1994: I Swear, Quiz Show Taught Me Life Isn’t Black & White

In film history, 1994 gets brought up a lot as a year where our cinematic cups ran over. It gets brought up frequently how unfair it was that Forrest Gump beat out Pulp Fiction for the Oscar (unless you’re like me and believe Gump is exponentially better than Pulp, though still not the best of 1994). For kids, there was The Lion King. For teens, The Crow and not one, not two, but three Jim Carrey movies. For tweens, Little Women and D2: The Mighty Ducks. There was even a stretch of middle-aged female thriller/action heroes in The River Wild and The Client.

Among this illustrious list, somehow The Shawshank Redemption rose to the top. Its ubiquity on cable helped, but the fact this Frank Darabont-directed contemporary classic is a timeless example of near-flawless storytelling is probably what helps the most. This movie will continue to be just as good 30 years from now because it doesn’t pull the Tarantino tricks or have a contemporary mid-90s setting. Those who haven’t seen it could watch it and have no clue what year it came out. It is a movie that deals with timeless issues of right and wrong and how someone may seem guilty, but in fact is not.

Perhaps that is why then that a very similar movie in look and feel, Quiz Show, failed to survive the glut of great movies of 1994 to remain recognized today. When Grantland spent an entire week on the movies of 1994 last year, it didn’t even get mentioned. It gets dismissed by many as fine, but forgettable. If 1994 were a competition, Shawshank beat out this Robert Redford-directed gem for the contemporary classic slot. But why?

If I had to guess, Redford is part of the problem. When you ask filmies to name their favorite directors, few pick him, the Ben Affleck of his generation. In fact, many people think of Redford as a villain of sorts after his film Ordinary People bested Raging Bull for Best Picture in 1980. If you would ever would like to discuss this, I will be happy to offer you upwards of 50 reasons why this is not a travesty, but spared us from Scorsese devolving into even more overdramatic self-important dreck. Thanks Mr Redford, both for your beautiful and near-perfect film about grieving and from keeping Scorsese in check where he belongs.

Scorsese had no hard feelings, as he actually appeared in Quiz Show, which is a drama centered around the quiz show scandals of the 1950s. Remarkably, no one has realized how a movie like this would get eaten up in our reality show-obsessed society. The recent success of Lifetime’s UnReal shows you how much interest there is in the darker side of TV and how seemingly everyone can get caught up in their web, whether you’re Shiri Appleby or John Turturro.

Turturro’s character in Quiz Show, Herbert Stempel, is the heartbreaking soul of this film—a lower class guy finally given a chance to pull himself up by his bootstraps and achieve not just fortune, but the new American Dream, fame. The real travesty of the Oscars that year wasn’t Gump over Pulp Fiction, it was giving the sentimental Best Supporting Actor nod to Quiz Show’s Paul Scofield instead of Turturro. There are plenty of things to love about this movie, and I strongly encourage you all to watch if you haven’t seen it, but the real star is Turturro, who turned in the performance I currently think defines his career.

Quiz Show fit right in to today’s landscape, as would the very popular 1994 miniseries The Stand. Really, any era of humans will be fascinated by the apocalypse, but now the obsession with zombies and the end of the world has become a decidedly televisual affair. There are the Walking Dead series, Under the Dome, The 100, the defunct but still popular on Netflix Jericho, and God knows how many more.

I love the miniseries The Stand, but I don’t think it could last in today’s TV landscape without some tinkering. In Stephen King’s post-plague world, good people go to Colorado and bad people go to Las Vegas. There is very little moral grey area, save for Laura San Giacomo’s Nina, who spends time in both camps. There is very little waivering of faith either. Mother Abigail (the late and lovely Ruby Dee) tells members of her flock to walk form Boulder to Las Vegas where they will likely die, they say okey dokey. The bad guy Randall Flagg says “murder all these people”, his gang doesn’t even flinch.

If only life could be that simple, like the speech Giles gives Buffy early on in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But by the same token, Walking Dead suffers from everyone generally being despicable people, with no truly good ones in the bunch, unless you count Baby Judith. Yes, we all have our flaws, but too many of these post-apocalyptic shows are hellbent on proving that we are all truly terrible, so let’s justify and excuse our behavior without feeling too bad about it.

Rather than take a page from Walking Dead when the new Stand miniseries is produced, I hope they take a page out of Quiz Show, where people make mistakes, but they are understandable. Unlike Walking Dead in which everyone is bad or the original in which everyone is clearly defined black or white, Quiz Show has genuinely good people, genuinely morally bankrupt people, and folks whose ethics are tested with inconclusive results. Hopefully the new version of The Stand will end up closer to this than one of the extremes.

The Stand wasn’t the only thing in 1994 that fell into clear cut standards of good and bad. This was an era where the cheesy pop love anthem reigned supreme. Boyz II Men, Mariah Carey, Elton John, and Celine Dion all belted out songs about their undying love for their partners, but none were more popular than the song I Swear, which was so pervasive it was released by country singer John Michael Montgomery, then covered by R&B group All-4-One a few months later. Both reached number one on various Billboard charts as they crooned that nothing save for death would ever separate them from their one true love.

Unlike much of the country, which preferred the R&B version, in Kentucky we opted for the country version. Let’s be real, Montgomery is from Danville, Kentucky, about 35 minutes away from Lexington, so there was no way we weren’t going to back him up. To give you an idea of just how country this country song was, I remember attending a birthday party in a barn (yes, a barn) where there was dancing. I recall when I Swear came on, a friend who made an effort to slow dance with all the girls to make sure none of else felt awful asked me to dance to this song. It is one of my favorite memories of middle school.

Other middle school dances were not as fun. Our socials were always a bit lopsided because, as a small performing arts school, each grad of 48 kids had around 38 girls and maybe 10 boys. So, while the fast dance portions of the socials were fine with most people just chatting in groups, the slow dances were a tense time where girls filed to the wall on one side of the room (not because we were asked, but because if we weren’t picked to dance, we were ready and waiting to turn into a wallflower). The boys would then ask girls to dance, and there was a bit of a hierarchy to who got asked based on what song. Getting asked to dance to I Swear or, oddly enough, Everybody Hurts, was what every girl wanted, while some of the lesser known songs weren’t as impressive. I will certainly give props to the guys we went to middle school with. They were all brought up so well that they knew it was the nice thing to do to try to dance with several girls unless they had a girlfriend. So rather than our socials ending up a split of haves and have nots, they created a gray area where us girls could feel good about ourselves without anybody getting lead on. In middle school, where the starkness of difference can be cripplingly painful, I do in fact swear that these boys being so kind was a life saver.

Were they perfect guys? Not really. They could be mean if they wanted to, but isn’t everyone in middle school?  But they managed to take a song that as so black and white and a situation that was so have and have not and make it gray enough to be tolerable. They handled it as best they could because when the world ends, there won’t be good and evil, or at least they won’t be so easy to spot. Everyone won’t be awful like The Walking Dead suggests. Most everything will be gray and, unlike Quiz Show, we won’t know the answers ahead of time.

Scoring My Life Archive

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