Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Great Alphabet of Films—Q is For

Quiz Show

       It's too bad that The African Queen isn't just called Queen because Humphrey Bogart gives one of his best performances alongside Katharine Hepburn in John Huston's beautiful film....but alas, let's move on to a good film that is a "Q" qualifier, and with reason. Since I was a little harsh to The Sundance Kid with my "O" post, I decided to make amends by selecting Robert Redford's historical drama, Quiz Show. "Q" is like the red-headed stepchild of film letters, but Redford's film is no walkover. I'll keep this review fairly short, not out of deference to Redford, who'd probably not want to read a long review. Instead, we all know "Q's" are only good when they're preceded by Susie. And, unless your playing "Words With Friends," who has any real use for "Q?" I don't know one person that has an affinity for Q-tips, and the rapper Q-Tip kind of faded into celebrity-oblivion. Disregarding my latest digression, let's move into a discussion of the more pertinent "Q," Quiz Show.
       Quiz Show begins in the year 1958 when television quiz shows truly ruled the day. The mercenary producers of the popular quiz show Twenty-One, which reigned supreme in the TV game show market, encounter a big problem. Their inescapable dilemma comes in the form of an idealistic young lawyer, Dick Goodwin (Rob Morrow), who's working for a Congressional subcommittee. Goodwin discovers that the TV show is being fixed. His investigation focuses on two contestants: Herbert Stempel (John Turturro), a brash, working-class Queen's resident with an incredible memory and encyclopedic range of knowledge, and Charles Van Doren, a handsome progeny of one of America's leading literary families. The show's producers encourage the grating Stemple to "take a dive," and allow the charming Van Doren to become the show's new champion. Soon, audiences endear themselves to the personable Van Doren, and he's certainly not averse to the tremendous money he's winning. But the ethics of this fraudulent situation begin to distress him, especially when the show's producers start giving him the questions in advance.
      Adapted from Richard Goodwin's memoir Remembering America, Quiz Show is a smart, subtle, and surly screenplay from Paul Attanasio. Superb performances from Ralph Fiennes, John Turturro and Paul Scofield accentuate the unrelenting tone of the story. Turturro is exceptional as the uncharismatic Herbie Stempel—he's kind of a cross between Jeff Goldblum's character in Independence Day (remember this exchange:"David, why'd I just send my mother to to me") and Sean Gullette's character from Darren Aronofsky's directorial debut, Pi (Maximillian Cohen). 
      Scofield is wonderful as the eminent father of Charles Van Doren. He portrays Mark Van Doren, a famous poet, with a quiet resolve and supportive fatherly tenderness. What's beautiful about his understated and underwritten character is his quiet dignity. He has some sentimental and poignant scenes with Ralph Fiennes. Their best moment together occurs after Charles admits to him that he was complicit in the rigging of Twenty One. Rather than reacting in complete, unrestrained disgust, his father exudes a sullen disappointment; he never abandons his once extreme pridefulness. Ralph Fiennes gives a touching and sophisticated performance as well. When he's quoting Shakespeare, there's an unmistakable confidence and resolve in his voice. Fiennes' on screen magnetism and charisma is hard to deny. And when he finally admits his aforementioned shameful indiscretions to his father, he exudes a sentimental, gentle and delicate temperament, which is antithetical to his rawest emotions at the time: contrition, regret, and sadness. Few actors can beautifully captain a titanic range of emotions with such an effortless calm—Ralph Fiennes makes it look far too easy. Oh, and Christopher McDonald is also a fixture in the strong cast. Who doesn't like Shooter McGavin?
      Director Robert Redford and writer Paul Attanasio paint a telling portrait of calculable corruption in media. Redford illustrates, with a very shrewd assessment, just how easily the network heads and advertisement cohorts manipulated the scandal. What's more troublesome is just how sinister the network became in deflecting responsibility away from itself. While on the surface a story about the nature of systemic scandal, Quiz Show is, more vividly, a riveting examination of the transformation of American character and culture during the 1950's. The realization of the American Dream is one facet of this burgeoning period of domestic life, but Redford forces us to realize that the 1950's also represented a dour turning point for our broader culture, illustrating the negligible impact of corruptible media contrivances. 
      My most griping complaint with Redford's film is its uneven tendency; it's trying to be both a little too documentarian and a little too period based without any dominant tone. At its fundamental core, Quiz Show is a gripping drama disguised as a historical narrative. Redford takes many liberties to heighten the drama such as the ignorance of the rigging practices that preceded Twenty-One: "The $64,000 Question" and "Tic-Tac-Dough." Essentially, Redford exercised his dramatic license to dramatic effect because he didn't want to merely tell a documentary, but the uneven balance and tone negate his intention.
      Quiz Show was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Paul Scofield) and Best Adapted Screenplay. Redford's film gains its greatest appeal from the dual efficiencies of its formidable cast and fascinating script. Aided by Redford's gentle and extremely competent direction, Quiz Show is an outstanding drama about morals and our choices. It's compelling and absorbing. It's even old-fashioned. Ultimately, it is a poignant examination of pop culture, TV, greed, and race relations in American society of the 1950's, with perfect casting of Turturro, Fiennes, and Scofield. Unfortunately though, if I were to construct a numerical listing of my Great Alphabet, Quiz Show would be 26. But that grim fact (for Redford) is not a disparaging statement against the quality of the film. It's just a strong reminder that "Q" is the bottom feeder of the alphabet. More importantly, my other 25 films are just that good.  

