Kazan’s legacy is largely that of being a socially conscious filmmaker and “A Face in the Crowd” certainly cements said legacy
In “On the Waterfront” he was focused on corruption and social justice. Here he’s taking aim at celebrity and America’s willingness to idolize even the most manufactured personalities.
Andy Griffith (in his big screen debut) plays Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes, a wandering musician who catches the ear of radio producer Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal) who runs a weekly show, “A Face in the Crowd.” Marcia is taken by Larry’s charm, raw singing voice and ability to spin an impromptu folksy tale. She convinces him to make regular appearances on the radio and it’s not long until he’s got the entire town eating out of the palm of his figurative hand.
His popularity (and silver-tongued negotiating) leads to a stint on Grand Ole Opry style program which sends him skyrocketing to national fame thanks to endorsement deals. Soon, Lonesome Rhodes has become an American idol with legions of screaming fans and even the ear of men aspiring to the presidency.
The rub is that it’s all a fašade.
Larry loves spinning yarns and telling anecdotes about his quirky kinfolk from the tiny (and likely fictional) town of Riddle. None of them are true, of course, and while Larry’s folksy candor and everyman sensibilities keep audiences enraptured on the television, he quickly sheds his one-suitcase days for fine clothes and a penthouse suite just as quickly as they become available.
It’s Griffith, though, who is something of a revelation. Like many, my only real exposure to his work was via his role as Sheriff Taylor, Matlock or in Shoney’s commercials. So seeing him as something so drastically different from his now-established salt-of-the-Earth persona was a bit jarring at first, but no less brilliant. Lonesome Rhodes is a fast-talking force of nature, a silver-tongued charmer who seems to buy into his own legend with each new episode of his television show and Griffith sells it to an astounding degree. Larry is a sad, pathetic, lonely man behind it all and Griffith’s performance makes him fascinating and compelling to no end.
But it’s not just Griffith’s performance that provides the meat. It’s Kazan’s trifold anger. He’s taking aim at not just the personality that peddles the fašade, but the network and sponsors that push it and the audience that eats it up. It’s a screed against America’s willingness to not only manufacture these sorts of disingenuous personas, but our willingness to accept them and then turn on them as quickly as we welcome them.
This just about wraps it up for my series on Kazan. Next week I’ll conclude with “Splendor in the Grass.” Following that I’ll begin a series on the films of John Cassavetes, including “Shadows,” “Faces,” “A Woman Under the Influence,” “The Killing of a Chinese Bookie” and “Opening Night.”