I wanted to round out my exposure to classic film and so I've recently spent some time watching the "greats". The internet recommended Elia Kazan's works as a starting place. I've watched a lot of movies but am far from knowledgeable enough to describe myself as someone who's "into film", but even I've heard of many of Kazan's films. A Streetcar Named Desire, Viva Zapata, On The Waterfront, East of Eden.. the list goes on. He's responsible for introducing Marlon Brando and James Dean in film, has won countless awards, and played a role in un-blacklisting Zero Mostel following all the Hollywood 40s/50s communist scares. A man absolutely worth reading more about.
While his critically acclaimed films, On the Waterfront particularly, were all absolutely incredible, I haven't been able to stop thinking about one of his less popular films, A Face in the Crowd, based on a short story from Budd Schulberg.
At the time it was released it received no love from the Academy nor any film festivals, overall landing with mixed reviews. The film is most known for introducing the world to Andy Griffith, one of the most poplar television figures ever.
Without giving a whole synopsis, the plot is centered around a drifter Larry "Lonesome" Rhodes (Andy Griffith) who becomes a powerful radio and TV personality, with the help of Marcia Jeffries (Oscar-winner Patricia Neal), by presenting himself as a man of the common folk. Eventually, he has the ear of powerful military figures, politicians, Koch-like business moguls, and the rest of that ilk. Eventually this power consumes him and the people around him and destroys everything. It's an excellent commentary on the power of the media and influence of personalities, as well an intimate view of fame disfigured relationships and the moral decay of power. Neal's performance is terrific and she executes the darkening character arc flawlessly. As for Griffith, it's a one-of-a-kind performance, one that shaped his entire career, but more on that later.
A couple of my favorite quotes...
Rhodes discussing campaign politics with a Senator and his advisors
Rhodes: "We've got to face it, politics have entered a new stage, television. Instead of long-winded debates, the people want slogans. "Time for a change" "The mess in Washington" "More bang for a buck". Punch-lines and glamour. Yes, Mr. Furness, even glamour."
Furness: "My papers have supported Worthington Fuller...from the first day he ran for office, he's not a grandstander... a backslapper or a baby-kisser."
Rhodes: "That’s exactly what he's got to become."
Rhodes and Marcia discussing his upcoming dinner party with some of the Washington elites
Rhodes: "The biggest men in the country are coming to my banquet...to get things rolling. I've got an admiral, two governors...some investment house boys and a cabinet minister."
Jeffries: "Which one?Rhodes: "I don't know. I told the general to pick one."
Jeffries: "They're coming to your party?"Rhodes: "Honey, if I ask them, they've got to come. They'd be afraid not to come. I could murder them, like guests."
Jeffries: "I'm afraid it’s true."
Rhodes: "What’s true?"Jeffries: "Right here, tonight, you might have that much power."
The poignant revelance to today's current political and mainstream media climate is unmissable, making for a foreboding and eerie viewing experience. If Rhodes had run for office it would have been flat out prophetic. The real haunting part for me comes in the final scene when Marcia and one of Rhodes' former writers Mel Miller (another Oscar-winner, Walter Matthau) confront him.
Rhodes: Listen, I'm not through yet. You know what's gonna to happen to me?Miller: Suppose I tell you exactly what's gonna happen to you. You're gonna be back in television. Only it won't be quite the same as it was before. There'll be a reasonable cooling-off period and then somebody will say: "Why don't we try him again in a inexpensive format. People's memories aren't too long." And you know, in a way, he'll be right. Some of the people will forget, and some of them won't. Oh, you'll have a show. Maybe not the best hour or, you know, top 10. Maybe not even in the top 35. But you'll have a show. It just won't be quite the same as it was before. Then a couple of new fellas will come along. And pretty soon, a lot of your fans will be flocking around them. And then one day, somebody'll ask: "Whatever happened to, a, whatshisname? You know, the one who was so big. The number-one fella a couple of years ago. He was famous. How can we forget a name like that? Oh by the way, have you seen, a, Barry Mills? I think he's the greatest thing since Will Rogers."**Mel turns and starts to leave. Then, he turns back towards Lonesome.Miller: Beanie!**Beanie, who is manning the automatic appalause machine, instinctively pulls the switch, unleashing a massive abundance of cheers. The mechanical jubilation continues as Mel joins Marcia in the waiting elevator, leaving Lonesome alone in the empty penthouse with his broken dreams.
Although it provides a nice ribbon for wrapping up the film, it doesn't quite capture how distorted our current sad reality is, where celebrities and politicians can take should-be career deathblows and somehow get stronger. They are somehow impervious to their own should-be self-destructive ways. Kazan underestimated the blindness of tribalism, but can we blame him?
What I find most interesting about this movie is the outcome of it for Andy Griffith. His performance as Lonesome Rhodes is captivating. Griffith even commented in some interviews that he was very afraid of the feeling he got from playing Rhodes, because he was too good at it, he could easily do exactly what Rhodes was doing in the film.
"You've got to be a saint to stand the power that box gives you."
Actualizing A Face in the Crowd, Griffith went on to make his self-named show, becoming the face of America of the 1960s. He became in institution in his own right just as Rhodes had been. Griffith understood the burden he was going to bear and believed he could do justice to the responsibility the massive national audience would place upon him. The resulting product was nine seasons of wholesome moral indoctrination starring the undeniably virtuous model American, Andy Taylor.
Overall, A Face in the Crowd stands tall as one of the most powerful films I've ever seen. There are tons of excellent videos where Andy and other creators discuss the film and other related topics. Obviously watch the movie first, but these make the viewing experience that much more memorable. This particular video provided some thought-provoking points on how our retrospective viewing of the film is what makes it compelling due to our context with Griffith's Andy Taylor character as the anti-Rhodes.
If you haven't seen it, please do yourself a favor and watch the movie. It's available on Amazon to rent for $3.