A Face in the Crowd

Directed by: Elia Kazan
Distributed by: Warner Bros. Pictures

Written by Rudolph Lambert Fernandez


Each year, the world celebrates the discovery and spread of broadcasting. October 26th is Public Radio Music Day. Radio waves were first proven and America’s first commercial radio broadcast was in November, and World Radio Day is in February. A fascinating 20th century film warns of how broadcasting is double-edged: good when spreading truth, dangerous otherwise.  

Budd Schulberg’s short story, “Your Arkansas Traveler,” from his book of short stories, “Some Faces in the Crowd,” informs his screenplay for producer-director Elia Kazan’s film, “A Face in the Crowd (1957).” Schulberg’s story is about being true to yourself. Yet, his skilled writing makes that point by showing the terrible price everyone pays, when you’re not true, to anything or anyone, especially yourself.

Schulberg’s rags-to-riches tale centers around a lowly singer-entertainer from Arkansas  — the winsome Larry Rhodes (Andy Griffiths is superb in his debut film). Comely Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal) handpicks Rhodes, literally from jail and off the street, christens him “Lonesome”, her new guest-performer who’ll up her uncle’s radio-station ratings. Then things get out of hand. 

Rhodes’s apparently harmless mutation from a nobody into an Arkansas folk-hero flows not from his guitar or his song, but from his rambling on-air monologues. He then outgrows towns and cities to become an “influencer”, with clout beyond the confines of radio-TV; manipulating the thoughts, words, and actions of millions. He’s no expert, with his song or with his guitar, but once the wind and waves of showbiz heave him out of ordinariness, he fancies himself an expert on everything, “from the price of popcorn to the hydrogen bomb”. 

An affair with the audience

Rhodes ends up democratizing public anger and want, by turning every station or studio he visits, into a Town Square of justice; his justice, that is. His on-air indiscretions aren’t incidental; they’re tailored to thrill, even titillate. Rhodes doesn’t want audiences to sit up, he wants them out of their chairs, egging him on. They mustn’t just laugh, they must chortle. When he crowdfunds for a “cause”, his “charity” shouldn’t just be public, it should be spectacle. 

Rhodes is subversive. He pretends to be conflicted about mouthing lines that sponsors “contract” him to. Yet he finds his own, sly way of delivering their message; warbled but clear enough, muffled but audible enough. He plays everyone for village idiots, all the while reassuring them: you’re too bright to be bluffed. 

Rhodes’s tools of engagement? Insults, barbs, gags and throwaways; anything that’ll shove ratings up. Soon, fans (and fanatics) are naming a flower, a warship, even a mountain after him, certain he can sell anything from energy drinks to aphrodisiacs.

Ironically, Rhodes turns popular because he’s apparently truth-telling, calling out the hypocrisies of his hirers, exposing the phoniness of his scriptwriters. Crowds throng his show because he seems to be his own man. He rebels against nearly everything and nearly everyone. Audiences adore his disdain for protocol, his contempt for officialese. He seems to echo and articulate their own contempt. So they figure that he loves them too. 

But this love affair unravels quickly. He’s not in love with them?! He’s in love with himself! The more (and more widely) lovable he becomes on screen, the more despicable he is off it. That “raw” nature that gets him out of prison is what imprisons him within himself later on.

That Rhodes hates so much, is obvious to Marcia, soon it’s obvious to everyone else. Agents, advertisers, and eventually audiences see through his shallowness, even if they don’t quite see through their own.

Larger than life

For a debutant, Andy Griffith is on fire. He’s a mere 5’10”, but here he looks gigantic. He doesn’t just enter a room, he floods it, amplifying his whole body. He’s not hoping for audience reaction, he’s waiting for it; he knows exactly what they’ll do and when.

In one scene, Griffith (as Rhodes) persuades a senator and his team to outsource their campaign to him, complete with a crafted image makeover. In an arresting six-minute sequence, cynical as ever, Rhodes dishes out his street smarts. He doesn’t believe in any of it, yet he has them eating out of his hands. An acting masterclass. 

Patricia Neal’s radio voice is perfect as Rhodes’s troubled (and troubling) muse, Marcia. At first cheerful and chatty, she’s indifferent to whether her guests are sensible or useful, as long as listeners want them “on repeat”. As Rhodes’s mask of spontaneity slips, she withdraws, horrified at the monster she’s unleashed. 

Kazan’s direction is intense.  

In one scene, Marcia boards the Rhodes gravy train, quite literally. They’re leaving Arkansas for Memphis. On the left, Kazan’s camera frames fans lining the platform to say goodbye. On the right, Rhodes dangles out of the coach and smilingly yells his affection for them, then whispers his disgust. A startled Marcia spins around, only to hear him mumble: I was…kidding…you should know me better than to believe everything I say.

