By Bruce Fretts
April 14, 1995 at 04:00 AM EDT

It seems every time a new fact-based drama is released-from Schindler’s List to Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle-armchair historians come out of the woodwork. He didn’t look like that! She didn’t talk like that! That didn’t really happen! And I say: So what? It’s only a movie. The Academy Award also-ran quiz show (1994, Hollywood, PG-13, priced for rental) must have been too irresistible a target for these party-pooping nitpickers. After all, Robert Redford’s film re-creates one of the most infamous instances of media deception in history, the fixing of the ’50s game show Twenty-One. A movie stretching the truth to condemn a dishonest TV show may seem the height of hypocrisy. But not when the movie’s this good. And not when there’s a documentary as solid as the quiz show scandal (1992, PBS Video, unrated, no longer available) to satisfy sticklers for factual accuracy. Originally broadcast on PBS, Michael R. Lawrence’s hour-long film features kinescopes of the original programs and interviews with key figures (including Twenty-One producer Dan Enright and whistle-blowing contestant Herb Stempel). In the process, it verifies much of Quiz Show screenwriter Paul Attanasio’s account of sainted champion Charles Van Doren’s exposure as an intellectual fraud. Quiz Show’s biggest departure from reality-its use of congressional investigator Richard N. Goodwin (Rob Morrow) as the central figure-is its greatest strength (though, ironically, Morrow’s is the weakest performance in the film). Scandal depicts Goodwin as peripheral to the case, but Quiz Show portrays Goodwin as an indefatigable gumshoe, making a compelling mystery out of what could have been a dry civics lesson. A Jewish lawyer, Goodwin also serves to underline two major themes of Quiz Show, anti-Semitism and the seductive power of celebrity. Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes) brings the inquisitor into his Waspy inner circle (which includes his famous poet father, Mark Van Doren, played brilliantly by Paul Scofield), and Goodwin starts to doubt the manic accusations of fellow Jew Stempel (John ! Turturro) that Twenty-One fed players the answers in advance. Turturro and Fiennes share only a few scenes, yet the tension between the hysterical Stempel and the emotionally remote Van Doren gives Quiz Show its charge. Turturro’s explosive kvetching may strike some as an ethnic stereotype, but Scandal’s footage of Stempel shows the actor’s exaggeration to be within the bounds of dramatic license. And while such critics as Andy Rooney have argued that the aquiline Fiennes is handsomer than Charles Van Doren, they may not be taking into account the changing definition of male beauty. He may look lumpy by today’s standards, but the documentary points out that Van Doren received hundreds of marriage proposals a week in the ’50s. Though Scofield was the only cast member to receive an Oscar nomination, Quiz Show boasts one of the most superb ensembles in recent memory. The intimacy of video allows viewers to appreciate such too-often overlooked actors as David Paymer-the great mensch of American movies-as producer Enright, The Simpsons’ Hank Azaria (Enright’s coarser colleague, Al Freedman), and Thelma & Louise’s Christopher McDonald (profoundly vain Twenty-One host Jack Barry). And watch for delectable cameos by directors Martin Scorsese (a merciless corporate sponsor) and Barry Levinson (monkey-toting Today show host Dave Garroway). Attanasio’s streamlined screenplay ignores game shows other than Twenty- One, but Scandal delves into the downfalls of The $64,000 Question and Dotto as well. And while Redford’s film crystallizes the Van Doren-Stempel match into a single showdown, Scandal informs us that the producers first staged a series of ties to build up the ratings. Yet in the end, Quiz Show proves the more satisfying film. As Van Doren confesses his cerebral sins, we see the anguish not just on Fiennes’ face, but also on the faces of Morrow, Turturro, and Scofield. Scandal, meanwhile, can only observe how the imbroglio left the country ”feeling betrayed.” It’s like the difference between watching a great courtroom drama and Court TV. Quiz Show: a The Quiz Show Scandal: B+

Advertisement

Comments

EDIT POST