Freeze Frame #139: Quiz Show

I watched Quiz Show on TV eons ago and thought it was a wonderful film. But over the years, my memory of it faded to the point where I could only remember one scene with clarity. Recently, when it came on TV again, I stuck around to watch that scene and then zapped on to other stuff.

The movie tells the story of the rise and fall of a quiz show named 21 which, it turns out, was rigged by its producers in order to get higher ratings. In the third act, when things slowly unravel for everyone involved in the show, there is a meeting between Richard Goodwin, the Congressional investigator probing the scam and Martin Rittenhome, the head of a pharmaceutical company which sponsored the show. The conversation features the sort of cynical truth-telling that we are probably quite used to by now:

You see, the audience didn’t tune in to watch some amazing display of intellectual ability. They just wanted to watch the money.

That Rittenhome is played by Martin Scorsese might have much to do with why I love this scene. Listening to Scorsese’s voice is almost as pleasurable as watching one of his best movies. But this isn’t just me being in love with how the man speaks.

To understand why this scene works so well, you have to listen to the movie rather than just see it. For two acts, the movie seduces you with softly spoken voices of well-mannered people. When you hear Herbert Stempel, the deposed quiz show champion, complain about the show being rigged, it seems like so much whining even though you realize that he is probably speaking the truth. John Turturro does a wonderful job with this character, and a big part of how his character is seen in the movie has to do with how he speaks with a rough, unpolished accent.

Goodwin, on the other hand, befriends the current champion Charles Van Doren — erudite, charming, born to a life of privilege. The movie is seen through Goodwin’s eyes, and his relationship with Van Doren is central to the movie. We, along with Goodwin, are charmed by the other man. We share his illusions about how the television business seems to work, even though we ought to know better. And when the illusion finally shatters, we share in his disillusionment. Again, even though we ought to know better.

Therefore, when the Scorsese character talks about what the show really meeant to the audiences, and when the Kevin Pollak character (who produces the show) talks about how they viewed the quiz show as entertainment and not an actual contest, the tone of these scenes is in stark contrast with the rest of the proceedings.

Rittenhome doesn’t tell us something we don’t know. He just reminds us of something we allowed ourselves to forget for the past 90 minutes.

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8 thoughts on “Freeze Frame #139: Quiz Show

  1. Rajendran says:

    Quiz Show – What a wonderful film. I remember watching this film long time back and being amazed at how the whole fight of Turturro against the establishment not being an ethical one but one of fame. The script was just so wonderful. Plenty of scenes stood out but the the one where Ralph Fiennes and his father have a conversation towards the end was just scripted to perfection. Possible freeze frame post, Ramsu. Do you notice any similarity of this movie with Network?

    • A number of good scenes in the movie, actually. I love Van Doren’s conversation with Goodwin when the latter quietly warns him about what’s going to happen. Amazing actor, that Ralph Fiennes — you can just as easily imagine him doing this role as, say, Amon Goeth in Schindler’s List. Sometimes, I’m almost glad that the Harry Potter movies haven’t become phenomenally successful — it would be a real pity if Voldemort was his calling card.

      I think Quiz Show is a lot more gentle about its views on TV than Network — the latter was so sharp, it’s amazing how relevant it is even today. I should do a Freeze Frame post about Beatrice Straight’s outburst at William Holden. She won her Oscar for just that one scene, when you think about it.

  2. Goodwin Hunting says:

    I’m gonna have to watch (or is it listen to) this one — such a nice write-up!

    Can’t believe they’ve made movies on two of the three things I largely derive life lessons from (Quiz Show and Wordplay), and I’ve missed them both. (Why settle for pale imitations when you can partake of the real deal, seems to have been my philosophy.)

    And oh BTW, before I forget to ask, are you finally over the happy-dance-hangover hump? (You know, from your birthday night, after that swashbuckling Wimbledon win…What an amazing display of sportsmanship, all the way thru the acceptance speeches, no?)

    • For the first time, I was actually disappointed when Federer won. Given how Roddick had played out of his skin, I’d have been happier to see him win this match.

      • GH says:

        “..had played out of his [fore?]skin” — So true. It did feel like he was having an out-of-body experience. (Maybe that was Rafa in Roddick’s skin, vicariously playing the part that was rightfully his? Who knows, but speaking of which — and not to take away from Andy (btw, I just resolved to not refer to his last name till I rid my right brain of invidious-image implant, courtesy IndieQuill) who deserved every bit of the rousing applause — you do anticipate this disappointment already in your post on Rafa’s Grace, don’t you?)

      • GH says:

        Yeah, as I only retrospectively realized. (I should’ve at least qualified the “anticipated” with a “somewhat”, to solidify the implication that the “happy dance” duration was somewhere in the ballpark of zero and 30 minutes.)

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