Sunday, April 23, 2017

A Face in the Crowd

SPOILER ALERT! The plot of the movie will be discussed.

Even before Network in 1976, this 1957 film directed by Elia Kazan predicted how unscrupulous people can undermine society by manipulating the media, a concern that plagues the world today.

The first shots in the movie show small town Arkansas residents of modest means, unpretentious, playing checkers and whittling sticks. The music we hear is folksy, featuring the sounds of a strumming guitar and whistling. There is no whiff in the air of intellectual urban American culture here. These are the citizens that will become the fuel which propels Lonesome Rhodes (Andy Griffith, in his powerful film debut, nothing like benign Andy Taylor in his future TV role) to stardom. At this point, he is a traveling, hard-drinking bum, who avails himself of the nightly accommodations supplied by county jails. He is “discovered,” similar to a movie star, by radio journalist Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal), who gets the local sheriff, Big Jeff Bess (the actor’s real name), who we learn is attracted to her, to allow her to record prisoners in the Pickett County jail as part of her interview program. It is called “A Face in the Crowd,” which focuses on average citizens from all walks of life. The title is significant, because it encapsulates what a democracy is, the emphasis on the individual amid a larger entity consisting of many people. But, it also hints at the perversion of the democratic system, as that “face,” when projected out of proportion to its place in society, can sway that collection of individuals acting as one massive organism.
Marcia just wants the captive men to tell personal stories. They react as many do; they shun being in the spotlight. When she mentions that maybe someone can sing a song, they suggest a man named Larry Rhodes (the last name suggests someone who wants to keep moving, and is not prone to committing to anyone, or anything, else). He is sleeping after the police arrested him for drunk and disorderly conduct, behavior he generally never relinquishes in the story. He is hostile at first. When Marcia explains what she is doing in the jail, his first response reveals his selfish, narcissistic personality by saying, “What do I get out of this?” Marcia says that she studied music at prestigious Sarah Lawrence College, in northeastern America, where she learned that one can appreciate real American music by listening to it “from the bottom up.” One can understand from this condescending attitude why common rural folk would resent conceited intellectuals.
Rhodes makes a deal as a condition to performing; the sheriff will release him in the morning. In her introduction, it is Marcia who gives him the nickname “Lonesome,” which conjures up sympathy, but suggests the American worship of the rugged individualism of the western cowboy. Rhoades is rustically poetic (talking about how darkness “douses” the daytime), and charismatic as he tells stories about his relatives in the Arkansas town of Riddle (a name which implies hidden truths about its purported ex-resident). Marcia can see how he can connect with an audience emotionally, as he says how a man one dislikes earlier in the day becomes a best friend in the loneliness of the night. He offers up a passionate rendition of a blues song as he accompanies himself with his “Mama guitar.” He says that the instrument, an object, means more to him than any woman he encountered. This statement is telling, because we learn that he views people, especially women, as being disposable.

Marcia plays her recording for her uncle, J. B. Jeffries (Howard Smith), the radio station owner, who wants to hire Rhodes for a spot on the air. They have to track him down after his release from jail. Rhodes is not enthusiastic at first, saying the offer sounded too much like a job, which means it was too much like work. He, like many Americans, wants his freedom from anything that will tie him down. He is headed for Florida, where he will do some fishing. Jeffries admits to a yearning to go fishing, but when asked by Rhodes why doesn’t he go, says he can’t afford to. These two men at this point illustrate the opposing elements in the American mythos – the respect for hard work and responsible behavior, and the lust for unencumbered, self-satisfying freedom. Marcia reels Rhodes in with the capitalistic lure when she tells him he can make enough money to fly to Florida if he does the show. Rhodes easily says goodbye to his traveling companion, Beanie (Rod Brasfield), who just as nonchalantly shrugs off his fellow traveler’s departure, since both men know the solitary code of the vagrant. But, at this point, Rhodes doesn’t want to get rid of his old clothes, always looking for that quick getaway.
Rhodes’ on-the-air persona connects with people, because he instinctively knows how to provide what they want to hear. The masses work hard every day, so he says that they are pushed by bosses to “hurry,” which is always associated with jobs. But, he had a cousin named Harry, who rushed around, so he was nicknamed “Hurry.” One day, while running quickly, he tripped, and killed himself. His relatives put a sign on his grave which said he was in a hurry to get there. With such a story, he wins over his audience by sympathizing with their plight, but doing so in a down-to-earth humorous way. He woos female listeners by saying how the men in their lives don’t appreciate them (which is, as we see, exactly how Rhodes mistreats women).

