April 07, 2004

Quiz Show

"I wanted to get television, but television is going to get us."

This quote from Dick Goodwin comes out near the end of Quiz Show, a true story of dishonesty in television back in the 50's.

Jeopardy is my favorite game show, as it is for many people. This movie certainly didn't make me wonder if Jeopardy is corrupt. Alex Trebek's show happens way too fast to be choreographed. However, I did think of it when one of the characters was talking about why people become fascinated with game shows. He said that the viewers don't watch to see some dazzling display of intellect; they watch to see the flow of money. And I thought of Jeopardy because what I am in fact more likely to remember, is how much money the winner got, not what questions he or she got right.

I've heard of this movie for the ten years since it was released, but the premise never sounded that intriguing to me. A rigged game show. BFD. These days it's generally accepted that many of those shows, most notably Hollywood Squares, are scripted.

I have always read that Quiz Show is a very good film however, so I've wanted to see it. Finally tonight I got the chance thanks to HBO. Yes, it is a very good film -- almost excellent -- mainly due to first-rate acting performances all the way around. We see nice work by Ralph Fiennes as Charles Van Doren, the big fraud of a contestant, and Rob Morrow as Dick Goodwin, the Congressional investigator. John Turturro can overplay a character just right in my opinion, and his portrayal of Herb Stempel, the nutbag Jew-with-a-chip-on-his-shoulder who goes public with the fix, is great.

I kept in mind while watching Quiz Show that this is a Robert Redford film. He tends to be preachy. Somehow I got on his mailing list for environmental causes. I have nothing against his directorial abilities -- he was nominated for an Oscar for his work here and deserved the recognition. I just kept my ears open for political references. The only thing I caught was a few lines from Goodwin disparaging McCarthyism.

What impresses ultimately, is what they did with what I still consider a weak premise. Like Dan Enright, the producer who fed answers to contestants, says to the Congressional committee (paraphrased): "The network makes advertising money, the advertiser sells more product, the contestants get more money then they would ever have a chance to make otherwise, and the audience is entertained. There are no victims."

We do see two victims however. Herb's pride is crushed, but he does not have both oars in the water as Johnny Carson used to say, and we really don't feel too sorry for him. If he hadn't blown his cash gambling this whole drama probably never would have come to light. However, Charles Van Doren we do feel for even though he was willing. His conscience is a major victim of this crime. Charlie's statement to the committee is quite memorable, where he doesn't just come clean about getting answers, he apologizes for his whole life and all the advantages he has been given.

The scam was perpetrated by two guys and two guys only: Enright and his partner. This was not some grand conspiracy that reached the highest levels of society. Some hozer was just trying to boost his TV ratings so he created a drama.

As is usual when a movie is about real people using real names, at the end they tell us in an on screen text message where the principals are now. They said that Enright and his helper guy, after years in exile, came back to America in the 60's and produced another game show called The Joker's Wild, and they made millions from it. I remember The Joker's Wild, and I also remember the observation that both a friend and I made about it. Because the show involved a slot machine style pull of a lever bringing up three random cards, we thought that it could easily have been rigged.

Posted by Wayne at April 7, 2004 01:12 AM

Hello. I really like your site. I was wondering if you would like to do an link exchange with my site (I'd email you, but I can't find an address), Milk Plus: A Discussion of Film?

Posted by: Shroomy at April 7, 2004 07:26 PM
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