Terrific 'Quiz Show' gets almost everything right

September 23, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

It is a signal mark of "Quiz Show's" brilliant peculiarity that it contains a line that has never been in an American movie and never will be again.

"Oh, I meant to watch your show, Charles," a plummy, smug Mark Van Doren says to his son, "but Bunny Wilson was over and you know how carried away Bunny gets!"

A facsimile of Bunny Wilson, better known as America's most brilliant literary critic Edmund Wilson, even appears: he's a pink, round, vigorous gentleman, a knight at the rectangular picnic table of American culture that is about to be overthrown by a Modred called television, whose prime champion would be none other than that same Charles Van Doren.

That's one of the themes that resonates in "Quiz Show," which is set in the dawning of the age of television and follows as the tube detroys refined "high culture" and such figures as Mark Van Doren and Bunny Wilson, to replace them with something coarser, more vigorous, sloppier, and interested only in money and power, never in ideas. One feels in it the earth move forever: the end of Camelot and the triumph of Babble.

The movie, as is so well-known, chronicles the first of the big television scandals. But its most salient point, of course, is that the scandal did little damage to television, or to the perpetrators of the hoax, or, really, to anybody except the two men who stood in the forefront.

These were Charles Van Doren and Herbert Stempel, two knights of the intellect who jousted in the arena of "Twenty-One," where the fair champion Van Doren unseated poor nebbishy Herby. Of course it was rigged, a professional wrestling match of the brainiac set.

What's so good about Robert Redford's sleek version of the story is how delicately such issues as motive and emotions are sketched, and how ambiguity, not glib moralizing, is prized. "Quiz Show" is about television and the national character, but it's also about character at the most intimate, individual level: about the little things that one half of the brain whispers to the other late at night when nobody is listening. And what the brain does with that information.

It whispered to Charles Van Doren. Beloved but taken-for-granted son of America's most famous mandarin intellectual, an instructor at Columbia, a young man with seemingly a whole world before him, Van Doren was taken in by producers Charles Enwright and Albert Freedman, who liked his teeth. Apparently without giving it much thought, he agreed to appear as a contestant and accept not only the answers but coaching on dramatic techniques.

As Van Doren, Ralph Fiennes is terrific: he has that patrician profile, those high, distinguished brain lobes, and a certain shrewdness. But underneath we see how desperately he yearns to attract his father's attention and not be taken for granted.

Voices whisper to Herby Stempel too: You're as good as he is, they whisper, don't let them do this to you, they whisper, you deserve so much more. Stempel, very bright, is the reigning champion, but he's so naturally obnoxious -- nervous, unattractive, adenoidal, with bad teeth -- that everybody connected with the show wants him 86'd.

You can't really say that John Turturro is great as Stempel, because somehow it seems not an issue of performance, of pretending. Turturro simply is Stempel, every warty, noise-producing, glasses-wearing, hairy-nostriled inch of him. And the movie is so smart with him: When he finally is the one who, pickled in bitterness over having to lose on a question that he not only knew the answer to but which expressed his very identity (it had to do with the movie "Marty" winning an Academy Award), blew the whistle, we see something of the ugliness and delusionality of his decision. He might have been "right," but it was for the wrong motives -- his sense of vanity, not his sense of justice.

The third principal -- TV guy Rob Morrow as Harvard-educated House Investigator Richard Goodwin -- is the least convincing.

But Redford gets so much else right. As Mark Van Doren, the great Scottish actor Paul Scofield is superb, suggesting a Joseph Cotten after too many hours sipping aperitifs at a Boston poetry reading. As network president Robert Kintner, Allan Rich radiates confident arrogance and suntanned sangfroid with amazing precision.

Most important of all, the somewhat messy matter of investigating the scandal has been streamlined into something sleek, fascinating, compelling, and most of all compassionate. It's a terrific movie, one of the best of the year. Bunny would be proud.

"Quiz Show"

Starring Ralph Fiennes, John Turturro and Rob Morrow

Directed by Robert Redford

Released by Hollywood Pictures

Rated PG-13

*** 1/2

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