He receives a great deal of fan mail. Advertisers want to buy time on his program. As Marcia says, they love his voice, his guitar, his songs, his ideas. But when she asks him if his stories are true, he admits that Riddle doesn’t even exist, and that his father was a con-man (as we see Rhodes is a chip off of the old swindling block), who deserted his family. His mother dragged him from place to place (thus both parents instilling the desire for wandering), and his real family consisted of “uncles,” men his mother took up with. In a way, as a character, he is a predecessor of Mad Men’s Don Draper, a man running away from his real sordid past, inventing a new one, and who is so good at fabrication, he goes into advertising, because he is so adept at selling an invented version of himself. But, unlike Draper, he appears to be happy. Marica comments that he puts his whole self into his loud laugh. He says that he puts his whole self into everything he does, and that exuberance is appealing to a country that admires all-out energy.
Early on, Rhodes realizes his ability to be a Pied Piper, manipulating the behavior of those listening to his voice. He gets into a bar fight with jealous Sheriff Big Jeff, (who is running for mayor), because of how much time Marcia spends with Rhodes. He says the sheriff’s name is a joke, and notes where he comes from, they find out who should be spared useful labor because of their limitations. So, to see if Big Jeff would make a better dogcatcher than a mayor, he says on the air that the townspeople should bring their dogs over to Big Jeff’s house. The citizens fill the sheriff’s yard with their dogs in what for them is a humorous activity, but which shows the seriousness of Rhodes’ potential influence. He tells the children of the town on a hot day to go over to the studio owner’s house, without Jeffries’ knowledge, so they can swim in his pool. This action makes him appear to be a sort of champion of the downtrodden, revolting against those more fortunate than themselves. Marcia asks him what it feels like to be able to say anything which can change peoples’ behavior. He first seems not to realize this power, but then there is a look of epiphany on Rhodes’ face as he says, “yeah, I guess I can.” He makes advances on Marcia, and when she responds coolly, he says she is putting up a front, because all women want the same thing underneath. So, he shows how he wants to reduce everyone to his baser level. She implies that he has not lacked company, because many of the local women have sought him out.

