By John H. Foote
(****) On Criterion Blu Ray
Fifty-nine years before the election of Donald Trump to the office of President of the United States came this cautionary tale directed by two-time Academy Award winner Elia Kazan, and starring a rising actor named Andy Griffith. The film was not a success, though in the years since has come to be appreciated as a masterpiece of fifties American cinema and among the finest work of Kazan’s career.
Kazan burst to fame as a documentarian and actor for the Harold Clurman’s The Group Theatre, later teaming with Lee Strasberg to create The Actors Studio. He would break ties with Strasberg over artistic differences in how actors were taught and worked with, emerging as the greatest bi-coastal director in American history, challenged only by Mike Nichols. A hardcore Method acting director, he felt that the theories written by Stanislavski had room for alteration, which Strasberg did not. Kazan felt, rightly, that the actor should be part of creating the character, not merely the puppet of the director.
On stage in New York Kazan directed the first productions of All My Sons, Death of a Salesman and A Streetcar Named Desire, cementing his reputation as a gifted director of actors. On film he was on fire directing A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945), Gentlemen’s Agreement (1947), A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), Viva Zapata! (1952), especially On the Waterfront (1954), East of Eden (1955), Baby Doll (1956) and A Face in the Crowd (1957), an extraordinary string of films that earned him two Academy Awards as Best Director and two other nominations.
His friendship and working relationship with Budd Schulberg, who won an Oscar for writing On the Waterfront (1954), brought him to A Face in the Crowd, which initially was seen as an attack on television, then the cinema’s greatest enemy, and the growing power being on television can bring. What could that mean in the hands of a morally corrupt man who did not see right and wrong, only that what he could get. Though a box office failure, and not what they had hoped for critically, the film has been hailed a masterpiece by generations to follow, up and through today, where it speaks volumes about the dangers of the Trump presidency.
Andy Griffith was a southern gospel singer and comedian who was rising slowly on stage and television when Kazan tapped him for the lead, Lonesome Rhodes, in his film. Incredibly, Griffith would find greater success in television than he ever would on film, a shame because his performance in A Face in the Crowd was the finest of the year and deserved to win the Academy Award for Best Actor, or at least be nominated! He would eventually portray Sherriff Andy Taylor in The Andy Griffith Show, which became a staple of sixties television. As the town sage, filled with wisdom, a widower raising a young son, Opie (Ronny Howard), he was seen as the all-American father, the kind of man we wanted for our own father. A major hit on television from 1960-68, Griffith left the show to pursue other interests, never finding the success of it again until the TV drama Matlock saw him as southern county lawyer solving difficult cases. Again enormous popularity greeted the program, but as with the previous program Griffith was not once nominated for an Emmy.
Audiences today seeing him in A Face in the Crowd are astonished at his performance as the bombastic, bullying, brash, insidious Lonesome Rhodes, as devious a character as has ever been portrayed on film. Though he pretends to be a man of the people, homespun and aw shucks humour, he is anything but, and proves such over the course of the film.
Initially found passed out drunk on the floor of a local jail, he is bailed out and taken under the wing of Marcia (Patricia Neal) who dubs him “Lonesome” Rhodes and helps create a radio program for him in which he sings, plays his guitar and tells stories of the people he has met on the road. When it is discovered that his promotion of mattresses helped sales, he is given the chance to host a TV show with a greater reach. It quickly goes national and Rhodes gets what he covets – a penthouse apartment, money, women for the asking, fame and most of all, power. The mention of power, the gradual realization of his power all but makes his eyes gleam. The show explodes across the airwaves and soon Lonesome Rhodes is being courted by rising politicians who court his favor, even seeking his advice. Realizing that being on TV has made him a force to be reckoned with, his ego explodes out of control.
Though he begins an affair with Marcia, who often overlooks his more boorish characteristics, he cheats on her with an underage teenager (17), portrayed by a very young Lee Remick, who he is forced to marry. The marriage ends when she then cheats on him, turnabout being fair play. It does not matter to Lonesome as he has pick of women, such is fame.
Marcia knows the real Rhodes and is sickened by her part in bringing him to fame. He berates his staff, insults them, attacks anyone who disagrees with him, and supports a candidate in order to fuel his own political future. Knowing no other way to bring him down, Marcia flips the live microphone on during the wrap up of his show and hears him say, “You know what the public is like? A cage full of guinea pigs. Goodnight you stupid idiots, goodnight you miserable slobs.” Every word is broadcast live over the airwaves and at once his popularity begins to drop. Rhodes is ruined, because the public now knows he holds them in contempt, he holds all of humanity in contempt, he is out for himself and nobody else. Both sociopath and likely a psychopath, Marcia knows he is finished.
Griffith is truly astounding as Rhodes, giving a performance for the ages, unlike anything he had ever done or would do again. Big, burly, always smiling with a glint in his eye, he is always sizing people up to decide what he might get out of them. He seems a folksy, good natured man who says what the private people cannot articulate, he speaks for the people he tells everyone. Yet from the beginning, it is always about what he can get out them, nothing else matters. You can see the ego growing, and the realization that anything he wants he can make happen due to his staggering popularity. Who would dare say no to him? My God we realize partway through the film, this monster could end up President! Morally corrupted, seeing only personal gain in everything he does, his popularity lighting the fire in his soul to get what he wants, he continues to rise until Marcia throws the switch and the public hears the real Lonesome. This is truly a remarkable performance that deserved to bring Griffith an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. Had he been nominated, his career might have been very different.
Would Trump have been elected President had he not been a reality TV star on his program The Apprentice? I doubt it. Will he be brought down by a live microphone? His arrogance is such that he says pretty much anything that comes to mind, and it has not happened yet. What will end him is like Rhodes, his arrogance and belief that the American people love him, that they are sheep to be led. Soon enough it will become apparent what he is.
This was the first time a film used television was used in its use of promoting a politician or made a hero out of a personality. Peter Finch’s Howard Beale “the Mad Prophet of the Airwaves” in Network (1976), screamed that he was “as mad as hell and was not going to take it anymore” and started a revolution which made him a household name. Chauncey Gardner, though not a TV personality, was obsessed with TV in Being There (1979) and at the end of the film was seen to walk on water perhaps heading to the White House! More recently television aided Senator Jay Bulworth in Bulworth (1998) in his manic truth telling campaign, even capturing his rap numbers!
As Hitler taught us film and radio can be a horrific power wielded by the wrong people, extraordinary propaganda tools. Television can be a terrible power in the wrong hands as we see with Rhodes, as we have seen with countless dangerous politicians, Rhodes the most dangerous fictional men to use the medium. How strange that 59 years earlier, Trump’s rise was foreshadowed.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.