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If I do nothing else, I will convince them that Herbert Stempel knows what won the goddam Academy Award for Best goddam Picture of 1955. That’s what I’m going to accomplish.

Quiz Show
(1994)

(SPOILERS) Quiz Show perfectly encapsulates a certain brand of Best Picture nominee: the staid, respectable, diligent historical episode, a morality tale in response to which the Academy can nod their heads approvingly and discerningly, feeding as it does their own vainglorious self-image about how times and attitudes have changed, in part thanks to their own virtuousness. Robert Redford’s film about the 1950s Twenty-One quiz show scandals is immaculately made, boasts a notable cast and is guided by a strong screenplay from Paul Attanasio (who, on television, had just created the seminal Homicide: Life on the Streets), but it lacks that something extra that pushes it into truly memorable territory.

I put that partly down to Redford himself, who brings the baggage of nostalgia for a period he’s also, ostensibly, supposed to be making a frontal assault on. He ends up nearly drowning the material with earnest respectability; this needed a passionate filmmaker, or an angry one, someone who could bring the full force of attitude to bear, rather than measured restraint. As such, I don’t think the man for the job was Steven Soderbergh either, whom Redford strong armed out of pole position in what was, by Soderbergh’s account, extremely underhand fashion; Soderbergh and the film’s producer agreed he’d direct, but then he found, while making another film first, that he had been ousted (“The image that is given [of Redford] – as being a friend of the filmmaker – is not what I experienced”). Soderbergh’s version of Quiz Show might have been formally more interesting, but I seriously doubt there wouldn’t have been any less clinically efficient exercise than, say, Erin Brokovich.

Ten years later, this is the kind of fare Soderbergh’s mucker George Clooney would doubtless have jumped head first into, as the similarly starchy, diligent Good Night, and Good Luck, another TV morality tale set during that decade, bears witness. Don’t get me wrong, Quiz Show is engrossing enough – Attanasio irresistibly documents how TV show Twenty-One, which fed contestants questions as a matter of course and so dictated the reigning champion’s stint and exit, was exposed by a federal investigation – it’s just that you know it might have also have had a pulse, in the way prior Redford movies had (All the President’s Men, for example) rather than following the line of his later directorial efforts (Lions for Lambs).

There are two points here. One is that a director can cite historic material’s relevance to the here-and-now all they want (as Clooney did with Good Night, and pretty much anything he touches with his preaching-to-the-choir, indifferently populist perspective), but as soon as one wraps oneself in a different era’s trappings, that sense of time and place tends to take over and begin dictating approach. The other is that the mood of the moment when making a movie is everything. Sidney Lumet rose in the ranks as a director during the 1950s, but he still turned out the vital Network in the 1970s (a flawed but admirably enraged picture). Whatever themes Redford wished to explore four decades later in his ‘50s period piece, they were translated into a “tell us something we don’t know” finished film.

As ever with a Hollywood dramatisation, Quiz Show plays fast and loose with the facts, ironically presenting more sympathy for Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes) than it probably ought to (ironically, since Rob Morrow’s congressional lawyer Dick Goodwin is accused of making excuses for the privileged, Harvard-educated university instructor). This sort of thing is to be expected, though, and if you rate a historical movie or biopic on the basis of fidelity, you’re unlikely to have many favourites.

Charles Van Doren: I’m just trying to imagine what Kant would make of this.
Albert Freedman: I don’t think he’d have a problem.

Besides approach, Redford also rather trips up with the casting of Fiennes, fresh from Schindler’s List and prospectively the next big (English) thing (that never really happened, despite The English Patient; following a couple of failed flirtations with Hollywood, The Avengers and Strange Days, his Hollywood presence would be largely limited to the odd well-remunerated villain). The more obvious offender might seem to be Rob Morrow’s lead, brandishing a very dodgy Boston accent – I’m not generally one to take issue with crap accents, but even I thought this one sounded ripe – and looking like he’s trying to devour his cigar rather than smoke it, but Morrow, then a small-screen star in Northern Exposure and never really destined to make the transition to the big (indeed, this would be his only serious bid) brings all-important personability, despite those performance rods for his back. Fiennes is technically assured, even if his accent is also a bit iffy, but he lacks emotional warmth. There’s a frosty, distanced unease to his Van Doren, and in the tale Redford wants to tell, you really have to want him notto be the guy who did what he did, to see him the way Goodwin sees him; Fiennes naturally brings an air of the glassy or glacial that lends itself to the ethically compromised, the inherently dubious.

Herb Stempel: I might add that my wife no longer suffers from tired blood, now that I’ve got her on Gentol.

If Morrow and Fiennes have their demerits, John Turturro delivers a definitive John Turturro performance as goofball Herb Stempel, the champ Van Doren is brought in to beat. Arguably, Stempel has been sign-posted as a comedy Jewish caricature, but the actor effortlessly steals any scene he’s in as the self-inflated little guy reluctant to leave the spotlight and reacting very badly to what he sees as the studio failing to keep its promises (it doesn’t help matters that Stempel is broke: “You gave your money to a bookie who skipped town?”) Herb’s shameless ingratiation and belief in his own entitlement and unjust side-lining provides for a classic Turturro turn, and the best part of the hearings isn’t the sly observations (the committee and studio boss discussing golf games like buddies) but Stempel basking in an audience amused at his energetic forthrightness; the reproof of the press that follows, as he’s asked to gate-crash Van Doren’s moment of shame for a photo op, is a perhaps a little much (particularly as again, it’s ultimately designed to stoke sympathy for Van Doren we don’t really feel) but by now we know what to expect from Redford’s movie.

Mark Van Doren: Your name is mine.

Populating the supporting ranks are a range of fine players, from David Paymer and Hank Azaria as the duplicitous producers (the former dutifully falling on his sword to protect his bosses), to Christopher McDonald as host Jack Barry, to Paul Scofield as Van Doren’s dad, the figure of honour and respect and dignity, a bastion of a bygone era and impossible to live up to (so explaining Charles’ choice to go on the show in the first place). Griffin Dunne, Barry Levinson and Martin Scorsese (as the Geritol exec, presenting the voice of hindsight that this won’t kill off the quiz show, as “They just wanted to watch the money” before giving Dick a mob-esque warning to “Watch yourself out there”). There’s also Mira Sorvino as Goodwin’s wife, a year before her Oscar, reminding us why she should have remained in the spotlight (“You’re like the Uncle Tom of the Jews” she accuses Dick).

Quiz Show was released by Disney’s Hollywood Pictures brand, which seemed to have a permanent identity crisis during its decade and a half tenure. Most of its fare was forgettable, the odd Bruckheimer picture aside, but it didmanage to boast two Best Picture nominees, this and The Sixth Sense. The latter is your classic box office titan subsequently endorsed by the Academy (either cynically to boost ratings, or because they’re genuinely impressed by the acumen, take your pick). The former has been precision engineered as awards bait, something the majority of Redford’s directorial efforts appeared tailored towards, successfully or otherwise. That being the case, I don’t think he’s ever equalled the one that did hit the jackpot, his first.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

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