Rhodes begins to get wider press attention. Then others come calling, looking for a way to cash in on his budding notoriety. He acquires an entertainment agent, who gets his percentage by landing Rhodes an offer to appear on a Memphis television station. Rhodes is a good negotiator, and gets his price, bringing Marcia with him. So, she, too, is benefiting from his success. At the Pickett train station, the whole town comes out to say goodbye. On the surface, he acts like they are his family, but as soon as he turns his head away from the crowd, he says how he is glad to leave this “dump.” When he sees the scowl on Marcia's face, he covers up by saying he was just kidding, and she should “know better than to believe everything I say.” But, that is precisely the problem with his audience – they don’t know him enough to realize that underneath that big smile and laugh, he is not always telling the truth. 
One of the writers at the Memphis station is Mel Miller (Walter Matthau), who Rhodes disdainfully calls “Vanderbilt ’44,” referring to the year Mel graduated from that college. We again see the contempt toward the educated, probably coming from an inferiority complex which derives from a deprived upbringing, a disdain which Rhodes champions among those who share his background. He rejects scripts, and ad-libs. The audience can identify with his lack of sophistication about TV cameras. Not only does he control what is said on the program, he even gives the cameraman direction, telling him to do a close-up on him. The camera becomes a perfect instrument to focus on and magnify his narcissism and desire for power (similar to what some politicians, past and present, use TV to do). The studio wants to package him their way, building on the cliché populist image he presented in Pickett. But, what Marcia admires, initially, about Rhodes is that “he is his own man.” He, instead of telling folksy stories, says he went walking the first night in Memphis, and encountered a black woman, whose house burned down, which she cannot rebuild because she couldn’t afford insurance. He brings her onstage, a courageous act at the time to bring an African American on camera in a southern state, as Mel points out. He urges each viewer to contribute twenty-five cents, no more, since they can’t afford it (relying on their charity without exploiting it). Plenty of money is received, but Rhodes grandstands the generosity by having staff bring in wheelbarrows full of coins. But, this use of his popularity shows how it can be used for a beneficial purpose. He even spouts a humanitarian belief, when he says there, “ain’t nothing you can’t do when you let the best part of you take over.” Unfortunately, as he becomes more famous and wealthy, he does not practice what he preaches.
At this point, though, Rhodes is still in maverick mode, and is more concerned about acting independently, even if it does not appear to be to his benefit. He makes fun of the mattress sponsor for his program, owned by a man named Luffler (Charles Irving). When Rhodes refuses to “kowtow” to a wealthy man’s interests, it appears Luffler will fire him. He stops by Marcia's hotel room to say goodbye, saying they got a good ride for their money, and shook things up for a while. She is so moved by his strong individualism, that she kisses him and invites him into her room to spend the night.
But, Rhodes has become so influential that the public won’t allow him to be fired. People picket in front of Luffler’s company, and burn his mattresses. At the same time, an ambitious office worker, Joey DePalma (Anthony Franciosa), pretends to be Rhodes’ agent and pitches him to a New York advertising agency to help save a faltering client of theirs, a company that makes an ineffective vitamin named Vitajex. DePalma is the guy who told Rhodes he should mention products and places to eat in his broadcast so he could get free stuff. When Marcia questioned the legality of this practice, his response was, “Nothing’s illegal if they don’t catch you,” to which Rhodes laughed in agreement. The unethical DePalma becomes Rhodes new mentor into the ways to work the con on the large stage. He finds Rhodes in Marcia’s room, and tells him the news that he’s going to New York where he will do his show live while viewers watch it across the nation. 
In New York, one ad executive wants to have dignity in promoting Vitajex. Rhodes displays his innate marketing skills by saying if someone is too dignified, where he comes from, people think that person will steal your watch. Again, we have the disdain for anyone who is not seen as ordinary because then the extraordinary is considered a threat. He says the pills look pale, and should be yellow, to reflect the energy of the sun. He says they should repackage the fake vitamin to make people think it will boost the male libido (sort of the first Viagra), with no basis in fact, mind you. Perception is what sells. He takes some of the Vitajex, and then chases women around the room. He makes up a song on the spot with the catchy line, “Vitajex, what you doin’ to me/You fill me full of ecstasy.” Rhodes likes bringing everything down to shared, primal, nonintellectual drives. The ad campaign that follows puts into effect his vision: scantily clad girls sing the jingle; a sexy woman sprawled out on a bed shows a huge bottle of the vitamin while she says she bought her boyfriend a year’s supply; a cartoon features a bashful pig (supposedly representing most males) who, after taking Vitajex, is aggressive with females; after someone takes the pills, there is a picture of a thermometer reading going up, like an erection, mirroring the heat of passion that supposedly the pill produces; Rhodes audience chants out, “Jex, jex, jex!” instead of the word “sex,” as they reach an vocal orgasmic climax. The film shows, satirically, but presciently, how the media can whip susceptible audiences into a frenzy. We then get a close-up of Rhodes mouth, with his braying laugh, supposedly sharing the viewer’s joy, but also sounding harshly demonic, as if laughing at the people he has fooled.

The head of the company that manufactures Vitajex, General Haynesworth (Percy Waram), sees Rhodes as a potent tool to mold public opinion. He tells Rhodes that he wants to promote the entertainer as an American institution. He compares him to the Washington Monument (to which some would say, how far we have fallen?). He tells him that, as usual, "the masses had to be guided with a strong hand by a responsible elite," which is not what Rhodes had been preaching. He is now being a traitor to the very people his followers scorn by controlling the masses so they will follow the dictates of the “elite.” He appeals to Rhodes’ ego by telling him he has at his disposal the most powerful instrument for persuasion - television.

