Quiz Show

(USA 1994)

“Cheating on a quiz show? That’s sort of like plagiarizing a comic strip.”

—Mark Van Doren


The quiz show scandal of the late 1950s doesn’t sound like a riveting topic for a film, but that’s exactly what it is in Quiz Show, Robert Redford’s fourth directing gig. Every aspect of this film is spectacularly elegant, starting with Bobby Darin crooning “Mack the Knife” as the opening credits roll over shots of armored security guards transferring sealed questions and answers from a bank vault to a studio. Quiz Show is a modern morality play with lots of style.

It’s 1958, and NBC’s Twenty-One is the biggest game show in America. Homely goofball Herbert Stempel (John Turturro) of Queens is a surprise celebrity after an unprecedented winning streak, but the show’s ratings have “plateaued.” The show’s sponsor, Geritol, is ready for a change. So are producers Dan Enright (David Paymer) and Albert Freedman (Hank Azaria), who decide that a charismatic, television-ready new contestant is what the show needs.

WASPy college professor Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes) happens to audition for another NBC game show, the less popular Tic Tac Dough. Handsome, polished, and hailing from an eminent intellectual family, “Charlie” fits the bill for Enright and Freedman’s vision.

Enright takes Stempel out for a steak dinner and asks him to “take a dive,” or purposely lose to Van Doren, on an upcoming show. Predictably, this isn’t something Stempel wants to do—at least, not without something in return. Enright fails to deliver on purposely vague promises, and Stempel publicly calls Twenty-One a fraud, saying it’s rigged. A judge seals the findings of a grand jury investigation, which gets some very minor press: a blurb in the paper. It catches the attention of ladder climbing Richard “Dick” Goodwin (Rob Morrow), a lawyer with the House Legislative Oversight Subcommittee in Washington, D.C., who plans to “put TV on trial.”

Quiz Show didn’t set the box office on fire during its original run, which is really odd (http://www.boxofficemojo.com/yearly/chart/?yr=1994). No matter, because it’s a fine drama. Based on the book Remembering America: A Voice From the Sixties by the real Richard Goodwin, Paul Attanasio’s screenplay is meticulously calibrated and cerebral, rich with strong characters, intertwined dilemmas, a fascinating plot, and a plethora of Fifties pop cultural references without nostalgia. Redford’s pacing is excellent: he sets up the story slowly then knocks down each character one after another. He draws superb performances out of the actors, too. The literary repartee between Van Doren and his genteel father, Mark (Paul Scofield), is one of the best things about this film. A wry and subtle sense of humor keeps the story exuberant: Martin Scorsese is great as fast talking Geritol CEO Martin Rittenhome, and Christopher McDonald makes an awesome Jack Barry.

Sure, Quiz Show isn’t an “exact word” historical documentary; Redford and Attanasio took some license. However, the result is an excellent depiction of good versus evil, not just in the television industry but in corporate America altogether. There’s not a lull or a dull moment here. The only criticism I have is Morrow’s unconvincing Boston accent; that can go. Everything else, though, is brilliant. Enright’s son, Don, wrote a piece about Quiz Show for the L.A. Times (http://articles.latimes.com/1994-09-19/entertainment/ca-40429_1_quiz-show); it’s another view worth considering.

With Mira Sorvino, Johann Carlo, Elizabeth Wilson, Allan Rich, Griffin Dunne

Production: Hollywood Pictures

Distribution: Buena Vista Pictures

133 minutes
Rated PG-13

(DVD/iTunes purchase) A

TwentyOne Pic

Some Like It Hot

(USA 1959)

An anonymous staff writer for Variety magazine reviewing Some Like It Hot upon its initial release in 1959 said it succinctly:

Some Like It Hot, directed in masterly style by Billy Wilder, is probably the funniest picture of recent memory. It’s a whacky, clever, farcical comedy that starts off like a firecracker and keeps on throwing off lively sparks till the very end.”


And how! I never saw Some Like It Hot—I wasn’t sure how good or even funny it would be after nearly 60 years. My expectations were zero. I’m happy to report that it most certainly is a blast—the humor still works well, and the whole thing is deliciously tongue in cheek. I loved it.

Chicago, 1929: musicians Joe (Tony Curtis) and Jerry (Jack Lemmon) desperately need work. After inadvertently witnessing the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, they reluctantly accept a gig playing in a female jazz band headed to Florida—as female musicians, of course. Yes, in drag. Who knew sultry party girl Sugar Kane Kowalczyk (Marilyn Monroe) would be around, constantly threatening to blow their cover?

Loaded with sexual tension and humor, Some Like It Hot shows a side of the ’50s I didn’t realize existed: it’s brazen, offbeat, ardent, inspired, and totally original. Curtis, Lemmon, and Monroe are unstoppable together. The scene with Curtis and Monroe on the yacht is oddly hot. I definitely get the appeal of Monroe after seeing this—and I’ve seen in her other films, specifically Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Not the same effect at all. Joe E. Brown is unforgettable as cracker-barrel millionaire Osgood Fielding, who tries his damnedest to woo Daphne (Lemmon).

Some Like It Hot has the absolute best final scene—if not the absolute best final line—in film history. It’s a classic that everyone should see.

In 1989, the United States Library of Congress deemed Some Like It Hot “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry (https://www.loc.gov/programs/national-film-preservation-board/film-registry/complete-national-film-registry-listing/).

121 minutes
Not rated

(Music Box) A


The Tales of Hoffmann

(USA 1951)

OMG, what the fuck is this? Yes, it’s the operatic epic of Hoffmann (though I still have no idea who the fuck he is) and three of the loves of his life. But…dude, man, FUCK!

Written, directed, and produced by famed Brits the Archers–Michael Powell and Emetic Pressburger–The Tales of Hoffman is an old school movie they just don’t make anymore. Visually, a stunning Technicolor wet dream complete with elaborate dance numbers, lavish costumes, and big trippy-ass sets. It’s serious eye candy with a major gay sensibility (I have no idea whether Powell and Pressburger were gay or not). It’s impressive for its scale alone, and certainly is unlike anything I’ve ever seen.

But what the fuck just happened? Clocking in at just over two hours, I thought The Tales of Hoffmann would never end. It’s pretty, but it’s long–it seems longer than it is. For me, it was probably sensory overload with not enough plot. Did I mention, what the FUCK?

(Music Box) D