Quiz Show (1994)

Dir. Robert Redford. Starring Ralph Fiennes, Rob Morrow, John Turturro

About an hour or so into Quiz Show, I found myself…not bored, exactly, but struggling from an almost oppressive dose of formula. About an hour and five minutes into Quiz Show, I wondered if that was necessarily the movie’s fault. After all, most of the movies I found myself comparing it to were released after Quiz Show.

Kyle Chandler and Rob Morrow aren’t twins, but I think you could be forgiven for wondering if they were related. Chandler’s turn in The Wolf of Wall Street is the same as Morrow’s role in Quiz Show. Both are overqualified for the government jobs, which lends an air of dissatisfaction to their personae. Both know instinctively that the men they’re trailing – whether it’s Leo DiCaprio or Ralph Fiennes – are full of it, but their marks seem to bask in the glow of “I’m getting away with it.” They both have scenes on boats. Of course, the comparison is not perfect, because Rob Morrow sounds more like Tom Hanks in Catch Me if You Can than he does Chandler. Is this movie not as interesting as it could be because Morrow isn’t a great actor? Or is it because the movie doesn’t give Morrow enough to do?

Maybe the problem is that Leonardo isn’t the one trying to get away with something, though he would have been a little young to play thirty-something Charlie Van Doren back in 1994. (DiCaprio had just gotten an Oscar nomination for What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.) Ralph Fiennes plays Van Doren instead, with his hair dyed an interesting color; it takes about thirty seconds to realize that’s actually kind of like Redford’s hair color. In 1994, Redford was too old to play Van Doren, but one gets the sense that Fiennes is playing Van Doren as/for Redford. Fiennes’ best roles – Amon Goeth in Schindler’s List, Laszlo Almasy in The English Patient – don’t allow for very much smiling. He spends most of his time in both movies with his jaw set and his eyes lacerating the focus of his gaze. In Quiz Show, many of his scenes require him to laugh, or at least let his eyes dance a little. Fiennes is a wonderful actor: he doesn’t have to be stern to be good, but his performance is missing the edge that one is accustomed to seeing from him, and it’s that edge which makes him more interesting than some no-name actor.

Van Doren is an accomplice, but he is also the star of the picture just as he was the star of Twenty One. One of the storylines that is stated frequently but never actually sketched out with any seriousness is Dick Goodwin’s (Morrow) aim in trying to bring down Twenty One: he’s not interested in bringing down Van Doren, but he is very interested in attacking NBC. While the senators seem intent on filleting trout, Goodwin is the only guy trying to get the marlin. Goodwin’s intent is infectious: goodness knows I’d rather watch this go all the way to the top, a la All the President’s Men, than deal with Charles Van Doren’s moral turpitude. He knows it’s wrong. He profits from it. He struggles with it. His dad (Paul Scofield) makes him feel worse about it. And then he tells Congress that he done wrong. None of that is gripping. Dick Goodwin trying to bring down Dan Enright (David Paymer) and Albert Freedman (Hank Azaria)? That’s fascinating. Those are much bigger fish, and there’s a whole conversation that the movie could have about government regulation of television, the birth of a modern FCC, or some other topic of interest. Martin Scorsese, in his cameo, says the people weren’t watching to see intellectual feats. They were following the money. No one watched All the President’s Men because they were just fascinated by Don Segretti – they watched because they knew it led to Nixon being unseated! I wish Quiz Show had wanted to do more than just show us Don Segretti. Heck, even Zuckerman Unbound, which features a fictionalized Herbert Stempler, does a better job at characterizing these people.

I think there’s an inverse quality between how many teeth an actor shows in this movie and how much I like his performance. Rob Morrow, Ralph Fiennes, and John Turturro seem to have contractual obligations to be as toothy as possible, using smiles to mean anything: Morrow is supposed to be wry and know-it-all, Fiennes is meant to be defusing and old-sportish, and Turturro is some mix of an alligator and your coked-out uncle. David Paymer as a TV executive is textbook character actor. He is pleasantly slimy. But Paul Scofield is acting like he’s working on a different production. His teeth are in his mouth as often as they need to be. He plays Mark Van Doren, a Pulitzer Prize winning poet and scholar whose personal game of quiz show is parrying Shakespeare quotes with Charlie. Charles buys him a TV set at the height of his run, and Mark can barely watch it for stress. When Charles admits that he’s been cheating to get his money from the show, something that Mark compares to plagiarizing a comic book, Mark is stupefied. He is the only character of note who is not party, in some way, to the world of the quiz show scandals; even the wives are involved. Sandra Goodwin (Mira Sorvino) gives her husband guff for his unwillingness to subpoena Van Doren, while Toby Stempel (Johann Carlo) is embarrassed and hurt once she finds out that her husband was fed the answers. But Charlie’s dad, probably the most erudite fellow in a story full of trivia-knowers and doctorates, is the last character with a name to find out, and he is floored. He told Charlie, over a wee hours slice of chocolate cake with milk, that he would be happiest when he had a son; Scofield does a brilliant job at portraying his shock and disappointment genuinely. In the hands of another actor, those emotions would look staged, but Scofield is believable. His grief is not overwrought, nor does he become angry; he acts like someone who is digesting a very bad meal.

Quiz Show was nominated for Best Picture in 1994, and lost to Forrest Gump in real life and Pulp Fiction in my heart. The Lion King was released that year. So were The Shawshank Redemption and The Madness of King George and Four Weddings and a Funeral and Three Colors: Red. It bombed at the box office. To me, it is the very picture of an overshadowed movie: not only did it fail to carve out profits for its studio, but it is merely a well put together movie in a year when being merely put together well means it gets lost in the shuffle.

Perhaps this is why I will opt for a Steve McQueen rather than a Robert Redford directing my movie any day of the week. People often accuse McQueen of letting his camera get in the way of telling a story (assuming that conventional cinematography tells a story better, which might be true if your favorite dinner is pot roast and your favorite color is taupe). If telling a story means conventional American shots, simple cuts, back and forth talks between actors, and an occasional Dutch angle, then give me an “intrusive” director any day of the week.

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