American Themes BY STEVEN G. KELLMAN QUIZ SHOW Directed by Robert Redford WHERE THE RIVERS FLOW NORTH Directed by Jay Craven LIKE VAN CLIBURN, Charles Van Doren was balm to the wounded American ego. Sputnik’s launch in 1958 asserted the supremacy of Russian education. Yet, after venturing into Moscow itself, Cliburn managed to return to Fort Worth with first prize in the Tchaikovsky Piano Competition. Van Doren was further vindication of Yankee intellect. The affable young wonder answered every stumper posed on the NBC quiz show Twenty 7One. Oedipus at the gate of Thebes did not dispose of the Sphinx’ s riddle with more poise. Or see his princely face grace the cover of Time. And find his name become a byword for fraud. Oedipus, at least, devised replies honestly. Van Doren was coached. American innocence is forever being proclaimed, and mislaid. Our popular culture is dedicated to the proposition that virginity is a recurrent condition. The Civil War, the Black Sox, Teapot Dome, the Depression, Pearl Harboreach deflated the nation’s native buoyancy, temporarily. In 1958, when TV signals were a novelty and channels as plentiful as political parties, the entire culture tuned to informational Olympiads. Revelations that some were rigged shook and shocked the population, shattering its innocence. Restored by JFK’s Camelot, it was stained again by assassination, obliterated by Vietnam and Watergate. As the eternally zestful Sundance Kid and baseball deity Roy Hobbs, director Robert Redford ought to be a maven of innocence. His latest project, Quiz Show, dramatizes the scandal in which Van Doren won $129,000, a contract with The Today Show and mass adulationby counterfeiting encyclopedic knowledge and a photographic memory. Paul Attanasio adapted his screenplay from Remembering America: A Voice from the Sixties, a memoir by Richard Goodwin, one of the story’s three chief characters. A City College Jew named Herbert Stempel preceded Van Doren, the great WASP hope of Morningside Heights, as champion of Twenty-One. John Turturro’s sweaty Steven G. Kellman teaches comparative literature at the University of Texas at San Antonio. Stempel is a nerd from Queens lacking in social graces. “I’m the guy who knows everything!” he boasts to wife Toby, after an easy day at the studio, adding to the treasure he counts on for emancipation from his in-laws. What Stempel does not count on is his benefactor’s animosity. The chief of Geritol, sponsor of Twenty-One, decides that Stempel does not project the wholesome, all-American image that sells tonic. In a superbly ruthless cameo by Martin Scorsese, the Geritol boss, like a Mafia don in Goodfellas, makes a call to the studio. Stempel is history. He is forced to give the wrong answer to the question: Which movie won the Oscar in 1955? The correct response is Marty, but Stempel, who knows better, is obliged to say: On the Waterfront. On the Waterfront is the story of a small-time boxer who could have been a contender if not forced to take a fallmuch as Stempel himself feigns defeat. Marty is a melodrama of mediocrity in the Bronx, an ugly duckling Who lacks the spunk to become a swan. Both films mirror Stempel’s thwarted life. “What this country needs is an intellectual Joe DiMaggio,” declares producer Dan rializes at NBC. Played by Ralph Fiennes in a stunning departure from his Nazi psychopath in Schindler’s List, Charles Van Doren auditions for an endeavor that might distinguish him from his accomplished father Mark, the eminent Columbia professor who has never seen a quiz show. The son hesitates over the Faustian deal the producers offer: “I’m just trying to imagine what Kant would think of this.” We try to imagine what a gentleman-scholar is doing in a marketplace like NBC. Quiz Show opens with Goodwin’s delusions of grandeurpuffing on a pricey cigar behind the wheel of a Chrysler convertible. A drone for an oversight Committee of the House of Representatives, Goodwill listen that he graduated first at Harvard Law. He is frustrated in a menial job: “I feel like a racehorse whose gate won’t open.” Goodwin suspects deception at Twenty-One and that an investigation might offer challenges commensurate with his ambitions. Goodwin envies Van Doren’s genteel Gentile patrimony. But they are secret sharers, of a kinship that transcends the ethnic chasm; because of intellectual aptitude and interests, both were misfits among schoolmates. More than any others in this film, where a microphone in an isolation booth provides a metaphor for human communication, Van Doren and Goodwin speak the same language. The investigator attempts to shelter Van Doren until his wife Sandra like the Uncle Tom of the Jews.” Stempel resents frosty treatment from NBC, while Van Doren, whose fame he launched by losing, thrives. Goodwin seeks out Stempel, in a tasteless Queens flat that is a stark contrast to the Van Doren estate. Goodwin has spent his. life escaping the atavistic undertow of uncouth Jews like the Stempels, but he is also forced to recognize his Doppelganger in klutzy Herbert; beneath the proud attorney’s silk stockings, his feet still smell. “How’d a guy like you get into Harvard?” asks Stempel. More than any question posed by Jack Barry, unctuous host of Twenty-One, this one lingers. It challenges Goodwin’s American faith in meritocracy, where Jews are invisible not because of bigotry but equity. Stempel, whom Enright would discredit as a solitary lunatic, remains, despite incessant perspiration, an unmeltable Jew. To Goodwin, he accuses the men who run TwentyOne, of ancient anti-Semitism. “They always follow a Jew with a Gentile, and the Gentile wins more money,” he contends, and Stempel, who is accurate about everything but Marty, happens to be right. In an agony of contrition, Van Doren decides, unilaterally, to end his winning string. To the question of who is King of the Belgians, he offers Leopold III, when he knows that it is Baudouin. The error is as appropriate to Van Doren as On the Waterfront is to Stempel. The patrician scholar concludes his stint with confusion over royalty. In earlier banter with his father; Charles, identifying with the Belgian monarchy, dubbed himself Baudouin to Mark’s Leopold III. Now, accompanied by his father, Charles confesses to Congress: “I lied to the American people. I have flown too high on borrowed wings.” Oedipus and Laius fought deadly combat in separate chariots,’ but when Charles and Mark Van Doren depart in the same taxi, it is still the end of a dynasty, its claims to the American throne dashed by the hubris of a talented pretender. The world is a diminished place, left to the wiles of mere entertainers. The final words are the testimony of producer Albert Freedman \(Hank 20 SEPTEMBER 30, 1994
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