FILMS

Paradise lost

Bemoaning the blight on the American dream

Brian D. Johnson September 26 1994
FILMS

Paradise lost

Bemoaning the blight on the American dream

Brian D. Johnson September 26 1994

Paradise lost

FILMS

Bemoaning the blight on the American dream

QUIZ SHOW

Directed by Robert Redford

It is hard to say what makes people so desperate to get on television. But ever since the medium was invented, there has been no shortage of candidates willing to sell their souls for the privilege. No matter how many fictional heroes TV chums out, there is an insatiable desire to see real people turn their lives into melodrama and farce, on shows ranging from Oprah to Studs. There is no hiding the cynicism now: on TV, all the world’s a game show, and the game is rigged. But for a brief period in the 1950s, with the rise of the quiz shows, TV offered the promise of an instant and ennobling democracy. Programs such as The $64,000 Question and Twenty-One drew huge audiences with spectacles of intellectual commoners competing for cash. Then, in 1959, congressional hearings revealed that the shows were fixed; TV had perpetrated the first Big Lie, ushering in an age of deteriorating public trust.

As television’s original sin, a deception that hoodwinked an entire population, it is richly symbolic. Now, with the movie Quiz Show, producer-director Robert Redford dramatizes the story of NBC’s Twenty-One and the rise and fall of its most celebrated contestant, Charles Van Doren. Quiz Show is the fourth movie that Redford has directed—and the best. After the sentimental honesty of Ordinary People (1980), the eco-folklore of The Milagro Beanfield War (1988) and the modest virtue of A River Runs Through It (1992), he is finally directing with the kind of wit, flair and unabashed showmanship that he brings to his best performances.

Although Redford does not appear onscreen, Quiz Show seems a natural consequence of his acting career. He has explored public duplicity from both sides, as a corrupt politician in The Candidate (1972) and a Watergate investigator in All The President’s Men (1976). And, while fulfilling the image of the Hollywood golden boy, he has always viewed celebrity with a presbyterian measure of suspicion.

In Quiz Show, Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes) is the golden boy, TV’s intellectual answer to Elvis Presley. The son of poet Mark Van Doren (exquisitely portrayed by Paul Scofield), he is a smart, debonair English instructor at Columbia University in New York

City who becomes Twenty-One’s champion contestant, a role model celebrated on the covers of Time and Life magazines. Week after week, in front of 50 million viewers, Van Doren sweats it out in the show’s isolation booth, appearing to rack his brains over obscure questions, while in fact he has been given the answers in advance.

To make way for Van Doren’s ascent, Twenty-One's cynical producer, Dan Enright (David Paymer), persuades the reigning champion, Herbie Stempel, to take a dive.

Played with manic brilliance by John Turturro, Stempel is a geek with a flypaper brain. Reluctantly, Stempel takes the fall by incorrectly identifying the 1955 Oscar winner for best picture as On the Waterfront instead of Marty (his favorite movie): the working-class Jew is humiliated by the Ivy League Wasp. Later, as Van Doren’s star rises, a congressional investigator named Richard Goodwin (Rob Morrow, with an irritating Harvard accent) smells a rat.

The ending, like the show’s answers, is known in advance, but the drama is strangely suspenseful. It captures the thrill of live TV. Paul Attanasio’s script, meanwhile, is subtle and astute, the characters well-rounded. And as Van Doren, Fiennes delivers a beautifully shaded performance. After being robbed of an Oscar for his supporting role as

While Quiz Show dramatizes the erosion of public faith at the end of the Fifties, The New Age dwells on the collapse of private faith at the end of the millennium. American writerdirector Michael Tolkin has already shown an unnerving knack for tapping into the Zeitgeist with The Rapture (1991), a weirdly disturbing tale of religious fundamentalists, and The Player (1992), the Hollywood satire that he wrote for director Robert Altman. With The New Age, Tolkin offers another acidic portrait of empty-headed materialism in Los Angeles.

Peter (Peter Weller) and Katherine (Judy Davis) are vacuous sophisticates who live in a spectacular house in Beverly Hills. After infi-

a Nazi in Schindler’s List, he should get another chance. With Quiz Show, Fiennes becomes a bona fide star by exploring the moral ambiguity of stardom itself.

THE NEW AGE

Directed by Michael Tolkin

delities ruin their marriage and both of them lose their jobs, they try to make a fresh start by opening an absurdly expensive clothing boutique. As their future grows bleaker, they scrounge for salvation in New Age spirituality and sexual diversion. Although their characters are profoundly unsympathetic, both Davis and Weller deliver razor-sharp performances. Tolkin’s satire, meanwhile, contains lots of clever, needlepoint jabs, but it seems oddly withheld. As in The Rapture, it is hard to tell whether he is mocking or embracing the spiritual alternatives that the movie portrays. In the end, what is most unusual about The New Age—and what makes it oddly effective—is that its director seems as perversely dispassionate as his characters.

BRIAN D. JOHNSON