I saw a great movie this weekend at SIFF Cinema’s current political (non) science series (they’re showing a batch of political dramas in the run-up to Election Day, including The Candidate, All The President’s Men, Bob Roberts, The Parallax View, and Bulworth.)
On Saturday night, they played Elia Kazan and Budd Schulberg’s A Face in the Crowd, an unbelievably prescient 1957 epic about mass media, demagogue populism, corporate power, and behind-the-curtain political wizardry.
Piggot Arkansas girl-reporter Patricia Neal (foxy!!) discovers Andy Griffith, a guitar-playing alcoholic hobo, when she shows up at the local jail to tape a spot for her weekly slice-of-life radio interview show, “A Face in the Crowd.”
Neal is mesmerized by Griffith’s salt-of-the-earth wisdom and, christening him Lonesome Rhodes, offers him his own morning show. Griffith is an immediate hit. Using his subversive, folksy charisma—he sympathizes with beleaguered rural housewives, needles the stuffy sheriff, and even pulls a public prank on the station’s owner—Lonesome becomes a beloved local radio personality. Meanwhile, Neal, a prudish college-educated girl, is quietly falling head-over-heels in love with this yahoo.
Soon, Lonesome Rhodes is scooped up by a Memphis TV station. Neal decides to go with him.
Foreshadowing! When he’s given a hero’s sendoff at the Piggot train station, Neal catches Rhodes badmouthing the crowd under his breath.
In Memphis, Rhodes’ populist wit and high jinks antagonism toward the show’s corporate sponsor, a local mattress company, catapults him into regional stardom.
Next, with the help of a scheming sycophant at the TV station, Lonesome Rhodes lands a national TV gig in New York City. From the Big Apple, Lonesome Rhodes becomes a coast-to-coast sensation, spouting his off-the-cuff rhetoric while pimping, this time in earnest, for the show’s corporate sponsor, Vitajex—a placebo vitamin that he skillfully transforms into a best-selling over-the-counter Viagra-type drug. (The sexual candor in this late-50s movie is startling.)
Griffith’s power-hungry character (Sarah Palin with a guitar, except he’s frighteningly bright) is soon a mover in the political machinations of Vitajex’s CEO (retired WWII General Haynesworth) who wants to get right-wing Senator, Sen. Worthington Fuller, elected President.
Rhodes, whose show has morphed from a musical comedy hour into his own soap box nativist political talk show, makes Fuller—whom Lonesome has coached in made-for-television folksiness—into a regular guest.
Suddenly, it’s not clear if Haynesworth is Fuller’s kingmaker—or if Griffith’s Rhodes, increasingly unhinged on power, sexual affairs, and alcohol, is.
Neal, who’s becoming aware that Griffith is a monster, but sticks with him on his rise from Arkansas to NYC for the money, eventually sabotages him by surreptitiously turning up the sound levels as the credits roll at the end of his program, catching Griffith ridiculing his slavish audience. (It’s an off-mic moment, and in 1957, I guess screenwriter Schluberg still thought off-the-mic moments could have an impact.)
When the hard hats, old ladies, families, and suits watching the program overhear their hero’s dark side, they turn on him, and Lonesome Rhodes is ruined.
When my friend invited me to the movie, I was psyched. I’d never seen it before, but I’d heard all about it. Ahead of its time. Prescient. Brilliant. And that’s all true.
I texted back: “Is that the Andy G. as Sarah Palin movie?”
And indeed, it is. But, hate to break it to you, the cult of personality stuff is total Obama as well. There’s even a scene when Haynesworth, espousing about “capsule slogans” recommends hyping the “Time for a change” sound bite.
You cannot watch this movie without getting creeped out by everything that’s going on today, mostly Re: Palin, but a little Re: O too.
One thing that stops this movie from being 100% prescient is this: In 1957, I don’t think it was possible to conceive of Lonesome Rhodes as the candidate himself—which is really the creepiest implication of the movie. In the world of 1957, the candidate still had to be the stentorian, elitist senator relying on an endorsement from the pop star. Rhodes’s ascension to kingmaker was apparently a scary enough conceit. Little did they know…