‘A Face in the Crowd’ More Timely Than Ever
By Todd Hill
More often than not, lauding a motion picture for being “ahead of its time” is just so much overheated praise. The phrase is commonly used as critical code-speak for movies that audiences simply didn’t get, usually because there wasn’t much there to get in the first place.
But if ever a film was legitimately ahead of its time, it was the 1957 Elia Kazan film “A Face in the Crowd.” Reviews contemporaneous to its release weren’t necessarily all-out negative, but clearly reflected a certain confusion about what Kazan was trying to accomplish with this movie about a fame-hungry monster and his coterie of shameless enablers.
“This type would either have become a harmless habit or the public would have been finished with him!” Bosley Crowther wrote of the film’s central character, Lonesome Rhodes, in his 1957 New York Times review. If only they knew then what we know now.
Rhodes, discovered languishing in a small-town prison in northeast Arkansas by an ambitious female journalist, is effortlessly magnetic and entertaining. He’s a force of nature, the kind of personality who dominates any room simply by being in it. He’s also sexy and not a little dangerous, and he’s portrayed by … Andy Griffith?
Griffith, of course, will forever be known for “The Andy Griffith Show” (1960–68), in which he played a kind and wise sheriff of a small southern town remarkably untouched by racial animus or any significant crime. Unrealistic and idealized as it may be, the sitcom still ranks as one of the most endearing series in the history of television.
But Griffith made his screen debut in “A Face in the Crowd,” playing a far more complicated, ambiguous, aggravating and downright threatening character than he ever would again (Griffith did go dark in the 1975 western “Hearts of the West”). His performance here isn’t just kind of stunning — he’s undeniably terrific as Lonesome Rhodes, and should have received an Oscar nomination for Best Actor. But the film was ignored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which has been known to happen to movies that are ahead of their time.
As Rhodes’ fame grows, from homespun appearances on a tiny Arkansas radio station to a larger, regional radio program based in Memphis, Tenn., then on to his own television show in New York City, he grows increasingly influential. Can politics be far behind?
Fortunately for the America of “A Face in the Crowd,” it will never know, as Rhodes is caught saying indelicate things by a live microphone he had assumed was off, losing all his fans overnight — a detail that feels most prescient today, if not entirely realistic.
The microphone switch is flipped by the journalist, Marcia Jeffries, who first discovered Rhodes, out of guilt over what she has unleashed upon the world. As Marcia, Patricia Neal delivers an intriguing performance, although she’s ultimately either guilty of over-acting or of falling victim to her director’s excesses.
Strong in supporting performances are Walter Matthau, an associate of Marcia’s who’s on to Rhodes early, and Anthony Franciosa as a grinning Rhodes sycophant. Kazan also tiresomely populated his film with several real-life journalists and public figures of the mid-1950’s, many of whom would be unrecognizable to most audiences today.
Kazan and “A Face in the Crowd’s” screenwriter, Budd Schulberg, insisted in interviews years after the film was released that it was not meant to be a commentary on McCarthyism, a frequent target of filmmakers of the time, so much as television’s troubling potential to shape both personalities and public opinion.
Of course, today that’s old hat. “A Face in the Crowd” feels incredibly timely now for what it has to say about the charade of populism and how rapidly a demagogue can rise out of the dust to threaten America’s most valued and essential institutions.
Kazan’s movie is messy, loud and often downright disagreeable to experience. Griffith, it seems, shouts nearly all of his lines, and frequently bursts forth with a laugh so garrulous it causes everyone within earshot to grimace. When his character is finally brought down, it’s not for the commission of a crime or because of any sort of serious scandal. He’s simply become mad with power, his unchecked ego running roughshod over anyone in his way.
Of course, it’s only a movie. In real life, brutes like Lonesome Rhodes are not put in their place nearly so neatly.
Todd Hill is a former journalist with 30 years of experience, much of it in film criticism, who misses neither journalism nor the film beat.