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A Face in the Crowd

September 27, 2009

What A Face in the Crowd does from its opening credits is let you know whose ass you should kiss for the masterpiece that unfolds on screen. Not just the stars, nor simply the director, but instead the writer, Budd Schulberg, and dear god the man is a genius. Schulberg’s writing creates one of the greatest characters ever portrayed on screen and undoubtedly one of the most fascinating performances by the least likely actor at the time, Andy Griffith. Schulberg’s script was the fine toothed paintbrush for director Elia Kazan to paint a dramatic beautiful tale of the rise and fall of Lonesome Rhodes, a man smoother than Cool Hand Luke with more venom than Harry Powell. Andy Griffith takes a manipulative chauvinistic pig and makes him an enigmatic god whom audiences in and of the film can’t help but fall in love with.

As a self proclaimed good-old country boy, Lonesome is discovered in an Arkansas jail by a career driven radio personality, Marcia Jefferies (Patricia Neal), who is hoping to obtain an interesting character to sing for her weekly radio segment “A Face in the Crowd.” However, she soon discovers that Lonesome is more than just interesting, he’s a captivating force to reckoned with and Marcia is immediately drawn to his boyish charm, his soulful singing, and his booming powerful personality. Lonesome is released from jail and offered a job on the show by Marcia and her boss to which Lonesome responds with one of the greatest lines ever, “I don’t want no job, it’s too much like work man.” But with coaxing from Marcia he agrees, immediately captivating listeners with his empathy of the average Joe and witty ramblings. He becomes so influential he’s able to convince the town people to take his advice on many of his rants. Lonesome’s popularity results in his own television show in Memphis, a huge achievement for the (Golden Age of Television, a time when television was taking over as the largest form of entertainment.

Word of mouth leads to sponsors, a nationally televised show based in New York on a major network, and Lonesome becoming a national spokesperson for the Extenze/Viagra-esque pill Vitajex. Lonesome’s power to draw and influence his audience becomes noticed by politicians and his ego soon grows as he becomes more manipulative to his fans and Marcia, angering those around him including his writer Mel Miller (Walter Matthau). Marcia and Mel must find a way to destroy the very god they created.

(And you thought Requiem for a Dream was the first to use hip-hop montage)

Everything about A Face in the Crowd is impressive and considering it was made in 1957, my appreciation of this film is tenfold. Every actor gives an amazing unforgettable performances from Walter Matthau’s portrayal of a Mel, Lonesome’s soft-hearted mild mannered writer whose affection for Marcia and disdain for Lonesome causes him to attempt to expose Lonesome for the fraud he is; to Neal’s heartbreaking performance of Marcia whose initial attraction to Lonesome’s charm traps her in an emotionally abusive relationship with him. Even minor characters pull their weight such as Anthony Franciosa’s Joey Depalma, an entergetic office boy who’s desire to rise to the top turns him on almost as much as Lonesome does.

But of course the glory in this film goes to Andy Griffith in the most unexpected yet engaging portrayals I’ve ever had the pleasure to watch. Like everyone around him, I was glued to the screen whenever Lonesome appeared. Everything about him is magnetic, a man with a vocal soul of an old blues singer, a man who understands the common man, a man who can bed a woman with a wink and convince her the woman who visited claiming to be his wife was just some crazy dame. Lonesome best describes himself in a scene where after laughing so loudly in a restaurant he disturbs everyone else. Marcia sheepishly questions, “you put your whole self into that laugh don’t you?” to which Lonesome’s face becomes stoic and serious as he responds, “Marcia I put my whole self into everything I do.”

What’s beautiful about the script and directing is the subtly that takes place on screen. A Face in the Crowd does foreshadowing better than most literary novels, such as close ups of Marcia’s face when she watches Lonesome talk or how she tightens her blouse in order to keep her morals when alone with him; which makes her plight all the more heartbreaking. What’s most impressive with this film is its innovativeness. Made in 1957, A Face in the Crowd was ahead of its time and used editing tricks later hailed in 2000’s Requiem for a Dream. It openly exudes sexuality as Lonesome is a shameless womanizer engaging in threesomes and statutory rape. However, the most groundbreaking thing this film does is do what Network did 20 years later and that’s question the true intentions, power, and influence television has on its audiences and to what extent we’ll let the media control us. When taking into account JFK arguably won his Presidency due to his television appearance and that today the general population will believe someone is the Anti-Christ if the news tells us, A Face in the Crowd’s message seems terrifyingly accurate.

SEE IT. Like right now.

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