1957, Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, $39.95
By the summer of 1957, Elia Kazan found himself in an unenviable situation, both professionally and personally. Joe McCarthy had recently died in disgrace, an alcoholic and morphine addict, but he and his supporters had already put the director through a very public hell. History had come knocking in the form of the Red Scare’s inquisitions, and Kazan had ended up naming names before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Although he had become disillusioned with the Communist Party (for good reason) and the names he gave to HUAC were already known, some of his closest friends in Hollywood never looked at him in the same way again. Rightly or wrongly, there will always be a little mud on his name.
But this did not mean that Kazan swung hard in the opposite direction, politically speaking. Kazan knew the dangers of demagoguery since he’d been on the receiving end of McCarthy’s interrogations, and as a gifted director of both theater and film, he knew something about the power of the media to magnify and reproduce whatever fills our screens. Still considering himself a man of the Left in his sympathy for the hardships of working stiffs, Kazan had already made On the Waterfront as a way, in his words, to “tell the world where I stood and my critics to go f–k themselves.” These issues were no doubt very much on his mind when he received Budd Schulberg’s crackling script for his film A Face in the Crowd, recently reissued by the Criterion Collection. Kazan understood demagoguery and populism well enough, but what really interested him was the toxic cocktail that resulted when they mixed with popular culture.
The plot is simple. Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes is a boozy roustabout who washes up in an Arkansas drunk tank only to be discovered by an idealistic radio journalist named Marcia Jefferies. Rhodes instantly becomes a huge radio hit for his guitar-twanging, whiskey-swilling, just-plain-folksy ways and as his star steadily rises, aided by mass communication, he becomes something of a folk hero to the thousands who tune in everyday to hear his homespun country aphorisms and hillbilly songs. The trouble, as we know from the start and Rhodes’ audience doesn’t figure out until it’s too late, is that behind the bushy hair and toothy grin lies a red-blooded all-American megalomaniac.
None other than Andy Griffith plays Rhodes, in his film debut. This is years before he would develop the eponymous character of The Andy Griffith Show as the epitome of wise, good-natured American manhood. Griffith is a revelation as the mercurial Rhodes, playing the diametric opposite of the persona that would later make him famous. He brings a demonic intensity to Rhodes’s all-enveloping charisma. He sings, he struts, he bounces off the walls, with one snappy wisecrack after another and a seductive boyishness that that gets him out of every jam. The character was inspired by Roy Rodgers’s son’s once confiding to Schulberg that his father’s everyman singing cowboy persona was just an act.
In a certain sense, it’s obvious why Rhodes becomes a pop sensation—it’s hard to take your eyes off of him. He fills the screen at every turn and easily carries the film on his shoulders while chewing the scenery. Rhodes has no real ideology of any kind and is driven almost entirely by his appetites. He’s a gangly, long-legged id, swigging liquor and eying the many women who flock to his appearances like it’s Beatlemania. The closest analogue to Rhodes at the time would clearly be Elvis—he can’t sing a lick like the King, but his hip-shaking vitality and barbaric yawp whips crowds into a lather.
There’s also a crucial element of rage and spite in Rhodes’s character, which Griffith also conveys quite effectively. In the booklet essay that accompanies the film, April Wolfe notes that part of what got Griffith sufficiently riled up on set everyday (aside from liberal swigs of strong liquor) was Kazan’s Method insistence in getting under his actor’s skins by probing his psychological wounds. Griffith had a hardscrabble upbringing in rural North Carolina, and was called white trash; Kazan helped stoke him to Rhodes’s level of fury by intentionally needling him to this effect at swanky New York cocktail parties. Griffith’s intensity in this role is due in part to his acting out a measure of his unconscious class anger. He explains in an interview segment in the bonus features that playing Rhodes put him in a very dark place for months, and that he was completely exhausted by playing a monster all day.
As some critics have pointed out, there’s a whiff of cultural condescension in Kazan and Schulberg’s portrait of Rhodes as bumpkin hero. I don’t think it’s elitism, ultimately, that drives their characterization so much as a weary acknowledgement of what it’s like to be the much-vaunted Common Man in American democracy. Rhodes likes most of the same stuff that any average guy does; he’s just louder and more brazen about it. To say that there are Lonesome Rhodes types hanging out in every diner, gas station, bar, and indeed drunk tank in America isn’t necessarily an insult. It’s just reality.
Usually, those kinds of people are far too narcissistic or incompetent to do anything other than to be legends in their own minds. A Face in the Crowd is concerned with what happens when That Guy starts to get ahold of some power and recognition, aided and abetted by a growing crowd of That Guys. And thanks to the newfound power of mass communication, courtesy of radio, and the new popularity of television, popular culture was beginning to become the place where the otherwise unremarkable can get their chance to bask in the spotlight. As Rhodes’s star rises, the steroids of money and fame pump up his already manic desires to a fever pitch. Reality television was only a generation away.
There is something a little snobbish about Kazan’s wariness over TV’s gradual domination of culture. Television screens don’t kill brain cells; the people who sit in front of them for hours do. But as a man of the theatre, Kazan was entitled to be cynical about a medium that offers all surface all the time. Looking back now in our image-saturated age, when quite a few actors and even a former reality TV star have used their celebrity status to gain prominent positions in government, it seems obvious that as worried as he was about the dangers of television magnifying our worst impulses, Kazan hadn’t seen anything yet.
