A masterful, enthralling work of both disturbing prescience and in-the-moment acuity, A Face in the Crowd dramatizes in a powerful and disquieting way the all-consuming nature of power. Although produced and set in the late 1950s, its depiction of political manipulation, media-savvy cynicism, and the destructive allure of populism have too many parallels in the current here and now to count. "I'm not just an entertainer," says Larry "Lonesome" Rhodes, the nobody country singer-turned-political sensation played by Andy Griffith, "I'm an influencer. A wielder of opinion. A force."
That is not how he begins. Rather, we first meet Larry in a squalid jailhouse in northeast Arkansas where he is spending a week for drunk and disorderly. Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal), an ambitious young radio personality, features him on her show A Face in the Crowd, and discovers in him a raw talent that she mistakenly thinks she can shape and mold. Wielding little more than a guitar, a resonant singing voice, and a seemingly endless supply of anecdotes, tall tales, and homespun wisdom that he delivers with a toothy grin and all-in, full-throated laugh, Larry-who Marcia rechristens "Lonesome"-quickly becomes a media sensation, moving from local to national radio and then to television. A self-professed "man of the people," Lonesome conquers the airwaves and is catapulted to stardom, beloved by millions for his refusal to play by the rules (he infuriates his show's first sponsor, a mattress company, by making fun of their ads) and rejection of the elite class, whose fabled ranks he nonetheless soon enters.
His wide-ranging popularity draws the attention of politicians and businessmen, who seek to use him to advance their own agendas, especially General Haynesworth (Percy Waram), a wealthy entrepreneur who peddles quack energy pills and is backing a dull-as-dirt Senator named Worthington Fuller (Marshall Neilan) for President. In one of the film's most chilling (and insightful) lines of dialogue, the General states, "in every strong society, from the Egyptians on, the mass had to be guided with a strong hand by a responsible elite." In other words, American democracy is not a true democracy, but rather a carefully constructed and managed faade that creates the illusion of participation when, in reality, there is only manipulation, something that Lonesome becomes all too happy to exploit. The man who, at the beginning of the film just wanted to be left alone, by the third act is drunkenly crowing about his audience, "They're mine! I own 'em! They think like I do. Only they're even more stupid than I am, so I gotta think for 'em."
A Face in the Crowd marked the second collaboration between screenwriter Budd Schulberg and director Elia Kazan. Previously Schulberg had penned the script for Kazan's multi-Oscar-winning One the Waterfront (1954), a film that plays as both poignant tragedy and thinly veiled justification of their own political culpability in testifying before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1952, where they committed the grievous sin of naming names. Both Kazan and Schulberg had joined and then become disillusioned with the Communist Party in the 1930s, but neither man had lost his progressive political perspective, even as they were vilified as political turncoats who ruined others' careers to protect their own. While their decision to name names will always be controversial, both men believed they were doing the right thing; however, their post-HUAC films, especially Kazan's, suggest an ambivalence about the idea of clear-cut moral choices, which is what makes them so thematically rich and timeless.
A Face in the Crowd, which Schulberg adapted from his previously published short story "The Arkansas Traveler" at Kazan's behest, is particularly reflective of this moral uncertainty, as it views Lonesome as both tragic pawn and unhinged monstrosity. An amalgam of folksy media personalities like Will Rogers and Arthur Godfrey, Lonesome slowly morphs into a raging demagogue who is dangerously infatuated with his own sense of power and obsessed with his ratings. Leering like a deranged Howdy Doody come to life, he nevertheless maintains our sympathy because we recognize how he has been manipulated as much as he manipulates others. Marcia is, in this regard, the film's truly tragic figure, as she is the one responsible for creating and nurturing the beast that eventually escapes her control, which is made all the worse by the fact that she loves him and must endure his various betrayals and rejections (never more so than when he abruptly ends their engagement by marrying a bubbly blonde teenager played by Lee Remick). Marcia is warned by Mel Miller (Walter Matthau), an intellectual writer assigned to Lonesome who immediately sees right through his man-of-the-people schtick to his fascistic inner core, which Marcia refuses to recognize until it is already too late.
Schulberg penned the story as a warning about the dangerous intersection between television and politics, as politicians were increasingly being subjected to the logic of the commercial market and packaged as products to be sold (it was Eisenhower who, in 1952, hired Madison Avenue advertising executive Rosser Reeves, who convinced the world that M&M's "melt in your mouth, not in your hands," to help with his Presidential campaign, resulting in the infamous "Everybody Likes Ike" jingle). A Face in the Crowd was one of a number of films released in and around the Eisenhower era that explored the corrupting nature of power and the way the media often act as an accelerant: Robert Rossen's All the King's Men (1949), Billy Wilder's Ace in the Hole (1951), Raoul Walsh's A Lion in the Streets (1953), Alexander Mackendrick's Sweet Smell of Success (1957), and Richard Brooks's Elmer Gantry (1960), to name a few. Schulberg's concerns turned out to be all too prescient, as the logic of packaging political candidates has been twisted and demented even further over the past two decades by the Internet and social media, which provides an even more insidious platform for the dissemination of misinformation and a bully pulpit for would-be demagogues who know how to use it to their own ends (the clarity with which the film portends the rise of someone like Donald Trump is genuinely unnerving).
At the center of the film, of course, is Andy Griffith, who gives a towering, ferocious performance as Lonesome Rhodes, one of the all-time great movie characters. At the time, Griffith was a virtual unknown on the silver screen, although he had established himself on stage as a popular comic performer and recording artist. His only screen credit at the time was the role of Will Stockdale in the hilarious military farce No Time for Sergeants, which had been adapted as an episode of The U.S. Steel Hour in 1955 (Griffith also played the role on the Broadway stage and would go on to star in a film version in 1958). Few actors could balance Lonesome's on-camera folksy charms and behind-the-scenes outrages, and Griffith tears into the role with such intensity that it becomes all too easy to forget that his most enduring impact on popular culture was playing the wise, gentle father figure of the 1960s sitcom that bears his name. Sexually voracious, relentless opportunistic, and utterly unapologetic, his Lonesome is a fascinating, compelling, dangerous character that demands to be revisited in the shadow of the Trump Era he so cannily predicted.
Copyright © 2019 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © The Criterion Collection
Overall Rating: (4)
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