Quiz Show (1994): 9 out of 10: Quiz Show is about the scandals involving various quiz shows in the late fifties, focusing primarily on the NBC show Twenty-One. It was directed and produced by Robert Redford and is based on the memoir of the congressional investigator of the scandals played by Rob Morrow. Upon release, it got a smattering of Academy Award nominations and excellent reviews. Here we are twenty-five years later, and not just does the movie hold up, but it may be more insightful now than it was in the early nineties.
The Quiz Show scandal was that the winners of the surprisingly hard quiz shows were actually faking it. They were given the answers beforehand and told when to take a dive all to create drama and tension on the show. This type of revelation may be more familiar to viewers in 2019 than viewers in 1994.
There is a scene in that wonderful sci-fi comedy Galaxy Quest where Sigourney Weaver tries to explain TV shows are not real to the gullible aliens.
Gwen DeMarco: They’re not ALL “historical documents.” Surely, you don’t think Gilligan’s Island is a…
[All the Thermians moan in despair]
Mathesar: Those poor people.
I have never met someone who legitimately felt that Gilligan’s Island was a true story. I have met people that thought Keeping Up with the Kardashians was. Both Gilligan’s Island and Keeping Up with the Kardashians are sitcoms. They both have writers and plot points and horrible slapstick. It should be clear to anyone watching either that these are scripted shows. But one is a sitcom, and the other is labeled reality television.
The modern game show has been surpassed by the reality TV competition shows such as Project Runway or MasterChef. Of course, if you stay through the end credits, you will see a variation of Project Runways “The Judges considered both their scores and input from the Producers and Bravo in reaching their elimination decisions.” Yet Tim Gunn will hold on to the fiction that the competition is real as strongly as a 1980s professional wrestling fan.
So the arguments from Quiz Show that we are just making exciting television have a new life in the early twenty-first century. The people on House Hunters have already bought their home, all that beautiful furniture put in the newly shiplapped house will be returned once the cameras leave (And don’t mention that the freshly refurbished house is next to one of Waco’s many meth labs), and there are professional chefs in the background just out of camera range that help that single mother of five who was a line cook at a Tennessee diner only two weeks ago make that shrimp and cuttlefish paella.
The Good: The acting is top-notch across the board here — special shout out three excellent performances. John Turturro threads the needle with his portrayal of Herbie Stempel. Herbie is a very unlikable character bordering on an offensive Jewish stereotype. Yet, he seems real. Turturro sells his self-destructive nature and his bizarre fixation to bring down the man who replaced him, Charles Van Doren.
Which Brings us to Ralph Fiennes as Charles Van Doren, Ralph also threads a needle making us believe that Charles Van Doren did all these underhanded things but also making him so likable that it is understandable that even the investigators didn’t want him to get in trouble. It also makes us understand he never had it hard in his life as he grew up with great privilege, and everyone genuinely liked him.
My last acting call out is Director Barry Levinson, who nails the role of Today host Dave Garroway. It is a small role, but unlike Martin Scorsese’s more flashy turn as a fictional Geritol executive, Levinson doesn’t feel like stunt casting. If you told me they just used stock footage like Forrest Gump did, I honestly would have believed you.
Robert Redford does an excellent directing job in this. There are some great shots here, and the movie is packed with content never losing its momentum. There is also a very handsome production that seems true to the late fifties.
The Bad: There is no Quiz Show 2. In particular, outside of text flashed during the ending credits, there is no follow-up on these characters. Honestly, their story after the scandal is more interesting than the scandal itself. The main bad guy and or fall guy Dan Enright (Played by David Paymer) hid out in Canada for a few years and eventually came back to run some very successful game shows in the seventies such as The Joker’s Wild (With original Twenty-One host Jack Barry) and produced movies such as that Sylvia Kristel sex comedy Private Lessons. Enright’s story alone would make a compelling film.
The Ugly: You know a lot of Americans are very over educated. We are filled with useless trivia with few outlets to impress. With the Internet, Wikipedia, and smartphones, the art of knowing everything could not be less valued. There is often a vast difference between knowing a lot of things and being smart.
Quiz Show is filled with stupid characters that project being smart. The game show producers never had to rig anything. They just had to make the questions easier and recruit more appealing contestants. Wheel of Fortune has been on the air forever, and those contestants are often box of rocks stupid.
Herbie Stemple never realized that by exposing those he thought wronged him he was exposing himself and Charles Van Doren never realized that there are worse things than being in your father’s shadow. Quiz Show is a collection of flawed characters that could do Shakespeare proud.
In Conclusion: Quiz Show gets overlooked when we talk about great films from the nineties but it shouldn’t. It has aged exceptionally well and is more relevant today than during its initial run. Good job by all involved well worth the look.