Loved by Truffaut, borrowed by Spike Lee, strangely overlooked today, A Face in the Crowd is a prescient film from 1957 that uses the word “influencer”, is worried about demagogues in public life, the corrupting effect of the media and the weird lives of celebrities.
It’s directed by Elia Kazan, a man with an eye for for a political meme – he did Gentleman’s Agreement (anti-semitism) and On the Waterfront (union corruption) – and was made five years after he’d testified to the House Unamerican Activities Committee and “named names”.
The febrile McCarthyite atmosphere of the times is partly what Kazan and regular writer Budd Schulberg are tilting at in the story of a roving radio reporter, played by Patricia Neal, who, in her search for authentic voices of the people for her daily radio show, one day turns up at the Tomahawk County Jail and finds herself the real deal – a poor but bright, smart-mouthed, funny and entirely unfiltered guy called Larry Rhodes.
He’s an instant hit, an instant star full of homespun wisdom, a good singing voice and enough guitar to accompany a tune, and is soon travelling upwards into the media firmament, going from local radio to national, and on to TV before finally being propelled into politics, powered by an ear for a catchy line, a wicked sense of fun and a determination to say it how it is.
Larry, renamed “Lonesome”, Rhodes by radio reporter Marcia, has no time for advertisers or pomposity of any sort and rides roughshod over convention – in an early TV appearance he brings a “coloured” woman out from behind the scenes (unheard of) and gets her to tell her story of destitution. The money comes pouring in, both for the unfortunate woman and from advertisers wanting a slice of this authentic action, even though Rhodes is likely to badmouth their product.
But surely, I hear you shout, it’s going to be a cautionary tale, Larry is going to get high on his own supply only to be brought down by an excess of hubris? He’s going to end up, Animal Farm style, being just as bad as the phoneys he replaced?
Well not’s ruin a thoroughly enjoyable if rather overwrought drama by telling the whole story.
To an extent art matches life in the casting of Patricia Neal as radio reporter Marcia, a bright eyed, girlishly enthusiastic but decisive young woman when we meet her, who becomes increasingly weepy, drink-dependent and left behind as Rhodes begins his rise – A Star Is Born with the genders flipped. This was her first film back after a hiatus from Hollywood. A highly publicised affair with the married Gary Cooper had led to a nervous breakdown.
Rhodes is played by Andy Griffith, best remembered now as a TV star with his own show, or as the laconic lawman Matlock, but this is his debut in front of the camera and he goes at it just as Rhodes does – all guns blazing, in a performance that’s big, loud, expressive and eclipses all others. If you only know him from Matlock, prepare to be amazed.
In fact Griffith is so big that everyone else struggles to get a look-in, but Tony Franciosa cuts through as the office boy who becomes Rhodes’s manager – another guy with an eye for the main chance. Lee Remick, in her first role of any note, plays a cheerleader who catches Rhodes’s eye. Walter Matthau plays one of the TV writers Rhodes isn’t meant to have or need, a decent sort resigned to the fact he’s never going to get a sniff of Marcia.
Throughout, Kazan treats TV with a disdain that was common in movies of the time. Movies=Art; TV=Commerce, on account of the corrupting influence of advertising. Kazan makes sure we get it by dropping in scenes set on Madison Avenue, where rich advertising executives work up their latest scheme to sell snake oil, and by inserting mock TV advertising sequences worked up in homage to campaigns of the day.
Bamboozled – Spike Lee’s best movie? – borrows heavily from the scenes set in TV-land, but most obviously the idea that when an idea works you run with it, and to hell with the ethical consequences.
Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes also has a direct throughline to Donald Trump – TV-adept, saying the unsayable, homespun – and Larry’s eventual fate will probably delight the anti-Trumpers, and reinforce the beliefs of those tuned in to conspiracies about the Deep State and the good old MSM.
A Face in the Crowd – Watch it/buy it at Amazon
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© Steve Morrissey 2023