A Face in the Crowd (1957)
Written by Budd Schulberg
Directed by Elia Kazan
Southern folksy charm is one of those things I see visitors to the American Southeast remark upon often. The city of Nashville likes to boast that it’s the largest small town in the country, and I have to admit, if you are walking down the street, you will have strangers saying, “Hello” and waving. But this friendliness can also be a sinister mask, obscuring ulterior motives and manipulations. When this manner is adopted by someone in the media with less than divine intentions, it can be downright corrosive to society. All that is warm, genial, and welcoming is not good for your health.
Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal) is a radio journalist at her uncle’s station in Pickett, Arkansas. She has an ongoing series called A Face in the Crowd, where she interviews regular folks. One morning, Marcia ends up at the city jail and speaks with a drunken disorderly named Larry Rhodes (Andy Griffith). She’s taken by his swarthy, dangerous charm and nicknames him “Lonesome.” After she airs his segment, the feedback is incredibly positive, so she convinces Rhodes to stay around and have his own program at the station. Rhodes speaks to the ordinary people’s dissatisfaction with authority while maintaining a playfully wry persona. His popularity quickly uproots Rhodes and Marcia, carrying him to Memphis, where he gets his own television series. From there, he becomes advertisers’ dream, a provocative & challenging figure who, for all his radical nature, still coerces people to consumer & buy.
There have been numerous comparisons of Lonesome Rhodes to the talking heads of Fox News, but I actually think he presents a more dangerous type of character. Rhodes is a textbook demagogue that puts pressure on the masses’ pleasure and delights rather than their fears. Fox News made its place in the media scene by playing with those fear triggers, and it has been quite successful in convincing a segment of the American population to live in constant terror & mistrust. The way Fox is like Rhodes is when they make the patriotism appeals or try the rhetorical angle of oversimplifying a complex issue, smirking at those “crazy liberals.”
Rhodes is ultimately a cohort of corporate hegemony. He may not be a college-educated person, but he most certainly understands the worst impulses of humanity. There’s a limit of how far to push people so that they feel as though they are upending the system while actually playing right along. Rhodes deals with an uptight mattress advertiser, mocking him on the air but also driving up his business by over half. The people even burn one of the mattresses outside the store after the businessman tries to retaliate for disrespect over the airwaves. His moneymen try to explain to him that while, yes, Rhodes is lampooning him, he’s getting richer, but the man refuses to accept that. In his mind, Rhodes is beneath him.
It is crucial that the story is told from Marcia’s perspective. We’re introduced to her as a plucky, idealistic reporter who sees beauty in people based on her show’s concept. Marcia never judges Rhodes or the other men in lock-up, she sees them as complex and interesting. Throughout the film, we watch her view of Rhodes transform. Like everyone else, Marcia is enamored with Rhodes’s act, but she sees the seams coming apart both professionally and personally. A sexual relationship develops between the two that transforms into something Marcia believes is more serious. Then Rhodes walks off a plane with his new seventeen-year-old bride, a baton-twirling majorette.
Andy Griffith delivers a performance that will shock viewers only familiar with his role as Andy Taylor on his popular sitcom. He is raucous and raw, producing a smiling sneer that is both seductive and threatening. Griffith uses his volume to veer between moods at a breakneck speed. You can see how such a character would enthrall audiences who are purposefully disoriented, paying attention to the delivery but not the words being delivered. It’s a masterful performance that we sadly never saw again from Griffith as he transitioned into a more sedate, controlled person in his television series.
A Face in the Crowd is still relevant because the fundamental nature of rhetoric and media has not changed. The platforms have been radically transformed from television to the internet, and even within that sphere, you have Twitter & YouTube, which involve different forms of presentation. But the face on camera or the fingers on the keyboard is always potentially a Lonesome Rhodes, a person appealing to our worst nature to enrich themselves, growing drunk on the power that grows out of their influence.