07 February 2010

In Praise of Andy Griffith

There are three reasons Andy Griffith isn’t considered one of the finest actors America has ever produced. First is his accent: the cultural elite (myself included, alas) don’t believe that’s how real artists should sound. Second is his focus on television, The Andy Griffith Show and Matlock, programs with a broad appeal that seldom permits work of insight, delicacy, and personal conviction. Third is his specialization in comedy — and as the straight man, he’s typically the least showy character onscreen.

In sum, Andy Griffith is no John Barrymore. Yet an honest actor will tell you that what Andy Griffith has done is herculean, wholly original and nearly unattainable in any venue or form: simplicity is always hardest.

Consider the naturalness with which Sheriff Taylor engages in conversation with his deputy, Barney Fife, in those seemingly pointless dialogues that are the heart of the characters’ relationship (and the root of Tarantino’s and Seinfeld’s work).

Andy listens, he thinks. We see his wry amusement and his genuine affection. The cadences are slow yet powerful, unforced, and we share this ease. As an actor, Griffith can cede the spotlight to the more elaborate (though brilliant) performance of his co-star, Don Knotts, and yet he holds his ground; as a character, Andy can indulge his friend’s flights of fancy, and then gently bring him back to earth.

Some of his confidence stemmed, no doubt, from his other role, as producer of his series. Mayberry was constructed to his specifications, and while it remains an idealized (or whitewashed) image of rural Southern life, it is built on a foundation of respect for other people — something more diverse communities today can learn from. The town is full of oddballs, yes, but the show recognizes their good intentions; even when they do wrong, we are shown that their actions are the result of foibles (especially selfishness or fear) that will be corrected by greater attention to what Mayberry really stands for.

As “Lonesome,” with Patricia Neal

I reflect on Andy Griffith now because I have caught tantalizing glimpses of one of his early movies. Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd (1957) suggests Griffith’s range as an actor and the directions in which he might have taken his career — had he not preferred to work on the smaller scale, and to apply that trademark, almost Chekhovian restraint and naturalism, of his best-known television roles.

My first reaction to this scene from A Face in the Crowd was that of an electrical shock to the brain — as if I’d just had a dose of Vitajex. Watch the clip and see what I mean. Playing “Lonesome” Rhodes, an overnight radio star turned dangerous demagogue, he’s goddam terrifying, and totally brilliant. It’s as if your favorite uncle is suddenly grinning at you in a way you’ve never seen before, you’re all alone in the cabin with him, and now he’s got an axe in his jittery hand....

UPDATE: I did see A Face in the Crowd, and my reflections on that film and Griffith’s incendiary, unforgettable performance can be found here.

I can’t wait to see the whole thing.


Girl From Texas said...

Little known trivia on A.G. : he got his start as an actor in the N.C. Outerbanks historical theater production of "The Lost Colony", which retells the story of the famed English colony at Okracoke,N.C., which was abandoned for several years by England (during the war with Spain, of which the famed Spanish Armada was a part).

William V. Madison said...

...And The Lost Colony was written by Paul Green, who also wrote the book and lyrics to Johnny Johnson, Kurt Weill’s first Broadway show.

Green envisioned writing other outdoor spectacles like Lost Colony for sites across the United States, and he completed several others, creating summer employment for countless college actors for many years.

Green’s “symphonic dramas” include two for our native state: Texas, written for Palo Duro Canyon, is still performed, though The Lone Star, written for Galveston Island, ended its run several years ago.