08 September 2010

Kazan’s ‘A Face in the Crowd’

I finally got the chance to see Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd (1957) several weeks ago, and I’m still reeling. For one thing, I’m hard pressed to find words to describe Andy Griffith’s performance — so I’ll get to that in a minute. But as a whole, the film is a wonderfully cynical indictment of the power of television and radio, and of the people who listen and watch, as well.

Based in part on the early career of Arthur Godfrey, with a dose of Will Rogers for good measure, A Face in the Crowd tells the story of “Lonesome” Rhodes, a drifter who becomes a media superstar. It’s not only because we first see him in a jail cell that the character practically sweats the odor of violence and corruption, and once he arrives in a position of influence, he’s determined to exploit it. He’s well on the way to becoming a demagogue.

The moral center of the movie is Patricia Neal’s character, a radio producer who discovers “Lonesome,” and who follows him from the local station to national television. Early on, she sees his true nature, but she thinks she’s powerless to resist him — and what’s more, she’s in love with him, even when he throws her over for another, much younger and prettier woman (Lee Remick). Also complicit, yet acting more or less as Neal’s loving, fretful conscience, is Walter Matthau’s character, who writes “Lonesome”’s material.

“Lonesome” has charisma to spare, and when he’s singing in the early scenes, he’s like a bluegrass Elvis in his sexual magnetism. Yet it’s only when he stops for a commercial break that we begin to understand how far his charisma extends. In one sequence, we see that it hardly matters what “Lonesome” says about a sponsor’s product: the fact that he says anything at all is enough to get his listeners to buy it. “Lonesome” understands that, and he capitalizes on it.

The next time we see him advertising, he’s pitching Vitajex, with winking sexual references, slicker production values, and combustible energy. If he can sell a pep pill, he can sell a politician — and in his next campaign, that’s exactly what he does. Or tries to do, rather, since passing his cracker-barrel charm along to a stuffed shirt from Washington is more challenging than he realized. The next step, presumably, is for “Lonesome” to go into politics for himself.

Watching the movie today, I’m especially conscious that there’s nothing “Lonesome” can do that Andy Griffith himself couldn’t. Connect on a personal level with a vast national audience? Check. Make us laugh and cry? Check. Sing and tell jokes? Check. Persuade us to buy commercial products? Good cracker.

And so, while we’ll never know whether the American Mayberry Party would have been progressive or conservative, nationalistic or something else altogether, it seems clear that the United States is truly blessed that Griffith chose to use his powers only for good and not for evil.

Yet even having grown up watching Andy Griffith and having come (I hope) to a mature appreciation of his talents, nothing could have prepared me for his performance in A Face in the Crowd. I turn to electricity and volcanoes in search of the right metaphor to describe it; he’s a natural force, certainly. And he’s like an animal, too: raging, raw, more physically alive than in any other role.

Yet that superb intelligence is ever-present, channeled into the character. Griffith’s “Lonesome” is always in on the joke, unable to contain the explosive, terrifying laugh at the other characters’ expense — and ours. Patricia Neal’s character finds it unnerving, the first time she hears it, and all the more so as she comes to understand what the laugh really means.

There’s an element of wistfulness in watching his performance. I defer to no one in my admiration for his television work — and yet how much else he might have achieved! With the path to glory so wide open before him, why did he strike out for Mayberry instead?

For all my misgivings about the politics and moral rationalizations of director Elia Kazan (and those of screenwriter Budd Schulberg, as well), he certainly understood acting. Going into the movie theater, you think, “Could people really have been serious when they called Griffith the next Brando?” (That’s how he was billed in the movie trailer.) But after about ten seconds of Griffith’s performance, I understood, and the reason wasn’t only that Kazan directed both actors in their breakthrough films. He knew electricity when he saw it, and at his best, he knew how to harness it.

Kazan elicits marvelous work from Lee Remick, too, fresh and dewy and poisonous in her first movie; and from the ever-wondrous Patricia Neal, at once sensuous and sane. Perhaps the director saw something of his own political/moral dilemma in that of Neal’s character. The force (“Lonesome” in Neal’s case, the American Communist Party in Kazan’s) has become a threat, and the individual can no longer collaborate or tolerate; s/he must stand up to it, no matter the cost.

The scene plays better, though, when she’s acting it than it did when he lived it.

As a morality play, A Face in the Crowd still packs a punch, though we didn’t seem to learn much from it. All these years later, we’re just as easily led by radio and television “personalities,” and we’re too quick to follow crackpots on the Internet, too. A Google search reveals that plenty of Americans have made a connection between “Lonesome” and Glenn Beck. Yet from the little I’ve seen, Beck hasn’t an iota of Andy Griffith’s talent and charisma — and I’m grateful for that.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Griffith went on to be the appealing bland mainstay of Mayberry and so on. But surely some part of him was haunted by what he proved himself capable of in his FIRST movie. Of course, he had the genius Kazan guiding him, and writer Schulberg wasn't exactly chopped liver. He was pretty good in other early films like Baldie (I think that was the name) and No Time for Sergeants. But he never, so far as I can remember, approached the daring brilliance of A Face in the Crowd again. I guess he basically went for the $.....