A Face in the Crowd (1957) Directed by Elia Kazan. Andy Griffith, Patricia Neal, Lee Remick, Walter Matthau (127 min).
Lonesome Rhodes, a country boy with the gift of gab played by Andy Griffith, is discovered by an ambitious producer and catapulted into, and corrupted by, television fame. This is not gentle Sheriff Andy Taylor, but a raw and scary megalomaniac. Griffith never played a part like this again. A Face in the Crowd was ahead of its time in anticipating how mass media personalities could wield power over an audience, a cautionary tale that many 1950s reviewers viewed as both unrealistic and unpatriotic.
Griffith began his career as a comedian, his faux-naif Southerner routine “What it was, was football” is still played on local North Carolina radio stations from time to time. His closeness to his audiences showed in his gentle “we’re all hicks and hillbillies to somebody” persona. He identified with this likeable character, which he perfected in shows across small town North Carolina. He performed the monologue on the Ed Sullivan Show and then starred on Broadway in No Time for Sergeants, in which he played a good-natured good ol’ boy, a role which led to the beloved TV staple, The Andy Griffith Show.
Kazan envisioned Griffith’s Southern humor utilized in a somewhat more sinister way, but said of the character Lonesome Rhodes, “There was something about him that was down to earth truthful. He saw the truth and he said it right away. And there was the real source of his power. The real source of his power was not his trickiness, but his knack of seeing something that everybody feels but doesn’t dare say, and he dares to say it, or something everybody’s afraid of and he takes a stand against it and they think they need him. We thought of a man who had a great attraction, great potential and great danger. We made fun of him a little bit too much, and except at the beginning, didn’t show his strength or his appeal to human beings.”
Director Elia Kazan emigrated with his Greek parents from Constantinople when he was a young boy. After drama school at Yale, he joined the Group Theater as an actor and assistant director. He directed several landmark American theater productions, including the original runs of A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. His first film as a director was A Tree Grows in Brooklyn in 1945, and he made social comment movies starting early in his career. Gentleman’s Agreement (1947), a pioneering film about anti-Semitism, won a Best Picture Oscar. His most famous work was with two volatile actors, Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront (both 1954), and James Dean in East of Eden (1955).
Kazan and screenwriter Budd Schulberg brought intensely personal interests to their collaboration on A Face in the Crowd. Both of them had been called before the House Un-American Activities Committee, and both were reviled–Kazan until the day he died—for naming names, even though Kazan’s justification was that they were names the HUAC already had. He and Schulberg poured their outrage into the betrayals they dramatized in the film On the Waterfront, and in A Face in the Crowd shared their concerns about a gullible public victimized by media manipulation. The film has not only maintained its relevance, but in many ways is even more topical today than when it was made in 1957. Television has become such a force that we take for granted its power to decide both elections and public policy. Kazan wrote in his autobiography, “The thing that drove us was our belief in the theme, our anticipation of the power TV would have in the political life of the nation. ‘Listen to what the candidate says,’ we urged, ‘don’t be taken in by his charm or his trust-inspiring personality. Don’t buy the advertisement, buy what’s in the package.’”
Kazan and Schulberg went to Madison Avenue to see how the public relations business worked, sitting in on meetings to promote Lipton Tea, and in Washington, they talked to politicians, including Lyndon Johnson. “We weren’t dealing with power abstractly, with the fact that power corrupts people, but with the fact that power is obtainable in a new way that makes it especially dangerous,” remarked Kazan. “Remember, this was Eisenhower’s time and Eisenhower won the election because everyone looked at him and said, ‘There’s Grandpa.’” He has politicians realize in A Face in the Crowd “instead of long-winded public debates, people want capsule slogans, punchlines and glamour.”
Both Elia Kazan and Budd Schulberg saw themselves as outsiders (Greek Immigrant and urban Jewish, respectively) and transferred their own sense of alienation from mainstream culture to the character of Lonesome Rhodes. Kazan told Griffith about his directorial technique, the Method, in which an actor’s personal experiences are used to create fictional characters. “I may have to use extraordinary means to make you do this. I may have to get out of line. I don’t know any other way of getting an extraordinary performance out of an actor.” Kazan determined that Griffith was sensitive to the label “white trash” with which he had been taunted in his youth, and would enrage the actor before the cameras rolled, tapping Griffith’s own fury at being an outsider. This had consequences in Griffith’s personal life. He confessed later, “I’ll tell you the truth. You play an egomaniac and a paranoid all day and it’s hard to turn it off by bedtime.”
Kentucky-born Patricia Nea as heroine Marcia Jeffries, thought she “had given up on Hollywood and vice versa” after starring in films like The Fountainhead and The Day the Earth Stood Still. She married children’s author Roald Dahl in 1953 and considered herself retired until this film. Not a conventionally beautiful actress, she has a refined sensuality that contrasted effectively with Griffith’s animal magnetism. Hers is the pivotal role, as an ambitious and intelligent college graduate working for a rural radio station who discovers Lonesome Rhodes, creates his public persona, and when her creation gets out of hand, like Dr. Frankenstein, she must destroy him. She effectively conveys a hunger for both career success and for Rhodes rather feral sexuality.
Lee Remick made her film debut in A Face in the Crowd as Betty Lou Fleckum. She researched her character while living for a while with a local family in Piggott, Arkansas, and trained with the high school majorettes. She had memorable roles in The Long Hot Summer and Anatomy of a Murder, but won an Oscar nomination for her performance as an alcoholic in The Days of Wine and Roses. Walter Matthau, also showcased at an early stage in his career, plays a friend who functions as Marcia’s conscience. This role is far from the comedy parts for which he would later be known. In the 1950s he alternated between stage and screen roles as a supporting actor, and would not achieve great fame until his 40s, starring on screen in The Fortune Cookie and The Odd Couple, both opposite Jack Lemmon.
The early part of the film has an unusual look, due to the location shooting in Piggott, Arkansas. While there, “We became acquainted with a community of strangers—it was not like a work experience, it was a life experience, a thing that affects you very deeply. We became part of the Arkansas community, settling down in new homes there. It was a terrific experience, right from the beginning, the people we met, the insights we got, the privilege we had of being inside a society that otherwise we never would have touched” (Kazan).
The trouble with being ahead of your time is that your contemporaries don’t get it. Many reviews of the film missed the point completely. “Schulberg and Kazan are not depicting truths they have perceived, but a synthetic untruth, reminiscent of the Marxist delusions of the ‘30s, and of no intellectual, cultural or political value, save to those who seek to confuse the American people about themselves, or to those who desire to denigrate the American people before the world” fumed Henry Hart in Films in Review. Time has allowed audiences to see that what seemed far-fetched and impossible 50 years ago is now taken for granted. Kazan wrote in his autobiography, “I was particularly proud of A Face in the Crowd, and I still am. Of course, it’s exaggerated—all satires are—to make a point. But, until its very last moments, when the satire falls to earth, it is successful and great fun.”
Andy Griffith and Director Elia Kazan
(Photo from the August-September 1957 Films in Review. Sources include the aforementioned review, A Life by Elia Kazan,
Kazan, the Master Director by Jeff Young, Andy Griffith Story by Terry Collins, As I Am by Patricia Neal, Hillbilly Land by J.W. Williamson, Elia Kazan Interviews edited by William Baer, Headline Hunter to Superman by Richard R. Ness, Film Encyclopedia by Ephraim Katz).