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'Quiz Show' (PG)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
September 16, 1994

"Quiz Show," Robert Redford's exploration of the TV game show scandals of the late '50s, is an example of mainstream American filmmaking at its very best. If this sounds like a backhanded compliment, it's not. "Quiz Show" is engrossing, smart and morally complex. Nothing else out of Hollywood this year can hold a candle to it.

The movie is a study in ambition, ethical compromise and the great American obsession with making it big. But that's not all. It's also a trenchant examination of ethnic undercurrents and class conflicts, corporate duplicity and the tender intricacies of father-son relations. There are no chases here, no jiggle and no gunplay, and so it's hard to know whether audiences will take to it. But whatever the reception, " Quiz Show" is an exciting achievement, not only the most accomplished film of Redford's directorial career, but one of the best to carry his name.

The story is complicated, but the skillful, incisive screenplay by Paul Attanasio (a former Washington Post film critic) negotiates it nicely. The film weaves in and out of the lives of three men. Two of them—Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes) and Herbie Stempel (John Turturro)—are contestants on the game show "Twenty-One"; the third, Dick Goodwin (Rob Morrow), is a congressional investigator.

In the '50s, quiz shows like "The $ 64,000 Question" and "Twenty-One" were all the rage. The contestants on these shows seemed to hold an unbelievable quantity of arcane material—such as whether Paul Revere's horse was a stallion or a mare—in their bulging brains. But there was a reason why their feats seemed impossible. The games, as it turns out, were rigged.

Stempel was one of these alleged mental giants. And as the brilliantly abrasive Turturro plays him, this geeky schlemiel is the epitome of the self-hating Jewish outsider. A combination of arrogance and desperation, he is so certain that life is stacked against him that his success on the show makes him uneasy. At the beginning of "Quiz Show," he stands inside his soundproof booth like a man awaiting execution.

Initially, the producers of the show liked Stempel's obvious credentials as an everyman. But with his pinwheel eyes and rotting tooth, he is anything but telegenic. Though he has become a national celebrity, Geritol, the show's sponsor, concludes that he is presenting the wrong image.

By contrast, the handsome, coolly affable Van Doren seems tailor-made for the fledgling medium, and the producers snatch him up like a godsend. If Stempel is "a freak with a sponge for a brain," Van Doren is a bona fide intellectual with a distinguished family. Clean-cut with a charming smile and vivid blue eyes, Van Doren seems to glide through life with the unruffled grace of an American princeling.

When the show's producers (David Paymer and Hank Azaria) first suggest to Van Doren that he cheat, he refuses. But the executives ease him into it. And once he's gotten a taste of the money and the attention, he's hooked.

Meanwhile Stempel, convinced that his demise was caused by prejudice against his Jewishness (which was probably more true than not), launches a vendetta against "Twenty-One" and Van Doren, attacking the show before a grand jury. And Goodwin steps in, encounters Van Doren and is immediately seduced by the gentility of his cultured WASP existence. Van Doren is so skillful with his "guys like us" come-on that the investigator seems not to know quite what hit him.

Earlier in his career, Redford himself might have played Van Doren, and as a director he shows a special understanding of the contradictions at work inside the character's pretty-boy soul. " Quiz Show," which is based on Goodwin's memoir, is shrewd about human motives. Everyone is flawed; everyone has an agenda. Goodwin wants to make a big score. Van Doren wants to move out of the shadow of his father, played majestically by Paul Scofield. And Stempel doesn't want to go back to being a nobody again.

Fame of the 15-minute variety that Stempel experienced is one of Redford's subjects here. But not only are these characters charter members in the cult of celebrity; the scandal itself is presented symbolically as one of the first salvos in a long assault on America's innocence that has continued on through Watergate and beyond.

The evocation of the period here, of New York and the heady early days of television, is nearly perfect. Also, it's hard to remember a film that has been so expertly cast, or that has gotten so much out of its actors. Of the three headline performers, only Morrow, who labors a bit too strenuously with an exaggerated Brookline accent, seems merely okay. Fiennes, who was so disturbing in "Schindler's List," is ingratiating as this appealing weakling. And as Stempel, Turturro is the ultimate loose cannon.

Two directors, Barry Levinson, who plays Dave Garroway, and Martin Scorsese, as a Geritol executive, turn in impressive performances as part of a superlative supporting cast that includes Allan Rich as the president of NBC, Christopher McDonald as the fatuous host Jack Barry, and Mira Sorvino as Goodwin's wife.

Though "Quiz Show" is insightful in its larger, social observations, it doesn't allow its cultural statements to dwarf its human dimensions. As dazzling as its staging of the congressional hearings and the show itself may be, the movie is at its best in its more intimate moments, like one in which Van Doren and his father share a piece of cake late one night in the kitchen. Redford has always shown a knack for father-son material, but this private moment between loving strangers is an epiphany—simple, poignant and like the movie itself, all too rare.

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