Monday, February 14, 2011

An Elia Kazan film of Budd Schulberg's A FACE IN THE CROWD

"And you were just a face in the crowd, out in the streets, thinking out loud, a face in the crowd." Tom Petty

Larry Rhodes is just another driftin, amblin' along with his guitar and big voice, gettin' drunk and gettin' in to some trouble when he's found one day by the amiable Marcia Jeffries, who works at the local Arkansas radio station and goes out for the segment 'Face in the Crowd'.  This is when average folk, in this case inside of the prison walls of the local sheriff's department, can show off their talents or anecdotes.

Suddenly Larry appears  from the corner with a minor reputation already from some of his other cell mates.  When he's awoken it's like waking up a big happy "yee-HAW" bear of a man.  He sings like one of those blues men on the road- a genuine one, despite being white- and can tell a dang-nambin' good joke or story from his time walking around.  He's endearing, he genuinely is, at least when he's just a folksy kind of guy.

He first goes on to the radio show thanks to Marcia, who becomes his sort of cheerleader as he becomes a town-star.  Then he's tempted by a local TV guy in Memphis, and he brings his folksy charms and witticisms there.  This is where some of the more natural comedy comes in A Face in the Crowd before it becomes full-blown satire; he doesn't really know how to speak to the camera, but goddamn does he know how to speak to an audience, without a script, barely without a net.  "Lonesome Rhodes" shouldn't work but he does, boy does he.

 And he does things that are groundbreaking for the time, like bringing a "Colored woman" (as the liberal co-star Walter Matthau says) on the air, which brings in African-Americans to the TV's in drove.  Hell, it brings anyone who can connect with his genuine grit and lived-in quality.  "I'm just a country boy."  There's no reason to deny it at this point.

But it's here that director Elia Kazan and writer Budd Schulberg are just warming up.  The bigger message is in the pudding of Marshall MacLughan: the media is the message, and this message and media is that of Lonesome Rhodes.  Yet it could really be anyone who suddenly skyrockets to the top, which is what happens when Larry (still guided, and loved, by Marcia as his one-true confidant) decides to take Lonesome Rhodes over to New York City to get a bigger Nationally Syndicated Show.  More than that, commercials.  Lots of them.

And for vitamin-pills that should be nasty but Rhodes gets the bright idea- nay, almost the wisdom- to make the pills yellow "Cause it's like sunshine!"  It's around here that the belly of the beast starts to grow, and A Face in the Crowd becomes kind of like a cross between Network and Frankenstein, with poor Marcia (or not so poor, pretty well-off but pretty guilty about what she ultimately has done) as the doctor and Lonesome Rhodes as the Monster, complete with laugh/audience track built in at his penthouse.

It is amazing to see how much forsight there could be with Schuldberg and Kazan with what would become the cult of personality in the Mass Media of America.  While I could claim that by now the country has become a little *too* ADD to focusing on such a guy so intensely and with such a point that he becomes influential, maybe it's becomes cross-mutated by this point.  I don't know if Face in the Crowd has dated much outside of back then there being only a few channels available on TV and commercials being more concentrated with their delivery, a handful of products.  If anything one can look at this as being almost innocent(!) compared to how things look today, with politicians making the successful cross-over and becoming celebrities, almost in spite of themselves (i.e. Sarah Palin).

Does that, and how closely and intensely the film makes its points on the cult of celebrity and how much people are willing-and-able sheep to messages and people (that is until there's cracks in the veneer, and even then there can be forgiveness, i.e. Michael Richards), make it still a good movie?  No, it's a great movie besides.  The acting is all top-caliber, and astonishing considering my somewhat-medium expectations.  Andy Griffith, from my generation's POV (and maybe for the one before mine) always seemed to be that crusty-older-guy on the show with his name and lil' Opie Cunningham.  From his performance here as Lonesome Rhodes I am more shocked that he didn't get bigger and better roles after this.  What I liked most is that from the start we know something is not quite right about Rhodes, that there is a reason he is in this jail cell and is a drifter without much of a job or prospects.  He may not even seem like the "nicest" guy, and that he may be hiding something.

Griffith does a lot to make that character complex even when it doesn't look like it.  There are smaller scenes where he's not bellowing and acting like a big-bear-of-a-man when there's some subtlety, like when Marcia is asking him about his parents and upbringing and Larry talks about his mom and his many "uncles".  He can show restraint and moments of being somber, but then that's not what Rhodes totally is, and certainly not what he becomes at all.  It's a LOUD performance and full of physical vigor (comparable today might be Forest Whitaker in The Last King of Scotland), and raw comedy and odd charisma.  When he enters a room, especially those scenes with the stuffy politicians and businessman, he makes Lonesome Rhodes come alive like what he is: bigger-than-life but all "folksy" and from the streets and dusty roads of America.  The contradictions aren't quite lost on me, but by the last act he becomes this Monster Rhodes with a passion and fury that is mesmerizing.

In his "I like to move it, move it, I like to move it , move it, I like to move it, move it, you like to... SAY IT DANGNABBIT!" period
Equal kudos to Patricia Neal who is more like a surrogate for the audience than we think until later in the film, as she starts off (naturally awestruck), midway through distrustful and uncertain (of course), and as he's going into full-blown Ego-Maniac-with-a-Dustbowl mode she's naturally panicked and with a face like death (why not).  Neal is there for every beat that she needs to be, and is excellent in those scenes where Griffith frankly needs a more reasoned-toned person in the room, which makes the scenes where he's going all ballistic that much more terrifying and heartbreaking.  Lee Remick is quite good too, if a little one-note as the lovable young girl who becomes more like an accessory to the Lonesome Rhodes Media Machine(tm) than an actual wife.  And Walter Matthau does his concerned-look-at-yourself face pretty darn well.

But what's meant to stick is the social message, and it's made with force and vigor and some dark comedy.  It  would almost appear on first glance that the way in which Lonesome Rhodes meets his downfall is too obvious, but in retrospect it's like perfect poetic justice.  It's akin to the line from The Seventh Seal: "We make an idol out of our fear and call it God".  Media manipulation is something to be feared, I think Schulberg and Kazan would surely argue, and even moreso today (although people, arguably, are much less wiser to it save perhaps for Fox News... sometimes).  But unlike a God itself a public figure can be torn down by the very same medium that he/she is created in.  Or another obvious quote on to the bonfire: Pride cometh before the fall.  You know, all that jazz.

I don't know whether this is really hot or creepy, you tell me?
What makes A Face in the Crowd, like Network, stick so long in the viewer's mind is how true it is.  Kazan may have a slightly heavier hammer to grind than Lumet/Chayefsky, but its no less entertaining.  It's got fantastic moments of montage, those scenes of old-style 1950's TV and big amusement settings like the baton competition are riveting pieces of cinema, and that central performance from Griffith that's a career highpoint right at the beginning.  It also treats very seriously love and trust, who people really are deep down, and how manipulation works when caught in the crossfires of fame and (mis)fortunes - not to mention, of course, money being the big fucker of all.  And, in the Warhol tradition, how quickly it can be drift away from "Superstar" status.

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