September 16, 1994 at 04:00 AM EDT

Only a handful of movies — Diner and Next Stop, Greenwich Village come to mind — have evoked the 1950s with any authenticity. But Robert Redford gets the decade exquisitely right in Quiz Show (Hollywood, PG-13), his rich and savvy dramatization of the quiz-show scandals of 1958. In this movie, the contestants who win big on Twenty-One, a hugely popular TV quiz program, become instant celebrities: mass-media versions of the brainiac next door. Returning home to Queens after his latest victory, Herbie Stempel (John Turturro), a high-strung fellow whose glasses make him look like the world’s gawkiest chemistry student, drinks in the adoration of his friends and neighbors. Before, he’d been a nerd, an egghead loser; now he’s saluted by the entire country for being that same obnoxious classroom whiz. Later, when Herbie is defeated by Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes), a sleek young Columbia literature professor from a well-known WASP family, the prof attains even greater heights of popularity. He appears on the cover of Time, like an intellectual Elvis, and giggly coeds line up outside his office. He can’t even use a pay phone without some idiot banging happily on the glass.

It’s strange, and rather wondrous, to step into an era when 50 million people could bond over a TV quiz show. This, however, was the age of Eisenhower and Sputnik, when America, with a paranoid eye on Russia, was busy patting itself on the back for its V-8-powered know-how, its peppy capitalist get-up-and-go. Thus the cult of game-show scholarship, with its parade of middle-class smarties pointing the way to the New Frontier. (These days, the only thing capable of provoking such unity of interest is a trash-news event like the O.J. saga-a spectacle of disintegration.) As Quiz Show unfolds, each champion on Twenty-One — first Stempel, then Van Doren — becomes an intellectual mascot of the moment, a ”character” in America’s ongoing media soap opera. Redford, moving his camera with imperial flair, shows us room after room done in luxuriously dull colors-the soothing grays, creams, and blues of the pre- pop ’50s. He makes us nostalgic for the stately lost days of American ( innocence. Except that Quiz Show is one of the rare movies to understand that the ’50s only looked innocent. As it turns out, the geek stardom of the Twenty-One champions is built on a false bottom. The winners are fed the answers beforehand. That way they can keep on winning, and the viewers, with a familiar face to root for, will boost the ratings (and profits).

By now, we’ve seen enough movies about corruption in high places to make the rigging of a television quiz show seem a relatively minor outrage. As Dick Goodwin (Rob Morrow), a young lawyer, gets a scent of the scandal and begins to investigate, there are many scenes with nervous witnesses and squirmy network stooges, and much of this stuff is juicy in a familiar, righteous- muckraking way. Yet Quiz Show is subtler than the usual investigatory drama. Redford, working from a superb script by Paul Attanasio, has caught the way a show like Twenty-One offered a kind of carny-barker version of the American dream. In its crass way, it was democracy in action: What thrilled millions was the prospect that anyone could win, whether an urban Jew like Stempel or an upper-crust WASP like Van Doren. As Quiz Show goes on, we see that the NBC executives, working in conspiracy with the program’s sponsor, Geritol, created a fraudulent, homogenized American dream. And, of course, they had coconspirators: the duplicitous contestants, who lied to get their names in lights (and to make $10,000 a week), and the American people themselves-victims of their own childish trust. Perhaps the reason the scandal left such a sting is that it was the folks at home, and not just the network honchos, who were living a false dream.

What’s most resonant about the film is the way it roots this scandal in the cultural tensions between Jews and WASPs in the late ’50s, an uneasy dance of assimilation that Redford brings to life through a series of beautifully modulated performances. Turturro, all jerky, spasmodic bluster, does his most mesmerizing acting yet. His Herb Stempel is dark, angry, and strangely witty, an aggressive schlemiel so wired up on his own brain energy that he’s compelled to view himself as an outsider. Van Doren, all placid containment, is his opposite number, and Ralph Fiennes, the costar of Schindler’s List, slimmed down and velvety-handsome here, makes him fascinating in his very opaqueness. At first, we want more of Van Doren’s internal life; the vagueness of his motivation for selling out seems like a flaw. As the film goes on, though, we see that Van Doren the ambiguous light charmer is meant to be a kind of actor, suave yet unformed, an overgrown child living out the role of a literary gentleman. Bridging the two worlds is Rob Morrow’s winningly sly, deceptively rumpled Goodwin, the Jew who went to Harvard and now moves tentatively, covetously, through Van Doren’s world, investigating his actions even as his need for acceptance leads him to protect the WASP wonder boy.

There are many fine supporting performances (including Martin Scorsese’s acid cameo as the head of Geritol), but the one that stands out is Paul Scofield’s as Charles’ father, the poet Mark Van Doren, a benign lion of a man who has blinded himself to the vulgar dominance of the emerging media culture. It’s in the relationship between the two Van Dorens that Quiz Show finds its soul. The movie paints this loving yet tragic clan with a rarefied intimacy, the son so driven to live up to his father’s ideal of nobility through prominence that he ends up trashing that very ideal. After Ordinary People, A River Runs Through It, and now Quiz Show — easily his best film — Redford has emerged as the movies’ most artful anatomist of WASP angst. In his hands, what might have been a straight-ahead parable of American greed feels more like a fall from grace. A

type
Movie
Genre
mpaa
PG-13
runtime
120 minutes
director
Cast
Rob Morrow,
Paul Scofield,
Timothy Busfield,
David Paymer,
Studio
Buena Vista Pictures
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