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Part rags-to-riches cautionary tale, part political thriller, and part doomed romance, A Face in the Crowd—from director Elia Kazan and On the Waterfront writer Budd Schulberg—foretold how mass media, celebrity, commerce and politics would become forever intertwined, in a way that was almost incomprehensible upon its release in 1957 and is all too common now.
Andy Griffith sneers, cackles, shouts, sweats and monologues as Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes, a booze-soaked drifter and singer doing a couple of days in jail for disorderly conduct. Lonesome is “discovered” by Marcia Jefferies (played by Patricia Neal), who produces a segment for a radio station in rural Arkansas. He sings a song for her, she lights up, and his rise to the top begins.
Kids love his songs, women love his plainspoken charm, working men love his grit and honesty, and advertisers love the profits they make off him. But beneath his seemingly simplistic language lies a master manipulator, able to get almost anyone to give him exactly what he wants, and as corrupt as his power allows him to be.
Although the movie predates The Andy Griffith Show by several years, it’s impossible not to watch A Face in the Crowd without seeing Griffith inverting everything we think we know about him. Imagine Robin Williams playing a serial killer —or loveable TV dad Bryan Cranston becoming a meth-cooking monster. That’s how jarring and fascinating it is to see Griffith in this film. And in Griffith, Kazan would find a star with the gravitas to pull off the shift from salt-of-the-earth to psychopath.
When a New York Senator with presidential aspirations enters Lonesome’s orbit, the veneer of his folksy wisdom falls away altogether. In its place is a dark, creepy lust for power. Soon Lonesome is screaming about being named “Secretary for National Morale” and putting together a crew of street thugs to ensure his bidding is done. It’s a portrait of power that’s found not at the barrel of a gun, but at the end of a cathode ray tube.
Despite the pedigree of Elia Kazan, who had become one of the hottest directors in Hollywood after making A Streetcar Named Desire, On the Waterfront, and East of Eden, and rising stars like Griffith, Neal, and Walter Matthau, A Face in the Crowd didn’t make much of an impact when it was released in 1957. People didn’t get it. Influential reviewers thought it outlandish that mass media, and television in particular, had the power to sway national politics.
Then three years later Richard Nixon sweated and stammered his way to losing a televised debate to John F. Kennedy, and with it, the election of 1960. A few years after that, The Beatles became instant heroes to a generation thanks to an appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show.
Kazan and Schulberg saw television not as a vast wasteland, but as a blank slate capable of making anyone into anything. So they made A Face in the Crowd, not as political discourse, but as a warning of what can happen when power and corruption meet universal availability.
Don’t see A Face in the Crowd as a period piece; see it as a commentary on the relationship between the media, political pandering, and pop culture. Once you do, you’ll notice Lonesome Rhodes in every politician taking on a faux-folk persona whom voters “want to have a beer with.” You’ll notice him in the pundits spewing conspiracy theories and the people lapping them up. And you’ll notice him in the famous-for-being-famous reality stars trying to extend their short time in the spotlight.
A Face in the Crowd ends with a blinking neon Coca-Cola sign, making sure we never forget what the media is all about—selling stuff. That image, and everything that came before it, makes this movie practically a documentary—and a must-watch.