As Rhodes goes from being a radio and TV star to a corporate marketing advisor—what we would now call an “influencer” if he were on social media—it’s his “authenticity” that the bigwigs need to get their fad products and shiny placebos to sell better. Rhodes becomes the pitchman for Vitajax, a dubious pill supplement that anticipates Viagra by several decades. Rhodes makes commercials where he gobbles the pills by the handful, yodeling with enthusiasm for how it gets him going, with a bevy of bikini-clad ladies swaying and grinning behind him. The gag goes on a little too long but shows how Rhodes seamlessly transitions from an entertainer to an advertiser, which offers two pithy insights about the way populism works in the age of mass media. The audience is treated as little more than a potential consumer base, and a part of what makes this marketability possible is that the rowdy energy of the heroes—who tend to be preening, hyper-masculine men of one kind or another—is rooted below the belt.
Rhodes is in many ways a blank slate onto which the audience’s emotions are projected. Since he lacks any real conviction or ideology to speak of, he can represent the homespun wisdom of the common man, which he warbles about endlessly on his TV shows, or he can stand for the devil within us all who longs to identify with someone more brazen than we dare to be. This unconscious desire to live vicariously through celebrities has always existed, but the film shows how dangerous this becomes when the stakes start to get higher. Rhodes is happy to be whatever the person who signs his checks needs him to be, but his dashingly hedonistic persona is anything but criticized by the good God-fearing folks of middle America. If anything, his overt masculinity is celebrated, as the nubile high school baton twirlers come out en masse to audition for a spot on his show, with their parents’ enthusiastic approval.
With his southern roots, fondness for country and rock and roll, and generally randy behavior, Rhodes is reminiscent of some of our ex-presidents and quite a few of our recent political leaders. When Rhodes ends up advising a presidential hopeful on how to appeal to the average voter, the Bermuda Triangle between entertainment, advertising, and politics has converged. There is no doubt—if anything, the film falls all over itself to underline the point—that Rhodes is used as a means to achieve bigger and more nefarious ends. Rhodes doesn’t seem to question the ethics or morality of using his image to make boatloads of money for the big shots he claims to despise so long as he makes truckloads of it for himself—a very American mentality. He can’t be called a sellout because selling is all there is, as far as he’s concerned, since that is all that the world he lives in has taught him. After all, if you brand yourself a populist, it helps to be popular.
But Marcia does worry, and as the moral conscience of the film she falls for Rhodes’s schtick both in and outside the limelight. Her helplessness in the face of Rhodes’s wily charms is intended to be tragic but comes off nowadays as a bit sentimental. Given the recent ways in which we have seen large sections of the public willingly give themselves over to their heroes, there’s less pathos in Marcia’s eventual seduction. Enter Walter Matthau’s Mel Miller, a sardonic writer of serious fiction who took to writing Rhodes’s TV scripts strictly for the money. Miller is the bespectacled, one-man Greek chorus of rationality and worldly skepticism. Rhodes, naturally, despises him, but Miller is streetwise enough to know that if he waits long enough, Rhodes’s luck will run out eventually.
Of course, run out it does, once Rhodes is caught on a hot mic talking trash about all the little suckers and fools out there in TV land who will believe anything he says. Rhodes has known all along that he’s been running a long con on the public, and he isn’t even slick enough in his showmanship to keep his big mouth shut about it. Once word gets out about his disdain for the public, Rhodes is ruined. The circuit of adulation and propaganda that has electrified him throughout the film is well and truly broken, and Rhodes is left with nothing but an empty room and an applause machine roaring on an endless loop. Rhodes’s phony fanfare for the common man has dissolved into a crackle of TV static.
Miller’s rumination at the end of Rhodes’s meteoric career provides the film’s moral: “we get wise to them, that’s our strength. We get wise to them.” This sentiment is a hopefully populist notion, since it assumes that the average person’s ability to call out frauds and hucksters is in itself a bulwark against their rise to power. I hate to say it, but today this sounds almost naively optimistic. Perhaps Lincoln was right that you can’t fool all of the people all of the time, but we can never be sure that the unfooled will be in the majority. And numbers are what matter.
What’s most disturbing about today’s crop of media-hyped demagogues isn’t that they are adored despite their faults—such as vulgarity, spite, ignorance, egomania, and greed—but precisely because of them. Embracing one’s mendacity is what passes for authenticity to many nowadays, as much as class signifiers like a twangy country accent and wearing denim used to do for the Rhodes types of yesteryear. Plenty of people in the public eye nowadays are just as venal as Rhodes is, but many no longer feel the need to even bother to disguise it.
A film like A Face in the Crowd is intended to be the antidote to this kind of demagoguery and media manipulation, and its searing ironies might open some eyes. But the key variable with satire isn’t always the artist—it’s the audience. No matter how keen the wit or jaundiced the eye, there’s simply no telling how many people will bother to pay attention long enough to hear the alarm bell that the satirist is ringing. The fact that the movie flopped when it came out in the summer of 1957 might have something to do with Kazan’s reputation at the time, but it doesn’t bode well for the prescription that it tries to offer to the body politic. If anything, with the benefit of hindsight, A Face in the Crowd seems more like a desperate prophecy than anything else, as its trenchant message goes unheeded even as it becomes freshly relevant with every election cycle.