In 2008, the Library of Congress chose to preserve A Face In The Crowd in the U.S. National Film Registry for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” Well, that could be the understatement of the 21st century. I couldn’t escape the feeling while watching controversial director Elia Kazan’s production— about a media sensation that goes haywire—for the first time, that the film was not only incredibly prophetic, but is still oddly relevant to this day, especially considering the current state of quasi-celebrity status in America and the overwhelming power of our media-driven culture. Who ever would have guessed that a 1957 Andy Griffith, in his film debut, as the lead would provide the ultimate cautionary tale about believing too fervently in one’s own hype? But maybe I’m once again getting a little ahead of myself.
Griffith plays Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes (in a truly effective, influential, and mesmerizing role that could be among the best of the decade), a lazy, alcoholic, womanizing, backwoods country drifter who doesn’t really seem to have any discernible talent (at least, that was my take) other than an innate ability to influence others and rabble-rouse with a disarming, yet seemingly disingenuous and almost sleazy charm that’s equal to that of a snake oil salesman. His deep, raucous, maniacal laugh is unmistakable, and perhaps a harbinger of things to come. We find him, as does radio producer Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal), sleeping off a bender in an Arkansas jail. Jeffries is looking for an average everyday Joe to provide a song, anecdote, etc. for her program, “A Face in the Crowd.” Rhodes is reluctant at first, but acquiesces after being promised that he’ll be released from the clink the following morning. Needless to say, Rhodes’ hayseed charisma and homespun song “I’ll Be a Free Man in the Morning” is an instant hit, first with Jeffries, who falls immediately under his spell, and soon with her radio audience. Jeffries gives him his own show (and eventually her heart), and his popularity becomes contagious. Before long, Rhodes has his own Memphis TV show to the delight of many. However, he begins to get too big for his britches, initially evidenced by his ability to influence viewers to buy mattresses from a show sponsor, despite his lampooning of the business. A writer for the show, Mel Miller (Walter Matthau), immediately recognizes the danger of his power.
A slimy, opportunistic would-be agent (Anthony Franciosa) sees his chance to get in on the runaway Rhodes popularity train and lands him in the big time, scoring Rhodes a show in New York City, all under the guise of being a company shill for Vitajex, an energy supplement. His fame and influence explode. Now, a true example of style over substance, Rhodes is drunk with power. He becomes the quintessential egomaniac, believing that he can do no wrong and overestimating the value of his talent for being a manipulator, and starts to alienate everyone around him. Matters begin to come to a head when he rubs elbows with a U.S. Senator vying for the Presidency in order to help him mold his image, instead of worrying about his politics. Rhodes’ believes that if he’s successful in his efforts, he’ll be named the “Secretary for National Morale” (of course, this would certainly make him a threat to democracy).
OK, I should probably stop there because I’m getting excited and I don’t want to ruin the movie for those who haven’t seen it. (Don’t worry, I left a lot out, not the least of which is cute-as-a-button Lee Remick’s film debut). Though, I do want to point out a pivotal scene in the film when Rhodes is coaching the Presidential hopeful under the belief that instead of public debate, people want catch phrases, glitz, and photo ops. It immediately made me think of James Stockdale, independent Presidential candidate Ross Perot’s 1992 running mate, who did nothing to help Mr. Perot’s campaign. Why? Because he was bad on television…and that’s the ultimate sin in this country. In fact, it was even difficult for me not to think of our last commander-in-chief, one George W., as a Lonesome Rhodes character. After all, he was the leader everyone wanted to “have a beer with.” What I’m saying is that it’s amazing how Kazan and screenwriter Budd Schulberg were able to cultivate the Rhodes character into not only a personification of the boob tube and its horrific ability to push viewers into dangerous territory if they’re not mindful of it and vigilant against it, but also a metaphor for modern-day celebrity and politics some 40 years later. The inspiration for Lonesome Rhodes is said to have come, interestingly enough, from various entertainers such as Arthur Godfrey, Ronald Reagan, and Will Rogers (albeit, with a much darker personality). Now, as for the merit of these comparisons, as well as the evaluation of the talent (or possible lack thereof) of the three aforementioned gentlemen, I’ll leave that up to the individual viewer (many of them, probably more qualified than I). However, in the face of such “personalities” as Paris Hilton, Snooki, and Ryan Seacrest, it’s impossible not to draw comparisons between them and Lonesome Rhodes. It’s also impossible not to worry about those who buy into these wolves in sheep’s clothing, which made this a positively special film for me.
Now, a couple things that I didn’t like about the film was that the sheer force of Griffith’s performance as Rhodes tended to overpower the other characters in the film to such an incredible degree that it ultimately overshadowed the film’s merit a bit. There isn’t another person in the movie that even comes close to Griffith, and when he isn’t on screen, I found myself impatiently waiting for the narrative to get moving again. This especially becomes a problem when it comes time to challenge the man’s faults. Additionally, the ending was a touch anticlimactic (even though most folks will be able to figure out how matters are going to pan out), with Matthau’s final speech being superfluous and falling flat. Due to this, I was going to give AFITC three and a half stars out of five, but after letting myself ruminate over the production for a while, I’ve decided that it deserves an extra half star. The flaws should in no way deter people from seeing the film. Subsequently, I’ve learned that this little masterpiece wasn’t successful upon its initial release. So, for those out there who haven’t experienced it, it’s a must. The movie still has vitality to it, viewers will be astounded by its relevance, and no one will ever look at Andy of Mayberry the same way ever again. Who knew he had it in him? I blame Opie for bringing him down.