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25th Anniversary: Quiz Show (1994)

Best Picture nominee Quiz Show (1994) was released 25 years ago. Here's Anna with a look back...

The year is 1958 (it should be 1956; Redford condensed the three-year scandal into one). Households across America tune in to watch Twenty-One. Everyone is fascinated by the wisdom from reigning champion Herb Stempel (John Turturro). Well, almost everyone; producers Dan Enright (David Paymer) and Albert Freedman (Hank Azaria) as well as the show’s sponsor think it’s high time for some new talent on the show. Enter Columbia University instructor Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes), who had auditioned for their other show Tic-Tac-Dough. And this is when Enright tells Herb to take the fall, which he reluctantly does. But how long until keeping the truth becomes too much for Charles?

Another source of tension for Charles in Quiz Show is that from his father Mark (Paul Scofield). There’s a small moment where Charles is at his parents’ home, looking a wall of his father’s achievements. You can see on his face the guilt sinking in, how he’s realizing his success is all a show just for some lousy TV ratings. (Later in the scene, Mark remarks that his wife called Charles “the actor in the family”.) You can tell in later scenes that constantly being in the public eye is starting to suffocate Charles. (For the record, Jeffrey Hart, a friend of Van Doren, called this friction between father and son far from the truth.)

If anything, Quiz Show isn’t just about the scandal playing out before millions of unsuspecting TV audiences. Redford makes it about the class struggle as well. At one point, Herb rants to Congressional lawyer Dick Goodwin (Rob Morrow) that Jewish contestants of Twenty-One earn less money than the Gentiles they lose to. (Goodwin later finds this to be true.) And both Enright and Freedman (and eventually the American public) find educated WASP Charles a much more bankable and appealing figure than – in Freedman’s words – “a fat, annoying Jewish guy with a sidewall haircut”.

Of course, making a film about real-life events can be complicated if the subjects are still alive whilst the film’s in production, especially if they want no part in the matter. After turning down the offer of being a consultant for Quiz Show, Van Doren – who died this past April – broke his silence in 2008 by writing a piece for The New Yorker that recalled the events that led to his notoriety and agreeing with many of the film’s elements (but not all of them, mind you).

As for Stempel, he was reluctant to talk about what he was a part of all those years ago but relented for PBS when they covered the various quiz show scandals of the era for American Experience in 1992. He even makes a cameo in the film proper (he wasn’t thrilled with how he was portrayed in the film but he embraced the renewed public interest after its release).

Strangely, despite its four Oscar nominations (losing to Forrest Gump or Ed Wood in those races), Quiz Show didn’t receive Oscar nominations for either Turturro (who was nominated by the Golden Globes, the Screen Actors Guild, and the Chicago Film Critics Association) or Fiennes (who had been nominated the year before with Schindler’s List). Obviously, Fiennes is, well, a fine actor but how is it Turturro still doesn't have any one nomination to his name?

Nowadays – especially in light of the various sexual harassment claims against various public figures – something like a rigged game show seems almost harmless in hindsight. But this was the 1950s, mind you; this was the era of McCarthyism, where a once-respected image could be thoroughly eviscerated following the revelations of lies told. Van Doren and Stempel laid low for years after their testimonies. After all, how would you feel if the only thing people knew about you was that you effectively lied to millions of people on television for weeks on end?

Do you have any strong memories of Quiz Show?
Who would you have voted for in its four Oscar categories?

Picture Director Supporting Actor Adapted Screenplay
Forrest Gump Woody Allen, Bullets Over Broadway Samuel L Jackson, Pulp Fiction Forrest Gump, Eric Roth
Four Weddings and a Funeral Krzysztof Kieslowski, Three Colors: Red Martin Landau, Ed Wood Madness of King George, Alan Bennett
Pulp Fiction Robert Redford, Quiz Show Chazz Palminterri, Bullets Over Broadway Nobody's Fool, Robert Benton
Quiz Show Quentin Tarantino, Pulp Fiction Paul Scofield, Quiz Show Quiz Show, Paul Attansio
Shawshank Redemption Robert Zemeckis, Forrest Gump Gary Sinise, Forrest Gump Shawshank Redemption, Frank Darabont

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Reader Comments (17)

I know both Pulp Fiction (a real mixed bag) and Forrest Gump (yuk) have gone on to be classics, but I have always preferred the squaresville Quiz Show anyway.

Give Quiz Show Picture and Screenplay and Tarentino Director. That Supporting Actor lineup is fantastic. One of the best ever, and Martin Landau is one of the most deserving winners ever. (If Ed Wood (my favorite American film of 1994 fyi) had been nominated for Best Picture and Director, it would be my choice in both of those categories.)

And as for John Turturro, the Academy has a chance this very year to right a wrong and nominate him for Gloria Bell. He's so fantastic in an unexpected role, yet I already see he's being omitted from almost every pundit's list of possible candidates! C'mon Film Experience, let's get the ball rolling!

September 16, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterken s.

Peak Fiennes beauty and of course the sublime Paul Scofield and the ever watchable John Turturro both deserving that years statue but the competition was tough indeed.

Only Rob Morrow whatever happened to him lets the movie down.

September 16, 2019 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordonuk

1994 is such a strong line up and what a time to be a movie star fan,so many of them in the 90's.

Pulp Fiction is truly influential,resurrected careers and contributed to pop film culture in a way that can't be denied,it's not my fave but I think it's the best made of the 5.

Forrest Gump is well made,likeable and again has entered the pop film culture,it can be just a little too patriotic and cloying,Field and Wright are not given much but do it well,I like Sinise in it but he's a bit 1 note,Hanks who I wouldn't have nomined is again perfect here.

