When a simple “face in the crowd” carries so much power into their own hands to influence the way in which the people see the world around themselves, you’d only be wondering what else does that mean to the people who happen to be so close to the one in power. In Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd, you have the portrait of someone who started out as being nothing more than such only to be launched into their own stardom out of nowhere, but also the consequences of what came forth from not being able to control himself – and how it affected the world around Lonesome Rhodes too as he buys into the delusion of his own fame. When you’re watching A Face in the Crowd, it only becomes more astonishing as you take into count how prophetic it feels even today, for it also happens to be one of Elia Kazan’s greatest works.
Andy Griffith stars as Larry Rhodes, who starts off as a drunken drifter. His rambling leads to the discovery of a new talent by the ambitious radio journalist Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal), who later dubs him “Lonesome” Rhodes. As he continually rambles on the air, he becomes popular with the radio station’s listeners for they take a liking to his sense of humour and raw personality. Everything seems to go well for Marcia’s own discovery up until Rhodes’s popularity eventually gets the better of his own ego, turning him into a manipulative monster – now trying to rally up a political campaign. For a film that was released in 1957, A Face in the Crowd feels terrifyingly prescient, especially in an age where conspiracy theorists have grown in popularity, even leaving a significant enough impact on the political climate as we see it.
Many who would have remembered Andy Griffith’s television persona would also be shocked at how much of that still remains intact when it comes to bringing a character much like Lonesome Rhodes to the screen. He retains that noted “aww shucks” persona but it’s also presented in a more manipulative manner, especially as Rhodes continually feeds off the fame that he acquires as a result of Marcia’s own ambitions. Kazan and Schulberg dive into that mindset that Rhodes establishes so uncomfortably, but it creates an effective satire in that same process, for the film prioritizes the perspective that Rhodes has of the world around him – creating a performance for the ages. He’s every bit as maddening as you can expect from a film about his downward spiral into insanity, and he always lights up the screen from start to finish.
In capturing the sort of influence that a persona much like Lonesome Rhodes would have upon the media, A Face in the Crowd is no ordinary satire but also a reflection of the world itself. It feels prophetic, particularly when you consider the manner in which it parallels the rise of Donald Trump prior to his election in 2016 or conspiracy pundits like Alex Jones and Glenn Beck, but Kazan and Schulberg also indulge into the sort of public notice that ends up leading such figures to where they headed today. As much a fascinating case study Lonesome Rhodes proves himself to be, A Face in the Crowd also tells a story about the world that continually feeds him exactly what he wants. All that matters to Lonesome Rhodes is that his ego is being fed, because he knows nothing will bring him down. Yet it also presents itself the perfect deconstruction of the celebrity mythos, and how quickly they speed through the different stages of their career, engulfing them into their own egos.
Yet I think what also makes A Face in the Crowd so striking is the way in which Elia Kazan keeps intact with the fact that this is also Patricia Neal’s story too. As expected from Kazan, the ensemble is remarkable, even roles that seem smaller by comparison to that of Griffith carry something of a similar impact. Through Patricia Neal’s character, you also see the tragic downside towards Lonesome Rhodes’s rise to fame as she starts off as someone who was a sucker for the charms that he brought along the ride to someone who looks back in shame at the monster that she created. Walter Matthau also leaves behind a considerable impact, especially in the final scene – where it already seems as if the karma from Rhodes’s yelling is finally about to catch up to him. It’s a moment like this that reaffirms how tragic his downfall has become, but ultimately it was also one which Rhodes brought upon himself and had been blinding himself from for the whole time.
This whole thing just sounds all too familiar, even today, but that’s only because A Face in the Crowd is a film that still remains every bit as relevant as it was when it first came out. Everyone simply sees what they want out of a character like Lonesome Rhodes, but they don’t know the better picture that same way Marcia does. If anything else best sums up what makes A Face in the Crowd so haunting, it’s the fact that no matter what it may reflect about the world we live in today, it will only come back to bite again in some way or another no matter how far we try to move away from it. To the public, Lonesome Rhodes is some sort of a national hero who only speaks wisely through his ramblings as they take on new forms of media. But to the people who had know him up close, he was nothing more than a glorified face in the crowd – one who never had any control over his own power.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via Warner Bros.
Directed by Elia Kazan
Screenplay by Budd Schulberg, from his story Your Arkansas Traveler
Produced by Elia Kazan
Starring Andy Griffith, Patricia Neal, Anthony Franciosa, Walter Matthau, Lee Remick
Release Date: May 28, 1957
Running Time: 125 minutes