Should be required viewing in every school across the country.
When Donald Trump was elected President of The United States, journos the world over launched an armada of angry think-pieces into the world and a shocking number based their theses on the 1957 Elia Kazan film, A Face in the Crowd. The film’s startling prescience makes its relevance to today’s political climate immediately apparent within 10 minutes. It’s disappointing that a film so ahead of its time that it predicted this national catastrophe half a century ago somehow isn’t required viewing in every school across the country.
A Face in the Crowd reunites Kazan with On The Waterfront screenwriter Budd Schulberg, here adapting his own short story “Your Arkansas Traveler.” The story follows Larry Rhodes (Andy Griffith), a drunken loner with preternatural charisma. A radio producer named Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal) discovers him in a jail cell and brings him aboard for a program highlighting his folksy outsized persona. In pretty quick succession, Rhodes’ inimitable brand of manic energy brings him more and more influence over his listeners. Before long, he graduates from a radio show in Arkansas to a television program in Memphis, then finally, his own show based out of New York City.
At each successive rung, the power of “Lonesome” Rhodes increases tenfold. It’s at once fiercely entertaining and absolutely frightening. The film is less a story than a delivery system for Griffith’s megawattage screen presence. Before Sheriff Andy Taylor and Ben Matlock, Larry Rhodes was the most iconic role in Griffith’s repertoire. His sharp tongued, sleazily manipulative operator is such an intoxicating person. At times, the performance itself feels to have been shot using 3D cameras, with his facial contortions and boisterous outbursts smashing at the fourth wall as if he is trying to punch his way into our reality. It’s one of the greatest turns in film history, but it has to be to make this tragedy function.
See, the narrative isn’t so much built around how easily duped the American public is, though that seems to be the lesson many Trumpist corollaries draw. A Face in the Crowd is really a portrait of power and how absolutely it corrupts those who wield it. One of Rhodes’ writers, Mel Miller (played by an oddly Rick Moranis-like Walter Matthau), says that to withstand this kind of thrall over others, you’ve got to be a saint. Starting out as a perfect, unimpeachable human being would only give you a fighting chance against the allure of control. When Marcia asks Rhodes “How does it feel to say anything that comes into your head and sway people like this?” The face Rhodes makes is all the answer you need. He’s practically orgasmic processing the hold he’s got over his audience. Griffith’s exaggerated screen work is like a mass effigy of innate human weakness in the face of great influence.
Again, it’s easy to see the Trump comparisons, particularly in a scene where Rhodes’ diehard fans boycott a mattress company for pulling their sponsorship from his show by burning beds in front of the store. That kind of weaponized loyalty is always terrifying. But the difference between Donald Trump and Larry Rhodes lies in demeanor. Where Trump uses fear and hatred to reach the lowest common denominator, there’s something undeniably human about the way Rhodes endears himself to the public. At first, it doesn’t even seem purposefully manipulative. He’s just a colorful character chattering away and seeing where the wind takes him.
Rhodes takes the small personal skills he’s wielded for years getting by as a drifter, no doubt used for womanizing, petty thievery and ingratiating himself with locals, only on a grander scale. There’s a moment early in his radio career where he begins talking directly to the housewives listening to the program, outlining their day to day frustrations with eerie specificity. He forges an unbreakable bond with these people because he seems to know them intimately. But as Rhodes’ followers grow from a small Arkansas town to the tens of millions, there’s a cold calculation to his performances. An on/off switch between his media persona and the snake oil salesman we the audience know him to truly be.
In the end, his hubris and the interfering hands of Marcia, the woman who feels responsible for wreaking Rhodes onto the world, prove to be his undoing. The film’s closing moments offer a momentarily satisfying speech of comeuppance from Matthau’s Miller, who dispenses of Rhodes with a clever series of withering truths. But that petty gloating misses the point. Sure, Rhodes meets his end, but he can always get the will of the people back on his side. That’s the cruel power of likability: it creates a fog around reality that’s hard for anyone to see through, for the crowd and for a face.