Film and Television Features

A Face in the Crowd (1957)

Has America succumbed to a mass softening of the brain? Before you answer, just take a look at the current presidential race, the ugliest so far. We've gone past the no-return point, wading deeper into a moral morass. This new political playing field is rigged like a reality show. Candidates are chosen for their entertainment value, and our once-respected news media sources have shucked aside impartiality to become willing participants in the mudslinging. You'd think this would be fertile ground to examine the role of the media in political affairs, but any sensible Hollywood producer would rather back a dozen super hero movies than risk his shirt on a political drama. There's also the troubling fact that most media conglomerates have print, Internet, TV, and film branches, so it's not surprising that criticism is directed elsewhere. It has created a peculiar mindset that sees the fusion of entertainment and news as a convenient package and is blind to its manipulations. You don't hear enough independent voices calling the bluff. It wasn't always the case.

Films such as Citizen Kane (1941), State of the Union (1949), and The Last Hurrah (1958) warn about the influence of news media sources in the election of political candidates. They portray the fourth estate as a double-edged sword, a vital organ of democracy yet a threat to it when the power to sway public opinion is corrupted by special-interest money and dishonest copy. Elia Kazan's A Face in the Crowd goes farther, suggesting that populist sentiments can be easily steered toward mob rule and fascism. Furthermore, the film concedes the awesome power of television over our destiny, a power often misused as a tool for personal agendas and furtive machinations.

The film opens at a jail in a small Arkansas town. Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal), an ambitious producer for a local radio station, has gone there to interview inmates. The idea seems like a total bust until she spots Larry "Lonesome" Rhodes (Andy Griffith) sleeping on the floor. "Watch out--he's mean," warns the sheriff. Rhodes is a drifter who's been arrested under "drunk and disorderly" charges, but Jeffries isn't put off by his brash personality. The man is a natural before microphones, with a magnetic personality that could be harnessed for ratings. Jeffries convinces the radio owner, her uncle, to give Rhodes a break.

Rhodes' radio show becomes an instant success. His simple songs and country-boy personality have people enthralled, but the hayseed facade disguises a skilled manipulator. This newfound power gives him courage to go after enemies with the aid of his listeners. Personal on-air sniping becomes his trademark as his entertainment program veers into politics. Rhodes is now a radio sensation, and an offer from a Memphis TV station catapults him to the big time. Rhodes' no-brakes mouth soon gets him in trouble with his TV sponsor, but this is only a hiccup on his way to national stardom.

Rhodes is a canvas for people's projections, and Marcia Jeffries has her own. The power dynamics between them change when the relationship becomes sexual. Though Rhodes is her creation, Jeffries starts believing he's the voice of the people. She's his sounding board, the only person he can trust, but Rhodes is only loyal to himself. As he ascends as a media star, Jeffries asserts herself less and less, her role reduced to backstage trouble-shooter. However, Rhodes still depends on her. His marriage proposal comes at a vulnerable time for Jeffries, when her conscience is already nagging at her. Rhodes' past comes knocking at her door in the form of a blackmailing ex-wife. Right after Jeffries gets rid of her, Rhodes gets married to a teenage baton twirler from his hometown.

Jeffries has been taken in, but the resentment over it clears her thinking. Rhodes, riding high on his arrogance horse, starts supporting Worthington Fuller, a stuffed-shirt senator, in his bid for the presidency. The film's highlight is a scene in which Fuller gets a Madison Avenue coaching from Rhodes, who offers him "a whole new personality". Image makeover aside, Fuller is so desperate he puts himself wholly in Rhodes' hands, offering him a post in his government. Rhodes sets the wheels in motion to become the power behind the president; he creates a new TV show, "Lonesome Rhodes' Cracker Barrel", solely to push Fuller's candidacy. With 65 million viewers hanging on every word, Rhodes is as shrewd as a carnival barker, passing demagogy as homespun wisdom. Rhodes offers Jeffries a share of the power, but by now she's frightened of the budding despot. Taking responsibility as his creator, she unmasks Rhodes during his live show.

The film is a dire warning made by insiders. Kazan and screenwriter Budd Schulberg knew the inner workings of Hollywood studios and publicity firms. They also witnessed a great deal of political maneuvering behind the scenes when they were members of the Communist Party. Kazan quit when the party's determination to control artists and writers became unbearable. Their ties with the party had long been severed when both men were forced to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, a humiliating act that would haunt them for the rest of their lives. The investigators made the most of their political opportunity, "all at the cost of people's lives and careers," as Kazan states in his autobiography. What Kazan and Schulberg got from it was a lifetime of scorn and negative press. Some might argue they had it coming. I'm not writing this to justify their actions, but it can't be argued that the HUAC suppressed their progressive views. In fact, Kazan's films became bolder and more personal after his testimony.

Anger didn't stay with Kazan, but it remains in his films. Movies like On the Waterfront and Baby Doll, for instance, ushered a new era of thematic frankness. Though his reputation was maligned, Kazan was still a game changer, inspiring other directors to cast off the shackles of the film production code. His films pack emotional power, their topics dealing with corrupting forces that all are always in motion, pitting our shared values against the savagery and vulgarity of the modern age. It's a war we're still waging. A film like A Face in the Crowd shows what's at stake. The choice, good or bad, is yours.