Rhodes becomes what Haynesworth said he can be, an American force to be reckoned with. He is everywhere. His picture appears on Life magazine. He has a mountain named after him, as well as a battleship, that he christens. His popularity continues to snowball, as he appears on a fictionalized version of the TV show “This is Your Life,” where he is reunited with his derelict friend, Beanie. He hosts telethons, where he presents the appearance of a philanthropist. (Later, Kazan emphasizes the reality aspect of his story by inserting real news people into the film, including Walter Winchell, and Mike Wallace). Rhodes is given the penthouse floors of a luxurious New York apartment building to live in. He entertains women there, but one night he feels empty, despite his success. He craves more than the transient women he has enjoyed. He calls Marcia, and she goes to him. He says she is the only one he can trust, who is honest with him. Of course, it is all about him, as he doesn’t show any concern for her feelings after he had numerous affairs after she spent the night with him. He now asks her to marry him, and although she is drawn to him, she knows about his ways, and pleads that he not hurt her. Her concerns are well founded, since Rhodes estranged wife (Kay Medford) appears, to whom he is still legally married. She wants a monthly income to keep his past quiet. She says he “takes a bite out of every broad he comes across.” She even says that he beat her. We hear this history while, ironically, we hear Rhodes singing his folksy, amicable music in the background.

 When Marcia goes to confront him, we see how Rhodes’ phoniness is starting to peak. Three musicians are rehearsing a song they wrote that Rhodes will say is his own. DePalma is trying out a laugh-track machine that also provides recorded applause, so that whatever Rhodes does can be met with manufactured enthusiasm, real people no longer being needed in his narcissistic world. When she angrily tells Rhodes that she knows that he is married, he says that he tried to divorce his wife in Mexico, but the judge turned out to be a phony (like everything in his life), but that he will make a trip to Mexico to terminate the marriage right after he judges a baton-twirling contest back in Arkansas. She sees Mel, who is now in New York, and he has feelings for Marcia. He never trusted Rhodes, but wishes her well.

On the surface, the baton-twirling competition looks like pure, wholesome Americana. But, there is a dark underside to the proceedings. The young girls, around seventeen years of age, are wearing skimpy costumes, and we see the older men ogling them, one actually licking his lips. Ironically, the people sing about reading the bible while male sexual appetites are whetted. The girls act like groupies, swarming all over Rhodes. Close-ups of Rhodes show him to be exhibiting a lascivious smile as he watches the girls manipulate their phallic-symbol batons. He focuses on one beauty, Betty Lou Fleckum (Lee Remick, in her film debut), who returns the flirtatious looks, and tells him later, with sexual innuendo, that she placed his picture above her bed. Rhodes picks her as the winner. Everything Rhodes does now is amplified by the opportunistic media, so this event is televised. Mel and Marcia watch the show, and Mel comments on how difficult it is to resist how seductive TV can be, when he says, “You gotta be a saint to stand all the power that little box can give you.” And, Rhodes is anything but a religious icon. Betty Lou personifies that temptation which is impossible for a narcissist like Rhodes to decline.

