Redford answers all about film On top of his GAME

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

Oh, how important are the little things.

For years the phone rings and one picks it up to hear: "Is this Stephen Hunter? Please hold for Mr. Big."

The seconds pass. Eventually, out of some telephonic ether, from a place where time doesn't exist, Mr. Big himself comes on, unruffled, unbothered, only slightly aware that the person holding the phone at your end registers on the radar of humanity.

This time, however, the old horn goes jingle-jangle, and when a reporter picks it up, he hears the incredible: "Steve . . . Bob Redford."

The guy makes his own phone calls! There should be an Oscar category for such an unheard-of thing!

Redford is on the pipe to talk up "Quiz Show," as if that excellent film needed talking up. One suspects that he's beginning to catch on to just how good it is and it's not publicity he's hungering after, it's acknowledgment that he's wrought a fine thing. He's glad to be congratulated on the excellence of the movie.

"Quiz Show" chronicles the first big television scandal, when it turned out that the ardent, perspirational drama of the big-buck quiz shows of the late '50s -- notably "Twenty-One" -- were rigged for cheesy drama. In the ruckus, several careers were vaporized, primarily that of Columbia instructor and money champion Charles Van Doren, who was the son of the famous poet-professor-cultural mandarin Mark Van Doren.

As the movie has been constructed by screenwriter Paul Attanasio and realized by Redford, the story resolves itself into a three-character wrestling match between Van Doren (played by the British actor Ralph Fiennes), his accuser, the deposed champion Herb Stempel (John Turturro) and the man in the middle, congressional investigator Richard Goodwin (Rob Morrow).

"What I responded to," recalls Redford, asked the inevitable how-it-all-began question, "was that it was a good story, with good characters. It presented a perfect cut of the social spectrum. Herbie was the lower class, Charlie was his opposite, someone who was to the manner born. Goodwin was in between, a transitional character who understood where Herbie was coming from and yet also attracted to the things Van Doren stood for.

"On top of that, it was a wonderful canvas and behind the canvas was a wonderful period of history. I remember it, because I had just arrived in New York. I remember the phenomenal interest in [the quiz shows] at the time. I remember watching them, and even though it was incredible that people could know the arcane answers to the most obscure questions, I still didn't doubt the show. Why? Because I was part of a more innocent time then. I couldn't put it in my mind that they were crooked. And then later, when it came out, I thought, 'Whoa, why didn't I see that?' "

Redford, as it turns out, had a bitter experience with the quiz-show era himself. He was gulled into appearing on one when he was a struggling, just-married actor. The powerful lure was $75, but it turned out that he was paid off with a fishing rod, said to be worth $75. He can still manufacture bitterness.

"I already had a fishing rod!"

Possibly the best thing about the film is the way in which it refuses to ride a high horse of hindsight and hold the perpetrators up against amoral spectrum that didn't exist then. In fact, Redford is more fascinated by ambiguity than by righteousness.

"It's always my instinct to get into the gray areas. In the original draft, Stempel was our point of view but it was Van Doren's story. I wanted someone between them. With Goodwin, I found the perfect sympathetic access to both men."

Redford also is careful to give each man a careful set of motives to explain the choices he made.

"I'm drawn to the psychology of the characters. I always find it interesting. I want to know why they do what they do, why they made the choices that they made."

There's also a surprising subtext to the film, given the ethnic background of the director. In some sense, it's about competing theories of American Jewishness, in which Jewish network executives try to prevent "ethnic-appearing" Jews on television, or to at least banish them at the hands of WASPy conquerors.

"That's a very tough thing for me to address," says Redford. "And it gave me pause. On the other hand, if I didn't address it, who would? I felt it was touchy because it really hadn't been addressed. It's pretty tough stuff in some sense. These people weren't doing anything wrong in their own mind, but to do that for dramatic effect was just wrong."

Redford's biggest difficulty in casting the film was finding someone to play the aristocratic Van Doren.

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