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Great Film for An Election Year

A Face in the Crowd (1957)
Director: Elia Kazan
Screenplay: Budd Schulberg, based on a short story by Schulberg

Andy Griffith: Larry "Lonesome" Rhodes, an ignorant, indigent guitar player lifted to fame by educated people willing to trade financial success for integrity.
Patricia Neal: Marcia Jeffries, the "discoverer" of Rhodes who falls in love with him, makes excuses for him, and finally destroys him.
Anthony Franciosa: Joey DePalma, an office boy who eavesdrops his way to corporate success
Walter Matthau: Mel Miller, a television flunky who despises Rhodes even as he works for his success
Lee Remick: Betty Lou Fleckum, a brainless blonde seduced by Rhodes. (Lee Remick's film debut)
Percy Waram: General Haynesworth, a wealthy television advertiser who makes and breaks celebrities as they serve his purposes
Rod Brasfield: Beanie, a stupid friend from Rhodes's wandering days, kept on as a barometer of what will please an audience
Marshall Neilan: Senator Worthington Fuller, a radical conservative politician who wants to be president so that he can limit American civil liberties.

For those of us who think fondly of Andy Griffith in the context of his kindly roles as Mayberry's Sheriff Taylor and white-haired detective Matlock, watching A Face in the Crowd (1957) requires a huge effort to forget who's playing the part of "Lonesome" Rhodes.

In this remarkable film written by Budd Schulberg and directed by Elia Kazan, Griffith plays the part of a repellent and despicable manipulator. And he plays it splendidly. The part of Rhodes certainly must be seen as the most complex of his career.

Rhodes is an ignorant drifter who plays the guitar and is used to being jailed for drunk and disorderly behavior. The product of an abusive childhood, he is incapable of empathy or moral thinking. His guitar-playing and homey way of delivering what sounds like homespun wisdom catch the attention of small town radio personality Marcia Jeffries, played by Patricia Neal.

Jeffries is educated and ambitious. When she meets Rhodes she's program director for a tiny Arkansas radio station. She immediately recognizes his marketability and hires him to do a daily talk show. His success in charming his rural audience catches the attention of a Memphis television station and he soon becomes a national celebrity.

The fictional Rhodes is often compared to Fifties talk show host Arthur Godfrey who presented the persona of a laid-back, kindly father figure, but who reputedly, behind the scenes, was vindictive, manipulative, and arrogant. Reviewer Thomas Beltzer, however, finds a closer comparison in the personalities of Sputnik Monroe, Dewey Phillips, and Elvis Presley, all popular Southern celebrities who charmed and exploited their audiences of working class blacks and whites while despising them for their gullibility.

Most of the reviews of this film that I've read seem to miss the point.

Yes, Dusty Rhodes is despicable in his treatment of the people who care for him. Yes he overestimates his own importance and power. But Rhodes is not the chief villain in A Face in the Crowd.

Critics who see Rhodes as the evil person in the plot whose downfall restores goodness and light to the entertainment business, are blind to the reality of media hype and corporate control of American politics.

Rhodes is a pawn. He seems to be a power behind the throne when his endorsements send presidential candidate Senator Fuller's poll numbers through the roof, but the power behind Rhodes is CEO General Haynesworth who dupes the voting public in the way that Rhodes dupes his television audience.

It is probably significant that this film did not receive any honors in 1957. A powerful film by a top director and screenwriter and featuring three superb performances by Griffith, Neal, and Walter Matthau, might have been expected to garner at least one Oscar nomination, but A Face in the Crowd remained just that: anonymous.

True, 1957 was the year of The Bridge over the River Kwai, Sayonara, and Witness for the Prosecution, but it does seem bizarre that Peyton Place would be nominated for nine awards and A Face in the Crowd for none. I rather think the film was a victim of its own excellence. As Beltzer says in his perceptive analysis:

"What the cultural establishment can't tame and control, it ignores or destroys."

Like Idiocracy (2006), A Face in the Crowd was ignored by the Establishment because its message hits too close to home for the controlling elite.

In 1957 there was still a distinction to be drawn between television celebrities and political candidates.

In 2008 the line has disappeared. Politicians appear on television, trading wise cracks with Jon Stewart. They're packaged and sold like any box of corn flakes or bottle of shampoo-- for the marvelous attributes they seem to possess and to be capable of passing on to their buyers.

In this election year A Face in the Crowd makes timely viewing.

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