*Quiz Show trailer.


  1. I haven't seen this since it came out, but I remember liking it a lot. It probably deserves another look all these years later. I'm sure it would still hold up as a good movie.

  2. there's a QUEEN film with Helen Mirren which would fit this letter perfectly :)

    I've never seen QUIZ SHOW, doesn't sound like my cup of tea, but I do respect Ralph Fienne's roles.

  3. Quiz Show was an amazing movie. I loved it then and I love it now. Any time it shows up on late night TV I watch it. Dez, you're right with The Queen but you really should give Quiz Show a go.

  4. I have not seen this but it sounds like something I would enjoy.

  5. This is a fine movie - but I have no doubt you're right - it probably would be 26 if I listed them numerically too. I will point out The Queen (as someone mentioned) and even Larry Cohen's Q - as this list is not likely to end up with much of a horror/sci-fi/monster tally - and that quirky (alliterative pun intended) flick, toplining Michael Moriarty, David Carradine, Candy Clark, and Richard Roundtree, is a fun small movie. But this is not "Tell Matthew what film he should have picked" (Really it's not - despite those two titles) I thoroughly enjoyed Quiz Show when it came out - fine acting, good period detail, unobtrusive direction from Redford. It's a fine choice for a difficult letter! Thanks as always for posting it! Cheers!

  6. This movie came out with a flurry of other super movies, and I think it got lost in the shuffle. Will look it up, and watch it.

  7. One that I haven't gotten a chance to watch. But based on your fabulous review, I think I certainly must give this a try.

  8. A good choice for Q. I liked this film, but was not overly impressed with it. The cast was marvelous, Fiennes spectacular. Christopher MacDonald and John Turturro are two actors I love to watch. They really embody their characters whenever they work, almost disappearing into their roles.

    This film does still carry a great message about the manipulation of television especially in light of all the "reality" shows that are so prevalent.

    If I were picking a Q film, I'd have gone with a sentimental fave of mine, Quality Street. It's one of Katharine Hepburn's lesser known films and it really showcases her comic talents. It's not a great film, but it's one that I just love and it makes me laugh every time I watch it.

  9. Looks like I have been missing out! I have never heard of this film before. I'm very intrigued though. I will have to find this film. : )

  10. @ L.G.

    Definitely still holds up because the message still resonates with today's gluttonous media landscape.

    @ Dezmond

    Nah Dezz, Queen doesn't excite me quite that much. The tried-and-true period pieces of British royalty don't intrigue me. There's always exceptions. I don't want to disparage that genre either because I loved The King's Speech and many others.

    @ Cathy

    Thanks! Glad you're on the same page.

    @ Liz

    It's worth your time. It's a wonderful character study and an incisive look at the manipulation of the media.

  11. @ Craig

    Thanks Craig! And I'm not the least bit surprised you'd agree with me. It is #26, but still a really strong film.

    And who knows about the whole horror representation. "T" is coming up and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is one of my favorite horror films. We shall see...

    @ Susan

    Interesting point. It's definitely worth your time.

    @ Jaccstev

    Thanks. Fiennes, Turturro, and Scofield make this required viewing.

    @ Melissa

    Thanks! I realize it's not the greatest film, but the acting and overarching theme make it worthwhile.

    Quality Street sounds like a nice film. I've never seen it, but Hepburn is a legend. Needless to say, I'm intrigued. Thanks for suggestion.

    @ Nicole

    Awesome! I'm glad I could help turn your eyes to a wonderful, somewhat lesser known film.

  12. Quiz Show was my choice for "Q" as well. Great movie! Turturro was a standout (loved him in Barton Fink).

  13. @ Luana

    Awesome. Great minds think alike!

    And Barton Fink is a great Coen Brothers film. I have to re-watch it one of these days. Turturro is a grossly underrated actor.