ALPHABET MOVIE CLUB: A Face in the Crowd



In honor of the passing of film and television star Andy Griffith this past week, the "Alphabet Film Club" (after I already watched and posted my piece below on the original top vote-getter The Frighteners) decided to substitute the other "F" nominee,  A Face in the Crowd, starring Andy Griffith, in place of the original winner, as this week's selection as a tribute to the departed actor.  Here's my "extra credit" write-up on A Face in the Crowd.

Background:  Three years after presenting Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront  and two years after introducing the world to James Dean in East of Eden (see earlier review from Week 5), renowned director Elia Kazan showcased another Actor's Studio graduate, Andy Griffith.  Where Brando was Italian passion and James Dean was Midwestern angst, Andy was southern charm.  All were taught with Lee Strausberg's method acting.

Griffith plays Larry Rhodes, a drunken guitar-toting drifter we meet wallowing for the night in a rural Arkansas jail.  When the curious local radio personality, Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal), comes to the jail to interview regular common people for her "A Face in the Crowd" segment, she discovers the singing, truthful, and frank Larry.  She plucks him out of prison and employs him as a regular radio guest on her station.  The rise to stardom begins.

Soon, Larry's charm and charisma attracts an audience.  He is re-packaged as "Lonesome" Rhodes and gets a shot at the new and influential medium of television in Memphis.  With his unscripted ad-libbed antics and common man demeanor that fly in the face of the show's writers, including Walter Matthau's excellent Mel Miller, his popularity grows and advertisers see dollar signs.  An ambitious middle man for an advertiser, Joey DePalma (Anthony Francoisa), brokers a deal for "Lonesome" Rhodes to get his own show in New York City sponsoring by Vitajex (a fictional Viagra for the day).  Instantly, Rhodes becomes a national star, a wealthy pitchman, and his boisterous ego skyrockets.  With DePalma working the background and Marcia as the only person who can reason with him, it becomes harder and harder to control both Rhodes' wild ambition and the ratings juggernaut that he becomes.  Soon enough, the redneck gets too big for his britches and his mouth.  

Reaction:  4 STARS-- If all you've ever seen of Andy Griffith is The Andy Griffith Show and Matlock, you desperately need to see this movie.  I was new to this movie and was blown away by the man's talent.  In always playing the good guy, I never knew he had this kind of vigor in him.  It was a true revelation for me.  His performance here in A Face in the Crowd was nothing short of impressive and total dominance.  From the dullest origin to the bright lights and inevitable fall, he never stops.  I'm sure some people will call it over the top.  I think this role and spectacle required over the top, making it pitch perfect.

The other engrossing and fascinating reaction I had to A Face in the Crowd was the parallels to fame, stardom, and mass media today that echo the subject matter of Kazan's film.  It's almost eerie that his movie was made in 55 years ago, because today we see microcosm versions of "Lonesome" Rhodes everywhere, between social media, reality television, and other outlets of the entertainment industry.  I couldn't help but see parallels to people like Howard Stern or Rush Limbaugh.  We have nobodies become somebodies all the time.  Kazan gives us a two-hour whirlwind into one fictional microcosm that became big enough to influence our entire country.  While we might not have someone that huge today, I sure know we've been close on several occasions.

LESSON #1: THE POWER OF UNTAPPED CHARISMA-- From Larry's plucked-from-obscurity origin in A Face in the Crowd to the Susan Boyle and American Idol-like discoveries of regular people that finally get their chance to show their talent, there is a serious power in untapped charisma.  As a mass audience, we have an insatiable thirst for new things.  Even if it lasts for just for "15 minutes of fame" or the length of a one-hit wonder, the right charisma can hold us spellbound and captivate an entire audience for that amount of time.  In that instant moment, you are the biggest thing in the world.  That is a powerful thing. Media companies would bottle that spark if they could.  Just imagine if Marcia Jeffries never visits that prison.  Just imagine if Harrison Ford would have stayed a carpenter.

LESSON #2: CONNECTING WITH THE COMMON MAN-- Spoken in another way, never forget or underestimate the simple man, the redneck, or the hayseed.  Though our country has become increasingly "trendy" and urban over the last 60 years, our roots and backbone will always be rural.  They are the demographic that every advertiser and politician needs to be successful.  Sometimes all it takes is a little "bless your heart."

LESSON #3: THE DRAW OF UNSCRIPTED PROGRAMMING-- I hate it and can't explain it, but people have and will always love unscripted programming.  Just look at the immense popularity of reality television today.  It's never been any greater.  People connect with reality more than fiction.  They want their true stories.  "Lonesome" Rhodes represents that very notion of popularity in this film.

LESSON #4: PERSUASION THROUGH MEDIA-- The people we invite into our homes everyday through the radio, television, or internet have a bigger influence on our lives than we give them credit for.  We've all believed some half-truth from someone we "trusted."  The scary thing is when entertainers become influences.  It's scary when it actually matters what George Clooney, Betty White, or (ha!) Hank Williams, Jr. think of the President or the nation.  Their fields couldn't be any farther apart, but we somehow still care or listen.  That's how deep the influence has gotten.  Rhodes wields, molds, and shapes that influence greatly here.  The poster in his penthouse connects this lesson with Lesson #2 perfectly: "There's nothing as trustworthy as the ordinary mind of the ordinary man."

LESSON #5: THE POWER STARDOM GETS YOU-- Call this the "diva" or "rock star" lesson.  Those Billboard platinum multi-millionaire recording artists and marque-filling blockbuster movie faces all used to be unopened and struggling talent.  Our "Lonesome" Rhodes was that as well.  They were nobodies that have now elevated themselves to a level where "struggle" isn't in their vocabulary anymore.  Thanks to money, attention, and success, everything is laid at their feet and they make the calls and demands now.  At what point do they overextend their reach?  At what point do they cross the line of influence and control?  At the same time, where did their humility go?