So, when Rhodes comes back to New York by way of Mexico, he not only acquired his divorce, but also married Betty Lou there. The devastated Marcia proclaims his new wife’s symbolic nature, when she tells him, “Betty Lou is your public, all wrapped up in yellow ribbons into one cute little package. She’s the logical culmination of the great twentieth century love affair between Lonesome Rhodes and his mass audience.” (Remember how Rhodes wanted the Vitajex pills to be “yellow,” because for him the color meant sexual energy). She tells him how he has become what he used to “harpoon,” namely the big shots who pulled the strings, controlling average people. He moans about how the bigger he becomes, the smaller she makes him feel, which for an egomaniac such as Rhodes, this process is intolerable. When he called her to the penthouse before when his rise to success seemed overwhelming, he said he couldn’t live without her. Now he says he can’t live with her, because of her judgmental attitude. Marcia becomes all business in her bitterness, demanding a large percentage of his enterprise, which she believes she deserves, as she reminds him that she was the one who made up the whole “Lonesome Rhodes” persona. In a way, she is Dr. Frankenstein, and Rhodes is the monster she created.
Probably the most chilling scene for current viewers of this film, because what it predicts has come to pass, occurs when Haynesworth recruits Rhodes to help sell his candidate, Senator Worthington (ironically not “worth” much) Fuller (Marshall Neilan) as the next president. The fact that the rich Haynesworth is choosing the future national leader stresses the undermining of the democratic process. His group of political groomers watch a film in which Fuller gives a dignified, factual speech. But, Beanie, Rhodes’ old pal, yawns, and it is this type of person, who Rhodes calls a “bush monkey,” is the voter Fuller needs to win over. Rhodes basically tells Fuller that he must compromise his standards by reaching out to the uneducated to be victorious. The senator is a “product” to be sold, which today we would call his “brand.” Rhodes says Fuller needs “capsule slogans” (sound bites?) to quickly and simply get his sales pitch across. Rhodes says Fuller has to create a whole new personality, basically putting up a public façade which has nothing to do with his private self, much the same way Rhodes has done.  He needs to have a nickname, and calls Fuller “Curly,” because of his receding hairline, which shows he has a sense of humor, and is not above making fun of himself. He tells Fuller to relax his jaw, because a tight-looking mouth makes him appear as a “sissy,” which implies that he must project traditional heterosexual manliness. Rhodes says that people don’t buy something they “respect,” they buy what they can “love.” He wants to take the mind out of politics and replace it with a sentimental appeal to the emotions. Basically, what he is advocating is a dumbing down of America, where leadership is achieved through a conglomerate of political shrewdness, big business, and celebrity. 

DePalma sees Rhodes as being in the next administration’s cabinet, which shows how far he sees the man’s reach can extend. But even a supporter such as Haynesworth, who wants to be the power behind the curtain, is wary about Rhodes’ tendency to, what we call now, “going rogue.” In fact, we see Rhodes telling Haynesworth to “shut up,” when he is in the middle of cooking up his latest TV show, where he will be the “Voice of Grassroots Wisdom,” spouting his philosophy on stage with a bunch of cornpone yes-men. Rhodes shows his egoism when he tells Marcia, “I’m not just an entertainer. I’m an influence, a wielder of opinion, a force … a force!”

On the new show, Fuller appears, acting like he is just one of those good old boys on the stage. Rhodes stops him whenever the senator uses a big word, making him substitute a simpler one. Fuller is now proclaiming the anti-Federal government stance of rural conservatives, saying that the American people have become used to being “coddled” from cradle to grave. He says that Daniel Boone didn’t need unemployment compensation. This rugged individualism, that Rhodes endorses, actually compromises his base of followers, although they don’t realize it because of Rhodes’ charisma, because it doesn’t take into account lay-offs, catastrophes (both natural and man-made), illnesses, and other afflictions that befall average folk who don’t have the resources that the rich have to endure hard times.
Mel finds Marcia in a bar watching Rhodes’ TV show. He says that he left the TV station in Memphis, and has written an exposé on Rhodes, entitled Demagogue in Denim. He has found a company that will publish his book. He tells Marcia, who Mel sees still is drawn to Rhodes, that she is allowing herself to be used. Rhodes and she are making money though, even selling a line of “Mama Guitars” modeled after the one owned by Rhodes, which demonstrates how marketing can take something meaningful, and trivialize it. He says that she has allowed herself to be Rhodes’ “shock absorber,” cushioning the possible jarring effects of his ex-wife and ex-girlfriends. But, Mel says he didn’t spare himself in his book, since he lost part of his soul having worked for Rhodes.