Fans continue waving all they can: hats, handkerchiefs, scarves, placards: “So long, Lonesome”. As the train rolls out, the crowds vanish suddenly, as night replaces the platform; Rhodes’s patronizing grin vanishes as suddenly. 

Like his theme of showbiz, Kazan’s movie is bombastic, but deliberately so. Yet his visual cues hint at what’s really happening, whether it’s a plummeting skyscraper elevator to mirror Rhodes’s fall from grace, or a studio-machine simulating an audience’s “ooh” and “aah”, or a cruelly close shot of Rhodes laughing, teeth bared, tongue bouncing.

Watch Schulberg’s contrasting character arcs for Rhodes and Marcia, and you may see metaphors distinguishing your inner voice (who you are) from your words (who you become, or who others turn you into). 

Marcia may be the “voice” of truth and sanity, but Rhodes prefers his “words” and it’s why he grumbles: The bigger I get, the smaller you make me feel. In mock sobriety he tells her, you’re my lifeline to truth, but does little to preserve that lifeline.

The ring of truth to Rhodes’s “words”, instantly draws people to him. The falsehood in his “voice”, slowly turns them away. 

Cautionary tale

“A Face in the Crowd” is prescient, but disturbingly so. 

How tempting it is to blame one individual for our ills! Does it matter whether he’s peddling wealth or well-being on FM/Online Radio, mood or mindfulness on TV, yoga or young love on YouTube?

Is Rhodes the one pumping guile into showbiz? Not quite. He’s merely flagging hypocrisies that, like him, treat people as products. Any state, party or system that lies to “sell” ideologies or individuals is, at root, a cumulative consciousness that indicts thousands of individuals, all guilty of feeding (and feeding off) that system. We are, all of us, guilty to varying degrees.

Elia Kazan’s film is a searing critique of much of 21st-century media and social media. 

But hold on. If every preceding century granted a big platform to every big voice, what’s different now? 

Then, only a handful of “influencers” held sway. And reservoirs of “the truth” — libraries, archives, state data, public-private research, journalism speaking truth to power — still held water, unpolluted by vested interests.

Now, there are almost as many platforms as people. A rapper with a “captive” TikTok audience may end up being obeyed as much as a PhD in Public Policy on a “mainstream” talk show. Now, who knows what’s “mainstream”? Does Justin Bieber’s Twitter following of 114M make him more credible than WSJ’s mere 20M? 

Now, there isn’t even the pretense of a host, filtering out (or sifting in) what’s in the public “good” or public “interest”. The “anchor” seems more adrift each week, swayed by public mood one night, swaying it the next. Also, aren’t vested interests the ones protecting and polluting today’s reservoirs of “the truth”? 

Kazan’s opening scene, in a prison, is telling. Marcia’s hunting for a “new” face in the crowd, moving from convict to convict with her microphone, hoping some guy will be sloshed (or sober) enough to say something that’ll spark listener interest.

Marcia (soothingly): “It’s very simple, you just talk into this microphone in a natural voice. This is completely informal, so if anybody wants to sing a song or tell an anecdote, a funny story…”

Today, the Internet is mic-Marcia, making that offer not to a prison cell, but to the whole world. The more “informal”, the better; free-wheeling is in, not because it’s true but because it’s free. 

Of course, qualified, responsible people grab that ‘mic’, weighing (almost) every word because they’re alive to their vast reach and impact, dishing out facts, stats, opinion, analysis, and life lessons (and propaganda) through every web-host in sight. 

But mic-Marcia is making that offer also to millions of bored housewives, jobless husbands, idle children, restless teenagers, addicts, rapists, pedophiles; anyone with an Internet connection, and anger or answers to spare. If he wants to, a footballer can preoccupy a continent-sized “following” with a complaint about a strained hamstring. Rhodes is no longer “Lonesome”.

Kazan’s movie is a piercing reflection on freedom of expression. Many of us accept it as a universal human right. It is. But we forget that rights must have hierarchies, or lose their meaning. More importantly, not every right is absolute. Most liberties must have limits; our imperfection as humans, insists that our freedoms stay imperfect too. 

If we define something as sacred as the right to life by how responsibly we live (punishing or putting away those endangering themselves or others), why must the right to broadcast speech, images, songs, or writing be different?Sure, everyone has something to say. But, Kazan’s classic asks, is everyone equally and unaccountably deserving of a megaphone at full blast, 24×7?

“A Face in the Crowd” Trailer

Rudolph Lambert Fernandez is an independent writer writing on pop culture.

Twitter: @RudolphFernandz

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