The Public Trust: Re-Appreciating “Quiz Show” in 2017

Quiz Show is a film I revisit every couple of years, almost out of necessity. Along with a handful of other titles, it has become something of a calibration tool for me. The hyperbole of modern film media can often be numbing, particularly during the annual, empty frenzy of awards season, when consumption has a way of taking precedence over engagement. The exact same pull quote screams at us every year from the tops of movie posters and in TV spots, “A masterpiece! Movies don’t get much better than this!” And we’re nearly inclined to believe it. We’re so hungry for truly great films that we’re willing to elevate lesser work as long as it vaguely resembles the thing we crave. For that reason alone, I think it’s useful to reorient myself with true north from time to time. That’s why I keep returning to Quiz Show.

Not that I need a reason. It also happens to be one of my favorite movies.

I was in eighth grade when Robert Redford’s film was released in the fall of 1994, and I saw it as part of a somewhat odd promotional double-bill. If I paid to see a sneak preview of the new Miracle on 34th Street remake, my ticket also allowed me to stay and watch Quiz Show for free. These studio-sanctioned pairings now seem like relics of a bygone era, but they were a fairly frequent occurrence in the mid-’90s. The following year, I saw double features of While You Were Sleeping and A Goofy Movie, Casper and The Cure, First Knight and Forget Paris, Sabrina and Home for the Holidays. Looking back, Quiz Show and Miracle on 34th Street was a stranger-than-usual match. They did not share a distributor (Quiz Show belonged to Buena Vista; Miracle to Fox) and it’s highly unlikely there was much overlap in their target demographics.

Quiz Show was not aimed at children and, though it was not R-rated, it would be a stretch to call it a film for the whole family. No, it was one of the last vestiges of what people wistfully remember now as a mid-budget studio film. Truth be told, there were plenty of bad mid-budget studio films, but Quiz Show is the kind we prefer to romanticize in 2017: mainstream filmmaking that was thoughtful, intimate, and engrossing, driven by story rather than spectacle, and made with adults in mind. Those were not necessarily quaint notions twenty-three years ago, but even then, audiences did not line up to see Redford’s film.

At the height of its popularity, it only finished in fourth place at the weekend box office, no match for the likes of Jean-Claude Van Damme in Timecop, Charlie Sheen in Terminal Velocity, and Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump (still a juggernaut in its twelfth week of release). Conventional wisdom at the time said it lacked that all-important and elusive hit-making quality: crossover appeal. While Quiz Show features one of the best ensembles of its decade, its three leads — Rob Morrow, John Turturro, and Ralph Fiennes — weren’t exactly known for their commercial might. Nor did the film’s subject matter and setting — the real-life quiz show scandals of the late 1950s — seem to help its chances of appearing relevant to ’90s audiences. Nearly forty years after the fact, the rigging of televised game shows just didn’t seem as shocking when compared to the sensational headlines of the day involving Amy Fisher, John Wayne Bobbitt, Tonya Harding, or O.J. Simpson. Some box-office analysts even blamed the film’s poster for turning audiences away. As Peter Bart noted in Variety, “Sharper salesmanship would have turned up better numbers for Robert Redford’s Quiz Show, we are told. Why did ads show the back of actor Ralph Fiennes, wearing headphones? This was supposedly too passive and highbrow an image for the mainstream audience.”

To be fair, Quiz Show was never promoted as a fun night out at the movies. It was touted as a serious-minded film about ethics, about “how a simple TV show robbed a nation of its innocence,” as the Los Angeles Times headlined in advance of the film’s release. I must admit, as a thirteen-year-old, I thought that claim was a bit hyperbolic. A nation robbed of its innocence? I’d never even heard of Twenty-One, the rigged quiz show depicted in the film, so how seismic could this scandal really have been? I was familiar with McCarthyism. I knew about the political assassinations of the 1960s and about Vietnam. I was definitely aware of Watergate. Those particular events had more than permeated the national consciousness. By comparison, an investigation into the behind-the-scenes practices of network game shows by the House Subcommittee on Legislative Oversight certainly seemed trivial.

But such thoughts were not on my mind as I actually watched Redford’s film. I was enthralled. I still have a vivid sense-memory of leaning forward in my seat as Herbert Stempel (Turturro), defending champion of Twenty-One, locked in an isolation booth in front of a live studio audience — the rest of America watching at home — breathes nervously into the microphone before him. He’s just been asked by host Jack Barry (Christopher McDonald) to name the Best Picture winner for 1955. If Stempel answers correctly, he’ll win the game, and he’ll remain in the spotlight for another week. He knows the answer is Marty. He saw Marty three times, as a matter of fact. But the show’s ratings have plateaued during Stempel’s winning streak, and he’s been instructed by the producers to answer with On the Waterfront. Even in this moment, under the bright studio lights, with the eyes of millions bearing down on him, Stempel still hasn’t made up his mind if he’s actually going to take a dive. His wife, Toby (Johann Carlo), watches from the studio bleachers, expectantly. She urged him not to go through with it. In the control room, the show’s producers, Dan Enright (David Paymer) and Albert Freedman (Hank Azaria), watch Stempel like a pair of hawks, as they begin to question his participation in their scheme more and more with each passing second.

