How have I lived this long without knowing about A Face in the Crowd? This 1957 film, based on a Budd Schulberg short story (“Your Arkansas Traveler”), tells the story of Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes (Andy Griffith), a guitar-strumming drifter and unapologetic ne’er-do-well, who goes from drunk tank to penthouse before his inevitable fall from grace. For anyone who grew up knowing Andy Griffith only as the wise and loveable sheriff of Mayberry, his performance as Lonesome Rhodes will come as quite a shock. Rhodes is uncouth, undisciplined, and unwashed: you can almost smell the whiskey-sweat on him! He attracts the attention of Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal), an idealistic Sarah Lawrence graduate with a degree in music, when she comes to the local jail—tape recorder in hand—to get material for her radio program. Marcia takes an immediate interest in this presumed diamond in the rough and manages to persuade the station owner, her uncle, to allow Rhodes to host his own radio show. Predictably enough, his rise to stardom is meteoric, propelled more by the populist appeal of his personality than by his talent as a musician, and before long he makes the move from radio to TV and becomes an even bigger star.
Unfortunately for Marcia, Lonesome Rhodes is all rough and no diamond. He sings of being “a free man,” and taps into the popular fantasy of a life lived entirely on one’s own terms. In reality, though, Rhodes is the darkest manifestation of that principle, a kind of id-monster (to borrow a term from the sci-fi classic Forbidden Planet), existing only for his own pleasure, with no regard for the havoc he creates for those around him. Perhaps his most memorable and revealing trait is his laugh, which Marcia finds captivating:
Marcia: You put your whole self into that laugh, don’t you?
Rhodes: Marcia, I put my whole self into everything I do.
It is, despite Marcia’s admiration, a terrifying laugh: loud, explosive, and seeming to teeter on the edge of madness. The poster for the film catches that laugh, the character in profile, head thrown back and teeth bared, like a hyena about to tear into its prey.
Griffith’s acting is a bit too histrionic for my taste, but Neal delivers a memorable performance, moving from a smart, idealistic girl filled with youthful enthusiasm, to a bitter and disillusioned woman. She ages visibly over the course of the film, not so much through the use of makeup and costumes as through a weariness that slowly saps the light from her eyes as she becomes increasingly unable to defend the behavior of the media monster that she has created or to rationalize the heartless way that he treats her. In the opening scene of the film, we see her flooded in daylight, as snappy and sassy as the heroine in a screwball comedy from the thirties. She bounds out of the car, the intrepid girl reporter on her way to cover a lighthearted story from a not-very-serious jailhouse. But the moment she moves to the corner of the holding cell where Rhodes is sleeping off a bender, shadows begin to intrude on the scene. For the rest of the film, that darkness never truly goes away, resulting in an effectively discordant and disturbing blend of the ominous and the folksy—a kind of Arkansas noir.
Lonesome Rhodes discovers that stardom—and more particularly the power that comes with it—is as fine an intoxicant as bourbon. It brings him fame, fortune, and enough sex appeal to convince a seventeen-year-old baton twirler (played by Lee Remick in her screen debut) to elope to Mexico with him. Perceived as a beloved and trusted everyman by his listeners, he delights in his ability to persuade his audience to buy the products he promotes and ultimately to even support the politician he is paid to endorse. It is in this perceptive and seemingly prescient treatment of the intersection of television, politics, personality, and corporate interests that A Face in the Crowd is perhaps most interesting to a viewer in the present day. The film came out at a time when the television set was just establishing itself as the focal point of America’s living rooms, yet more than fifty years later its exploration of the persuasive power of that medium—particularly when combined with cynicism, faux-populism, and demagoguery—is both chilling and timely. Lonesome Rhodes may be a fictional character, but his real-world counterparts are not hard to find.