4 weddings my fave,maybe cos i'm a Brit,another pop culture phenomenon,endlessly quotable,discoveries in the cast Grant,KST etc,John Hannahs monologue is truly heartfelt and should have got him a nom.

The Shawshank redemption is a stone cold classic,a gr8 movie ending,an underrated Tim Robbins and the worst prison govener in film,it's nearly my best.

Quiz Show well made,well cast but not sparkling enough for the win.

A really great year overall.

September 16, 2019 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordonuk

I agree with markgordonuk: 1994 was such a good year (at the cinema and at the Oscars). The Academy made so many good selections that year, especially at the nomination stage.

I'd have voted thus:
Best Picture: Pulp Fiction
Directing: Kieslowski
Supporting Actor: Landau
Adapted Screenplay: Quiz Show

The supporting actor category is very strong, but I'd prefer to bump Jackson up to lead (taking Hanks's spot, good though Hanks is) and nominate Ving Rhames or Bruce Willis (Pulp Fiction) or Jim Broadbent or Joe Viterelli (Bullets over Broadway) in the vacated spot. But what a year!

September 16, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterEdward L.

I think Pulp Fiction was the best of the 1994 BP nominees, but Quiz Show has always been my personal favorite among them.

But my favorite AND best movie for 1994 was, without question, Kieslowski's Red. Still probably my #1 movie of all time.

September 16, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterLynn Lee

If I had to do a 94 ballot for Lead Support it would go like this



with love to Fiennes,Hanks,Robbins,Kingsley,Weaving,Freeman,Garcia.



with love to Sinise,Willis,Pearce,Paxton,Gunton,Callow,Vega,Renfro.

September 16, 2019 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordonuk

Oh yeah Depp in Ed Wood the last time I thought he was good in anything.

September 16, 2019 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordonuk

What a great year for film and "Quiz Show" was then and still now, a great favorite of mine. I could never deprive Landau for the win but I loved Paul Scofield in this. His reading of the line "Your name is mine." still gives me a chill every time I watch it.

September 16, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterGian

a) There was a play about the scandal that same year by Richard Greenberg which I'd highly recommend called "Night and her Stars."

Best PIcture: The Shawshank Redemption.
Best Director: Kryzstof Kieslowski, Red
Best Supporting Actor: Martin Landau, though really this is a stacked category
Best Adapted Screenplay: Quiz Show

September 16, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterArkaan

It may not have been the game changer that PULP FICTION was, and PULP FICTION clearly should have won, but QUIZ SHOW beats the rest of the competition. It's certainly a lot better than FORREST GUMP. Sadly, it has been all but forgotten, it seems. Nobody ever really talks about it anymore. It kind of faded pretty quickly, actually. But it's an excellent film.

September 16, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterDaniella Isaacs

I'm an outlier on this one: I loathed it. I found it super boring.

September 17, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterEz

I've said it before and I'll say it again: Quiz Show is the best picture of the 1994 Oscar line-up, no contest (Ed Wood is even better, but it wasn't nominated alas ...). Yes, Quiz Show is classic filmmaking, but that doesn't mean it plays things safe. It takes great craftsmanship to make a film like this, to sell all the nuances, to get the performances spot-on, to male it relevant to today's audiences. For some reason it always reminds me of All the President's Men, also a film about deceit and cover-ups. I think Redford looked very closely at Alan Pakula when making that film ...
(Also: because I'm from Belgium, I love the fact that Van Doren takes the fall on a question about the Belgian king Boudoin :-))

September 17, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterDieter

Absolutely love Quiz Show. It's fantastic film-making that's held up well over the years. Wish it was more widely appreciated.

That said, some of the awards are tough calls since 1994 was strong. For Director and Supporting Actor I'd go Kieslowski and Lanadau, but for Film and Screenplay I might well go with Quiz Show over Pulp and Shawshank, but those are tough calls.

By the way I love markgordonuk's acting lists. Honestly, I'd say Grant probably should've won that year. He's great and that film works because of him. And I'd have been thrilled to see Hannah join him among the nominees. Those two and KST (who had much less to work with, but still) really stood out, although that film's casting was kind of extraordinary across the board, from Coleman and Fleet in the core group to so many of the people you see only once or twice, like the women at Grant's table filled with his exes to Bernice Stegers trying to get Grant to buy a horrible wedding present.

And, am not from Belgium, but I love that he takes the fall on a Belgian monarchy question too. It's a tiny time capsule of things the US educated elites used to be expected to know.

September 17, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterScottC

Turturro is phenomenal in Gloria Bell.
It was a pleasure to see him in such a role.
I would be lovely to see him being Oscar-nominated at last!

September 17, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterdomgogo

It is lovely to see this piece. Even though NYFCC embraced the film, it never got the acclaim it deserved in the year of Forrest Gump and Pulp Fiction, but I think it has aged better than both movies. I rewatched it about a year ago, and was struck by how prescient it was. Watching Dick Goodwin get sucked into Van Doren's glamorous allure despite himself is frightening but believable. And Goodwin's kicker - "I thought I was going to get television, now it looks like television is going to get us" - feels eerie in light of our reality tv president.

I would have awarded it Picture, Director, and Adapted Screenplay, and Turturro should have won Supporting Actor - it's unfortunate he was overlooked.

September 17, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterSuzanne

I worked at the Sundance Institute the summer before it came out. Redford showed it to the staff and we all loved it. Around that time, a friend who was working for Philip Kaufman said that after he saw it, Kaufman said "well, Bob's got his second Oscar sewn up." Didn't really work out that way, though.

September 17, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterDan H

Love this film too although I need to rewatch it obviously to delight in its intimate greatness.

I remember trumpeter Mark Isham's score and Lyle Lovett singing a slow version of "Moritat". And Mira Sorvino was there too, I think.

September 17, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterOwl

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