Redford had masterfully put me in the position of the home audience in 1958. We were all pinned to the edge of our seats as we waited for Stempel’s answer, except I knew there was something greater at stake than just prize money. This was potent storytelling. Seeing Quiz Show in 1994 was a formative experience for me. I left the theater with a buzz. (Miracle on 34th Street was already a very distant memory.) I felt a strange sense of accomplishment, like when you understand your first Shakespeare play, and I was certain I had become a more mature moviegoer. Somehow, in an instant, I was older and wiser. There was obviously no need to complete my Algebra homework that weekend.

That’s not to suggest I was alone in my enthusiasm. Chances are, if you saw Quiz Show in 1994, you probably liked it. Critics were also quick to embrace the film, even as audiences shied away. It landed on plenty of prominent top ten lists and the New York Film Critics Circle named it the best film of the year. It was also nominated for four Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director. It doesn’t really need to be defended from naysayers. It’s not so much criminally underrated as it is criminally underseen. Even The Shawshank Redemption, a notorious underperformer at the box office (as well as a fellow Best Picture nominee), earned more money during its theatrical run, with both films receiving re-releases to coincide with Oscar nominations. As of this writing, Quiz Show ranks 28th in total user votes on an IMDb list of feature films released in 1994, sandwiched between Beverly Hills Cop III and Junior, the movie where Arnold Schwarzenegger gets pregnant. That’s a very unscientific gauge of the film’s lifetime viewership, to be sure, but it’s a depressing indication nevertheless.

Yes, I’m shaming you for having not seen Quiz Show. You’re missing out on Redford working at the top of his game. He’s never been as savvy or more dynamic as a filmmaker. He skillfully evokes the era in broad strokes and then relitigates it. The film was photographed by Michael Ballhaus, a frequent cinematographer for Martin Scorsese, and the camerawork in Quiz Show has a similar agility as in many of their collaborations. (Scorsese also appears in the film as an executive of the company that markets Geritol, the sponsor of Twenty-One.) Redford and Ballhaus give Paul Attanasio’s sharp, eloquent screenplay — one of the great underdiscussed scripts of the last thirty years — an added charge, displaying a keen sense of showmanship that is atypical of Redford’s previous directorial efforts. Not that Attanasio’s words need enlivening, mind you. It’s a pleasure just to hear these characters speak, and the fine cast clearly relishes the opportunity to perform Attanasio’s dialogue. I’ll even defend Rob Morrow’s unfairly maligned performance. As Richard Goodwin, investigator for the Subcommittee on Legislative Oversight, Morrow carries the movie, but he’s been derided for his affected Boston accent ever since the film came out. Quite frankly, it’s never really bothered me, and I generally find such criticisms to be a little reductive and disingenuous. Does emotional authenticity count for nothing? We so often read and write about the way an actor communicates with their eyes, about their ability to listen, to react, to be present in the moment. If you’re not careful, you’re likely to overlook an otherwise perceptive and engaging performance.

Coincidentally, I last watched Quiz Show on October 8, 2016, exactly one month before the U.S. general election, and I wasn’t quite prepared for how timely it would seem in that new context. My youthful skepticism about the claim that a rigged game show had robbed the nation of its innocence hasn’t entirely vanished, but the idea resonated more powerfully with me on this particular viewing than it ever had before. Has America ever truly been innocent? It would be hard to defend such an assertion these days, but Attanasio’s screenplay is incredibly persuasive and clear-eyed in the way it frames the Twenty-One scandal as a transitional moment in modern American history. When Quiz Show was released, Redford told the Los Angeles Times that his film was about “the erosion of trust in an institution that was supposed to give us the truth.” At the time, he was speaking specifically about television, but how many other contenders could we now add to that list? As we all continue to wring our hands about fake news, misleading headlines, crumbling journalistic standards, and the very ideas of balance and impartiality, truth and transparency have never seemed more elusive, and our distrust of institutional power has never seemed so palpable.

But are we complicit in this mess?

Redford and Attanasio recognize in Richard Goodwin, the de facto audience surrogate, our capacity not only to be deceived, but also — more dangerously — our desire to believe that deception, particularly when it conforms to our own biases and preconceived narratives. Goodwin wants to believe in Charles Van Doren’s (Fiennes) mental prowess as much as the rest of America. After all, Van Doren is an instructor at Columbia University, and the son of Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and professor Mark Van Doren (Paul Scofield, in a beautiful performance). He comes from American intellectual royalty. But even when the truth finally comes out, and Van Doren admits to cheating, Goodwin wants to protect Van Doren and his family’s reputation. Even a skeptic like Goodwin is susceptible to the sometimes corrupting allure of celebrity.

In his remarks to the Subcommittee at the film’s conclusion, Van Doren notes, “The past doesn’t change for anyone. But at least I can learn from the past.” If there is a lesson to be learned from Quiz Show in 2017, it’s that the truth isn’t always pleasant, but it’s always worth pursuing.