Advertisement
Share

Movie Review : ‘Quiz Show’s’ Category: Evil and Moral Ambiguity

TIMES FILM CRITIC

As the subject for a major motion picture, the fuss surrounding the rigged TV quiz shows of the late 1950s does not seem particularly promising. Yes, people were shocked at the time, when it turned out that programs like “Twenty-One” and its most celebrated contestant, Charles Van Doren, were not dealing from a straight deck, but so many scandals have come and gone in the intervening years it’s hard to work up much passion about that one.

So it is an especial triumph that “Quiz Show,” directed by Robert Redford and written by Paul Attanasio, turns that footnote of television history into a thoughtful, absorbing drama about moral ambiguity and the affability of evil. Sticking moderately close to the facts and using real names whenever possible, it succeeds by pulling back and looking at the situation through an unexpectedly subtle and wide-ranging lens.

For the record:

12:00 AM, Sep. 17, 1994 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday September 17, 1994 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 4 Column 3 Entertainment Desk 4 inches; 136 words Type of Material: Correction
Lost lines-- Some lines were inadvertently dropped in Kenneth Turan’s review of “Quiz Show” in some editions of Friday’s Calendar section. The paragraphs as written by Turan as are follows:
Of course, one of the focal points of any examination of the scandal has to be Van Doren, an intellectual golden boy whose downfall was classically tragic. And although he is beautifully played by Ralph Fiennes with a subtlety that is at least the equal of his Oscar-nominated performance in “Schindler’s List,” “Quiz Show” succeeds as well as it does because it is structured to make Van Doren’s story only part of the whole.
Doing that structuring is screenwriter Attanasio, best known for having created the TV series “Homicide.” Based loosely on a memoir by Richard Goodwin, a speech writer for President John F. Kennedy who began his Washington life as a congressional investigator looking into the scandal, Attanasio’s script adroitly splits its focus three interconnected ways.

Of course, one of the focal points of any examination of the scandal has to be Van Doren, an intellectual golden boy whose downfall was classically tragic. And although he is beautifully played by Ralph Fiennes with a subtlety that is at least the equal of his Oscar-nominated performance in “Schindler’s List,” “Quiz Show” succeeds as well as it does because it is structured to make Van Doren’s story only part of the whole.

Doing that structuring is screenwriter Attanasio, best known for having created the TV series “Homicide.” Based loosely on a memoir by Richard Goodwin, a speech writer for President John F. Kennedy who began his Washington life as a congressional investigator looking into the scandal, Attanasio’s script adroitly splits its focus three interconnected ways.

Advertisement

Instead of being the good versus evil faceoff that might be expected, “Quiz Show” has Van Doren, Goodwin (Rob Morrow) and Herbert Stempel (John Turturro), a disgruntled former contestant who blew the whistle on the show, warily dancing around one another. And, in what is partly a tribute to Redford’s clout, this is one studio picture where even the heroes finally feel uncomfortable complicity.

Given the number of years he’s played the game in Hollywood, it shouldn’t be surprising that director Redford is dead-on in depicting this atmosphere of variable morality, but it is satisfying nevertheless to see what an accomplished job of directing he does and how alive he is to the ambiguities in the situation. More than anything he’s come up with since “Ordinary People,” this picture fulfills the promise Redford showed in that debut film.

Perhaps because it doesn’t play out in any explicit way, the scene “Quiz Show” opens with is especially telling. The year is 1957, the place a Chrysler showroom in Washington, where the cigar-smoking Richard Goodwin, first in his class at Harvard Law but mired in a low-level bureaucratic job, is getting an almost erotic charge out of examining a stunning new Chrysler 300D.

Later on, as the investigation of Van Doren proceeds, another film might have painted Goodwin as the unalloyed force for good, and this scene shrewdly checkmates that feeling. For, as Goodwin delicately runs his hands over the smooth leather and listens to the salesman’s insinuating patter, the lust for conspicuous consumption is obvious in his eyes. None of us, “Quiz Show” takes care to point out, should think we are above temptation.

