Yesterday, I began the task of sorting out the Best Picture nominees from 1994 by watching...
(based on the novel "Remembering America" by Richard Goodwin)
John Turturro, Rob Morrow, Ralph Fiennes, Paul Scofield, David Paymer, Hank Azaria, Christopher McDonald
Based on the real events surrounding the game show scandal of the late 1950s, Quiz Show follows the charming and intelligent Charles Van Doren (Fiennes) as he decides to take a shot at being a game show contestant. The producers at Twenty One (Paymer & Azaria) love his all-American vibe and the fact that his father (Scofield) is a Pulitzer prize-winning poet. Not to mention he would be a far more ratings-friendly champion than the current schlub Herb Stempel (Turturro). So, in order to make sure Van Doren ousts Stempel, they offer to ask Van Doren questions to which he already knows the answers. On moral grounds, he declines, preferring to beat Stempel fair and square, but the producers ignore him and go ahead with the deceitful plan anyway.
It's show time and host Jack Barry (McDonald) asks Van Doren a familiar question. In the heat of the moment, he pretends to contemplate the question and eventually answers correctly. And so begins a moral slippery slope as he agrees to be fed the answers prior to each show. A bitter Stempel attempts to blow the whistle on the scandal but he is all but ignored. His crowing, however, is enough to gain the attention of Harvard lawyer Dick Goodwin (Morrow) who then begins a Congressional investigation into the matter. Van Doren's fraudulent success on Twenty One eats away at him, but he continues to deny any allegations of corruption, a state of affairs that is further complicated by the cordial friendship he and Goodwin establish.
Quiz Show is one of those internal dramas that seems to defy the rules of dramatic tension. All the good screenwriting books will tell you to break up your story into action scenes and dialogue scenes to keep the pace of the narrative ebbing and flowing. Sometimes it's rapid-paced, then there's a breather. But before the audience falls asleep, you wake them up again with an exciting action scene. Put simply, when your characters have been talking for a while, throw in a car chase. However, Quiz Show contains almost no physical action whatsoever. In fact, major turning points in the film occur with just about every character on screen in a seated position. Almost paradoxically, though, there is a genuine sense of swift forward motion. The film is intensely gripping due to the internal struggles of its characters.
Robert Redford's exquisite direction creates a deliciously intriguing atmosphere. The morally ambiguous producers of the game show are introduced in darkly lit rooms and most of the back-room dealings are treated similarly. Redford makes clever use of the dolly zoom (as referenced in my musings on Jaws). But, whereas Spielberg caught Brody front on to accentuate the horror of what he saw, Van Doren's big moment is internal and hence, Redford places the camera behind him. But enough with the film-making lesson...
Redford also manages to maintain a very amiable tone despite the picture's intensity. Although, much of the credit for that belongs to screenwriter Paul Attanasio, whose script embodies another paradox: the funny drama. Consider Stempel's response to his wife when she craves more attention from him: "You want to be worshipped? Go to India and moo."
Ralph Fiennes (pictured) delivers a terrific performance as the conflicted Van Doren. But here's the film's (possibly only) flaw. Even though Fiennes succeeds in making Van Doren so incredibly likable, the character is a liar and a cheat. Yes, he feels guilty about the whole thing but he still tried to cover it up. The result was that I was torn about what I should feel about this guy. I could see he was troubled and ashamed by what he had done but I still felt icky about liking him. Don't get me wrong, it's a spectacularly fascinating study of a complicated man, but there was something slightly dissatisfying about the fact that he was the lead character. Of course, one could argue that Goodwin is the conscious of the film, but despite a superb portrayal by Rob Morrow, it's hard for an audience to fully get behind what is essentially an underwritten character. Goodwin is, in some ways, a mere observer. Mind you, none of that really matters considering how engrossing the picture is as a whole.
Adding to the film's intrigue is its curiously innovative casting, so I'll now spend a little more space than usual commenting on it. I've already mentioned the talented turns from Fiennes and Morrow. Rounding out the central characters is Herb Stempel, brilliantly portrayed with innocent volatility by John Turturro. Supporting that trio with comically sincere performances are David Paymer and Hank Azaria as the reprehensible producers. Then, in a delightfully ironic twist, Redford, who is far better known as an actor, fills two roles with actors who are far better known as directors. Martin Scorsese ably plays the slimy sales-focussed sponsor of the show and Barry Levinson is casually off-beat as NBC Today host Dave Garroway. To top it all off, the film is peppered with several familiar faces in minor roles, some of them unknown at the time, including Calista Flockhart as an adoring fan. The most curious cameo of all is an uncredited Ethan Hawke, whose twenty seconds of screen time is mostly spent off camera talking to Van Doren, Sr. Which brings us to the only performance in the film to be nominated for an Oscar, that of Paul Scofield, whose portrayal of the elder Van Doren is refreshingly simple yet immensely effective.