Top Fifty Films of the 90s — Number Twenty-One


#21 — Quiz Show (Robert Redford, 1994)
At the time of Quiz Show‘s initial release, director Robert Redford talked often and openly about his views regarding the topic of his film, the scandal at the dawn of television’s influence on the culture that involved certain game show contestants being illicitly provided answers to prolong their audience-pleasing runs of success on the programs. Redford felt it was especially worthy of cinematic scrutiny because it represented the end of American innocence. A few months later, in naming Quiz Show one of the best films of the year, Entertainment Weekly critic Owen Gleiberman offered a slightly different interpretation, which I feel better gets at the strength and value of the film. He wrote “It may not have been the moment, exactly, when America ‘lost its innocence,’ but it was perhaps the first public symbol of how easily our dreams of upward mobility could be fueled by a lie.” Embedded within that observation is the broken heart of Redford’s film, the sense of not just troubling secrets, but of terrible betrayal.

As much as Redford considered the societal implications of the quiz show scandal, his filmmaking instincts took him to the place where he’d already proven his mettle as a director almost fifteen years earlier with Ordinary People. He examines the broader impact right up to the closing credits, which are accompanied by a slow motion image of an audience clapping in delight, presumably oblivious to whatever deceit has been played upon them. But his focus is on the personal. The film is dominated by the string of relationships that are, one way or another, dinged and damaged as the extent of the cognitive chicanery comes to light. Secrets beget secrets, and when money and status are the prizes, all motivations become equally suspect. Even the crusading investigator who sets his crosshairs on the growing behemoth of network television, convinced he can make them pay for the sham they perpetrated, must answer to his sharp, skeptical wife when his altruistic fervor has limits seemingly shaped less by the facts of the case than his own dreams of joining the storied elite. Paul Attanasio’s screenplay lays out all of the interpersonal connections with clarity and insight, and Redford works with his actors to be sure they’re portrayed with corresponding care. When esteemed professor and poet Mark Van Doren dresses down his son for his part in the scandal, the moment’s power comes not from its admitted familiarity as the sort of big scene that must show up in a drama that concerns itself with family dynamics. Instead, it has a sharpness because of the thoughtful patience that has previously gone into establishing the delicacy of their relationship. Of course, having actors as skilled as Paul Scofield and Ralph Fiennes to stand facing each other helps immeasurably.

Like most actors of his generation, Redford spent plenty of time plying his trade before television cameras, punching the clock for shows like Playhouse 90 and The Twilight Zone. His firsthand experience has a clear influence on Quiz Show. The milieu feels exactly right, from the crammed studios to the rumbling hordes of suited bigwigs roaming the halls after a broadcast to the terse telephone conversations between sponsors and producers as their mutual televised product was being fed to the pubic in real time. Redford allows for its crisp glamor while challenging, maybe even condemning, the artifice of it all. It begins to seem as if the lies are inevitable, especially as the power structure circles the wagons to protect their extensive investment in their own authority. No matter how many different ways, how many different times the public is played for fools, it seems, the lessons will never stick. And, returning to those haunting closing credits, the cheering will never stop.

4 thoughts on “Top Fifty Films of the 90s — Number Twenty-One

  1. I am a bit behind on your blog, but loved the “coincidence” of the number/title. So very clever. And…oops. Sorry, I was going to write a whole bunch more but I got distracted by images of Ralph in the blue checked shirt…and the white shirt…and the bathrobe…and…

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