Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Overlooked by Oscars: John Turturro

Happy New Year.  Oscar nominations come out this month.  Let me ease into 2013 by praising an actor who never has been nominated but should have been for his work as a real-life network TV celebrity.  John Turturro excels in Quiz Show.  The film looks at the game show scandal in the 1950s that lead to a Congressional investigation.  Turturro is Herbert Stempel, the brainy contestant who has the right answers but the wrong looks for network purposes.  Herb is a man born to be a runner-up simply because he's not handsome.  He knows this and he constantly shakes his fists at The Fates.
His equally brainy opponent for a lively, popular match was someone the highly-coveted female audience found "dreamy."  He was the more upscale and sophisticated charmer, Charles Van Doren, played by Ralph Fiennes.  Van Doren seduces the audience.
Herb Stempel and Charles Van Doren were opponents on the NBC quiz show called "Twenty-One."  This show was "must-see TV" for prime time 1950s TV audiences.
The outcome was rigged to have the handsome guy win big money.  Major scandal.
Stempel busted the network executives.  But, ultimately, who really did win?
Quiz Show was directed by a "golden boy" of films.  Robert Redford won the Best Director Oscar for the first film he directed, Ordinary People.  The movie, a hit adaptation of a best-selling novel, also took the Oscar for Best Picture of 1980, beating Martin Scorcese and his Raging Bull.  To me, Quiz Show is better, bolder and a more complex story than the family drama of Ordinary People.  In both, however, Redford zooms in on the warts and pains behind the image of what we see as a privileged life for upscale Caucasian folks.  Turturro portrays Stempel as the prize-worthy Jewish guy from the wrong side of the tracks who won't get the prize because he's the Jewish guy from the wrong side of the tracks.  Remember the old days of watching the Miss American pageant telecast on network TV before Vanessa Williams made history?  If a black woman was one of the finalists -- even if she was drop-dead gorgeous and she could make the blind see with a simple laying on of hands while singing showtunes in the talent competition -- she wouldn't win.  She'd lose to a blonde ventriloquist.  The black woman would be voted Miss Congeniality.  That's basically Turturro as Stemple. He's the minority outsider.
In the area of movies about television, this doesn't get as much reverence as Sidney Lumet's Network, Kazan's A Face in the Crowd and Broadcast News by James L. Brooks but it's worth another look.  Especially in this age of reality shows and their instant celebrities who can pull in a hefty chunk o' change.  Tonight's reality show sensation is tomorrow's network morning news show guest.  Van Doren is being fed the correct answers for that hit game show.  Stempel discovers this and tells what he knows to a Congressional investigator.  Is this revenge?  Is Stempel paranoid because he's the Jewish outsider?  Turturro brilliantly makes you wonder about that in his intense, layered portrayal of this complicated working class man.  His Herb Stempel is irritating, obsessed, a bit vulgar, brash...and he's right.  That's the most bothersome thing about his rants.
He makes people uncomfortable because he's right.  Van Doren is a handsome cheat.  Turturro's Stempel personifies the point that the truth is not always pretty.
There's so much truth and fire in John Turturro's performance in this morality tale.  Quiz Show was nominated for Best Picture of 1994.  Redford scored another nomination for Best Director.  The screenplay was honored with a nomination and Paul Scofield -- a Best Actor Oscar winner for 1966's Best Picture, A Man for All Seasons -- was in the Best Supporting Actor Academy Award race as Van Doren's bewildered father.  Scofield was outstanding.  So was Turturro as that bespectacled David slinging rocks at a number of network Goliaths.  That wasn't the only home-run in his resumé of performances.  I first noticed him in a bit part.  He stood out with under five lines as the angry comedy show writer in 1986's Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) written and directed by Woody Allen.
He was angry again as the pizza man uneasy with his neighborhood's increased minority presence in Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing (1989).  Turturro was Bernie Bernhaum in the Prohibition-era gangster story from the Coen Brothers, Miller's Crossing (1990).
He made Bernie's death scene one of the most memorable scenes in that good movie.
He whipped out his comedy skills as Quintana, the unique and competitive macho bowler in 1998's The Big Lebowski.  He's macho wearing fingernail polish and a hairnet...
...and he has a penchant for licking his balls.  Turturro is a hoot in The Big Lebowski.
For this filmgoer, John Turturro should've been an Oscar contender for 1994's Quiz Show.  About the men that he and Ralph Fiennes portrayed in Robert Redford's film -- Charles Van Doren will be 87 next month...
...Herbert Stempel turned 86 just last month.  I wonder how they feel about today's TV.

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