Thursday, July 18, 2013

The Best Films I Have Never Seen Before: A Face in the Crowd (1957)

A Face in the Crowd (1957)
Directed by: Elia Kazan.
Written by: Budd Schulberg based on his short story.
Starring: Andy Griffith (Larry 'Lonesome' Rhodes), Patricia Neal (Marcia Jeffries), Anthony Franciosa (Joey DePalma), Walter Matthau (Mel Miller), Lee Remick (Betty Lou Fleckum), Percy Waram (Gen. Haynesworth), Paul McGrath (Macey), Rod Brasfield (Beanie), Marshall Neilan (Senator Worthington Fuller), Alexander Kirkland (Jim Collier), Charles Irving (Mr. Luffler), Howard Smith (J.B. Jeffries).

Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd is one of those movies that was years ahead of its time when it was made. In 1957, the film probably seemed a little far fetched and unbelievable, but flash forward 54 years, and A Face in the Crowd seems realistic in its cynicism about the intersection of fame and politics. Like Sidney Lumet and Paddy Chayefsky’s Network or Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers, Kazan and writer Budd Schulberg saw something in the culture before most people had picked up on it, and delivered this perceptive, cynicial, funny tragedy of modern times. It is, quite simply, a masterpiece.

Andy Griffth, in his first major role, well before he became known to everyone as Sheriff Andy, plays Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes, a small time drifter picked up and put in jail in a small backwater town on a charge of drunk and disorderly conduct. This is where Marcia Jefferies (Patricia Neal) finds him. Her uncle runs the local radio station, and she does a segment called “A Face in the Crowd”, where she lets normal people tell their stories. She decides to do one broadcast from the local jail, and in Rhodes, she finds an undiscovered star. He is funny, charming, witty, sings and plays the guitar and can tell a story with the best of them. She doesn’t just want to do a one time segment with him, but convinces him to host a daily radio show. It becomes a huge hit, and soon TV is calling. They want him to do a weekly show from Memphis. But Rhodes plays by his own rules, and tells it as he sees it to the audiences – mocking his mattress salesman sponsor and the inane ad copy they want him to read on the air. This would spell the end of your career – unless you’re as popular as Rhodes, in which case, it gets you a TV show in New York, with a National Audience. A few short months after being a penniless drifter, Rhodes in the biggest TV star in the country. And of course, he’s changed. He likes the fame the TV show brings him, the power and the money and especially the women. It doesn’t matter that his new sponsor is selling a pill that does absolutely nothing – he hocks it as a miracle pill, implying it is an aide in sexual prowess. He brings Marcia along, of course. She’s the brains behind everything, and he needs her to run it. And despite the fact that he’ll screw anything that moves, she still loves him. He uses this to his advantage – and even proposes to her. But not even the fact that on a trip he ends up marrying an 18 year old baton twirler (Lee Remnick, also making her film debut) can make Marcia stop loving him – and trying to protect him. Not even when he has completely sold out, and is not just hocking worthless pills, but a worthless Presidential candidate as well, can get her to give up on him.

A Face in the Crowd is a deeply cynical film. It presents Rhodes as little more than a country bumpkin, who grows too big for his britches. He doesn’t seem to know anything about politics, but that doesn’t matter. His sponsor wants Senator Worthington, an untelegenic, weak willed man to be President, so Rhodes uses his show to promote that. Rhodes doesn’t care about Worthington’s ideas, and says no one else does either. All they need to see is Worthington acting like the rest of them – going hunting, talking in a down home country accent, and spouting off meaningless sound bites. Rhodes has no problem when his sponsor and Worthington tell him that the “workingman”, who Rhodes is supposed to represent, is too stupid to govern themselves, so they need a high powered, intellectual elite to guide them with a firm hand. Rhodes even goes as far as to create another show, that is just him talking to “yokels” about his political ideas, who of course eat up every word he says as if it was the gospel.

The movie was ahead of its time in the way it tied together entertainment and politics. While many have compared someone like Glenn Beck to Peter Finch’s Howard Beale from Network, some have pointed out the similarities between people like Beck and Lonesome Rhodes. They talk like they’re one of the little guys, one of the underdogs, when really they are powerful and wealthy beyond measure – and they have a vested interest in maintaining that power. Elections stop being about who is most qualified, or who will do a better job or even who you agree with, but it becomes a mere popularity contest, based on how people come across on TV. It has often been said that in the age of TV, Franklin Roosevelt and his wheelchair never would have become President. Why? Not because of his politics, but because of his appearance. A Face in the Crowd was ahead of the curve in pointing all this out.

In a movie like this, a lot depends on the performances. Walter Matthau is in fine form as someone who sees through Rhodes from the beginning, but sticks around because he’s in love with Marcia. Lee Remnick is perfect as the doe-eyed ingĂ©nue turned sexpot, who loves fame as much as Rhodes does. Patricia Neal may never have been better than she is here as the woman who cannot help but be drawn to Rhodes, despite her better judgment, and how that all but destroys her. But most of all, there is Andy Griffth. It takes a scene or two to get over seeing Sheriff Andy in this role, but that does go away rather quickly. This is a loud, boisterous performance – not a whole lot of subtlety, but since Rhodes is not a subtle character, it works brilliantly. It is a big, bold, brash performance, and Griffth nails it.

If I have one problem with the movie, it’s the ending. It all seems a little too neat for me. I wish that the film had a darker, more cynical ending – one that didn’t insist on giving Rhodes his comeuppance, which strikes me as more wishful thinking that realistic. And the ending goes far too easy on Marcia, who afterall, created this monster, and even though she destroys him as well, gets away too cleanly for my tastes.

But that’s a minor flaw, in what is one of the great films from the 1950s. I have no idea why it took me so long to watch this film. It is a masterpiece in every way imaginable.

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