1957’s A Face in the Crowd tells the story of Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes, an alcoholic vagrant and southern ne’er-do-well who is as comfortable behind bars as he is playing his guitar. The film opens with the host of a local radio show (which is named “A Face in the Crowd”) broadcasting from the town jail in an effort to display the raw reality of the everyman, saying that the American culture flows from the bottom up. It’s not unlike NPR’s This American Life in that she is seeking to convey the different daily experiences and perspectives of society by giving the spotlight to a wide array of voices from all walks of life. One prisoner immediately takes to the experience: with his casual, say-anything attitude, raucous guitar playing, and natural charisma, Lonesome Rhodes is an overnight sensation, and it isn’t long before New York comes calling with the aim of putting him in the national spotlight. Can this wandering, womanizing scoundrel learn from his past and smooth his rough edges to embrace fame on a national scale, or is he doomed to self-implode? The movie takes a long look at celebrity and fame, showing how easy it is for those who entertain us to appear to be something they aren’t.
The cast is outstanding, and the movie owes a lot to their performances. Patricia Neal (Breakfast at Tiffany’s) plays Marcia Jeffries, the Arkansas radio host of the program that propels Lonesome Rhodes to stardom; Neal also believably portrays the conflict that comes with being Rhodes’ part-time lover. She’s strong and ambitious, but she’s also weak to his charms, and she hates that fact. Walter Matthau (The Odd Couple) is Mel Miller, a weary writer for the station who watches the meteoric rise of Rhodes and has reservations about what he sees unfolding. I’ve seen Matthau play comedy, I’ve seen him play a dangerous criminal boss, I’ve obviously seen him play a grumpy old man, but I don’t ever recall seeing him play such a quiet, understated character. Mel Miller appears to have seen everything and been exhausted by it all. Anthony Franciosa (The Long, Hot Summer) is a businessman who ends up becoming a key player in Rhodes’ rise, but he has motivations of his own.
What a big mistake on my part. Any Griffith’s performance is a tour de force; there’s simply no other way to say it. The “aw-shucks” bit is there, but it’s set within a dangerous frame. There’s something about the character’s eyes: they’re wild, like an animal, ready to attack at a moment’s notice. The character of Lonesome Rhodes is a hard-drinking, slovenly loser. He’s a womanizer who is addicted to sex and addicted to seduction. He has no morals and no conscience. His greatest skill is the art of manipulation, and it’s one that he practices often. Griffith’s character on his television show was a quiet, dignified man who was almost never angry and certainly never lost his temper, but Lonesome Rhodes spend what seems like half of his time on the screen yelling and red-faced. I’ve seen more of Andy Griffith’s uvula than I ever imagined possible. I’m not usually a fan of big, showy performances, but this one really impresses me because of how unique it is from this actor. It’s a grating and INCREDIBLY annoying role, but that’s exactly what it’s intended to be, and it impresses me. There’s also a vulnerability on display, but it’s always unclear if it’s genuine or just another manipulation. Griffith is so much more than I’ve given him credit for, and I have new respect for him as an actor. I’ve read that being Lonesome Rhodes caused problems for the actor in his private life because he ended up taking the character home with him. As far as I know, he never again went as dark as he did in this film.
Fast forward nearly 60 years later and the message of the film is as relevant now as it was in 1957. In fact, it’s even more relevant, because the last six decades have proved that nothing really changes. If anything, our society has become even more addicted to the false existence presented in reality TV, the carefully packaged stories on the nightly news, the worship of celebrities who we build up only to tear down, and the idea that everyone is entitled to 15 minutes of fame. It’s scary just how much HASN’T changed since A Face in the Crowd was filmed. It’s a remarkable film populated with remarkable performances, and I guarantee you that you’ll be thinking about it long after the credits have rolled.