frustration and powerlessness he feels at the institutionalized anti-semitism that got him kicked off the show. Never mind that Herbert is clearly too nerdy and unpolished to be a TV personality, something he either couldn't see in himself or he fooled himself into not seeing (think reality TV personality). It's Stempel's 'what have I done?' reaction after Van Doren's fraud is exposed that gets to me at the end of "Quiz Show," one that is often overlooked because Ralph Fiennes and Rob Morrow (in the best thing he's ever done) are equally on fire throughout the movie.

    Both Herbert Stempel and Charles Van Doren were average nice people by all accounts (and cover the opposite spectrums of America, racially and economically), but the seductive appeal of TV and its corruption of what these men wanted to achieve in their lives makes for terrific dramatic entertainment. And since we're mentioning them, my favorite scene in "Quiz Show" is when Mark Van Doren can't take the tension of watching his son live on TV and shuts off the set. And yep, that option is still available by those that don't want to watch something offensive... while they're cruising the channels looking for it.

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    1. That short scene always gets a big laugh from my students. Van Dohren says, "Shut the damn thing off... It's just too nerve-wracking!"

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  7. I was searching the site to see if there had been a podcast done on this episode. There needs to be one! I recently discovered this masterpiece and it has definitely gone under the radar over the years. "I have flown too high on borrowed wings." What a profound speech at the end! Everyone is on their A game in this film and comes together to form a masterpiece. I love this movie and I think you should definitely show this before each semester starts. I definitely could've used the moral influence this film offers because I myself am a victim if getting away with things through high school and college. Please do an episode on this movie! Love the pod.

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