After this delicate opening, the film shifts to a brisk montage detailing the hoopla surrounding “Twenty-One,” the program’s showy obsession with security about its questions, and the fascination all America felt at contestants who were winning five- and six-figure amounts when that was real money.

But although awkward nerd Herbert Stempel seems secure as the show’s reigning champion, behind the scenes a powerful cabal is not so sure. The program’s sponsor (an icily modulated cameo by director Martin Scorsese) feels Herb’s Everyman qualities have worn thin and wants him gone. Although the show trumpets its inviolability, co-producer Dan Enright (David Paymer at his best) gets the message. The end is near for “the freak with the sponge memory.” What is wanted to take his place is someone polished enough to not only answer questions on the show but “get a table at ’21' ” as well.

Enter college English instructor Van Doren, spotted by co-producer Albert Freedman (Hank Azaria) trying out for a rival show. The son of one Pulitzer Prize winner, poet Mark (Paul Scofield), and the nephew of another, 33-year-old Charles has the diffident glow that comes with being a card-carrying member of America’s intellectual aristocracy. A grown-up cherub, Van Doren is also naive enough to fall for Enright’s rationalizations about why getting just the tiniest bit of help with the questions will turn him into a better role model for the youth of America.

Decent, affable, enormously likable, Van Doren is everything Stempel is not, and the first part of “Quiz Show” parallels the former’s rise to national celebrity with the latter’s fall to disgruntled oblivion. But once Goodwin enters the picture, motivated both by personal ambition (remember the Chrysler) and a public-spirited desire to “put television on trial,” “Quiz Show’s” themes deepen as the drama gains momentum.

Advertisement

A Jewish outsider whose Ivy League background allows him to pass in Van Doren’s world of birthday lunches with Edmund Wilson and Thomas Merton, Goodwin feels especially torn as his investigations into Stempel’s charges indicate that this charming man, with good reason America’s sweetheart, had complicity. Should Goodwin (whose beefy role here was apparently the biggest departure from history) expose Van Doren, protect him or just throw up his hands and flee?

The uncertain interaction between Van Doren, Goodwin and Stempel, heightened by Attanasio’s trenchant dialogue, is especially good at examining the peculiarly American quality the three men unknowingly share. Each in some way feels unappreciated, on the outside of the Big Dream, open to a quick way out of the slough of despond. And each ends up realizing that getting what they want is not what they want at all.

Cast partly against expectation, “Quiz Show” is compelling enough to survive an initial feeling that both Turturro as the needy Stempel and “Northern Exposure’s” Morrow as the cocky Goodwin have a tendency to exaggerate their performances. Both roles, however, give less trouble as the film progresses, partly because the Brits they play against are so dazzling.

Paul Scofield, a celebrated stage actor, gives his best film performance since winning an Oscar for “A Man for All Seasons,” as Charles’ urbane, distant father. But it is Ralph Fiennes and his poignant and ravaged portrait of the son in extremis that provides “Quiz Show” with its center of gravity. Fiennes’ ability to project the pain behind a well-mannered facade, to turn intellectual and emotional agony into a real and living thing, is devastating. Impressive as the film is in all respects, “Quiz Show” would have been a very different experience without him.

Advertisement

MPAA rating: PG-13, for some strong language. Times guidelines: The language is used sparingly. ‘Quiz Show’

John Turturro: Herbert Stempel

Rob Morrow: Dick Goodwin

Ralph Fiennes: Charles Van Doren

Advertisement

Paul Scofield: Mark Van Doren

David Paymer: Dan Enright

Hank Azaria: Albert Freedman

A Wildwood Enterprises/Baltimore Pictures production, released by Hollywood Pictures. Director Robert Redford. Producers Michael Jacobs, Julian Krainin, Michael Nozik. Executive producers Fred Zollo, Richard Dreyfuss, Judith James. Screenplay Paul Attanasio. Cinematographer Michael Ballhaus. Editor Stu Linder. Costumes Kathy O’Rear. Music Mark Isham. Production design Jon Hutman. Art director Tim Galvin. Set decorator Samara Schaffer. Running time: 2 hours, 4 minutes.

Advertisement

Playing in limited release in Southern California.


Advertisement