Rhodes finds DePalma coming out of Betty Lou’s bedroom. He wants to fire him, but he tells Rhodes he does not have the moral high ground, having cheated on Betty Lou. DePalma also owns 51 per cent of Rhodes Enterprises, so he is really the boss. DePalma also says that all he has to do to destroy Rhodes is to leak what he knows about him to the press. This scene shows how celebrities, even though they have money, power, and influence, lead a fragile existence because others prey upon their popularity, and their fame makes them a very visible target for those who want to undermine them. Betty Lou tries to take a page from Rhodes’ book, acting innocent, but Rhodes wrote the book, so he sees through her. Since she has no corporate sway as does DePalma, he basically fires her as his wife, equating her to any employee who “flops.” She has caught the fame bug from him, saying she is supposed to perform her baton act on the Ed Sullivan Show. He will pay her severance, but he says she must remain back in Arkansas; he thus, denies her chance at stardom won off of his name.
In a type of entitled rebound move, Rhodes goes to his default woman, Marcia, starts to take off his clothes, and assumes she will provide him with sex, while calling himself “the king.” He tells her that Fuller will create a special cabinet post for him, “Secretary of National Morale.” Because of his way with the masses, his job will be to sell whatever the administration wants to pursue. He sets out his agenda to her, based on his messianic view of himself, when he calls the American people his flock of sheep: “Redness, crackers, hillbillies, hausfraus, shut-ins, pea-pickers – everybody that’s got to jump when somebody else blows the whistle. The don’t know it yet, but they’re all gonna be ‘Fighters for Fuller.’ They’re mine! I own ‘em! Marcia, you just wait and see. I’m gonna be the power behind the president – and you’ll be the power behind me!”
Because she recognizes the horror she has engendered, Marcia runs out on Rhodes. In her absence, preparations for the next show fall into chaos without Marcia’s coordination. Rhodes is manic, yelling at his staff and belittling everybody on the set. He says he is used to ad-libbing, and goes on live, as usual, hypocritically saying that the family that prays together stays together. Marcia shows up and, at the end of the show, when the credits roll, and the sound is supposed to be turned off, she broadcasts Rhodes’ contemptuous words that he speaks to his onstage rednecks. He calls his audience “morons,” and says that he can “take chicken fertilizer and sell it to them as caviar. I can make them eat dog food and think it was steak … Good night you stupid idiots. Good night you miserable slobs. They’re a lot of trained seals. I toss them a dead fish and they’ll flap their flippers.” We then see his followers at home, watching their TV sets, and turning on the man they thought was their champion. DePalma, a despicable fellow who is just more quietly selfish than Rhodes, is already pitching someone to replace Rhodes. It is ironic that the instrument that created the Lonesome Rhodes phenomena, television, is used by Marcia to bring about his downfall. Kazan provides us with a metaphor for Rhodes’ fall (a sort of tarnished version of the expulsion from the biblical paradise), as we witness the audience’s rage at the same time he goes down an elevator, the camera focusing on each successive descending floor number.

Mel shows up at the studio, and tells Marcia that she will not be free of Rhodes until she tells him that it was she that destroyed his career. They go to his penthouse where multiple no-shows have turned his party to launch his “Fighters for Fuller” venture into a failure. Rhodes is now on the verge of a breakdown, even bellowing racist remarks at his African American servants who snicker at his ranting. He is shouting out into the night as Beanie plays the applause machine. He sees Marcia, and again, tries to suck her into having pity for him, threatening to jump off the building. But, Marcia won’t succumb this time, and admits to her deed. He says he’s not through. Mel says that after a while he probably will be on TV again, but his huge following will be lost. There will be new names and fads to follow, and soon people will be saying whatever happened to “What’s-his-name?” As Mel and Marcia get a cab on the street, Rhodes continues to yell into the night, but now nobody is listening. Mel says that the one saving grace is that people learn, and now they’re on to him. The last shot, appropriately, is that of a large Coca Cola sign, a symbol of the influence of salesmanship.
This film is in a great tradition of movies, including All the King’s Men, The Candidate, and All the President’s Men, which show in a democracy, powerful people must act responsibly; otherwise, if they exploit a free society’s vulnerability to demagoguery, all of its members are in danger.

The next film is American Beauty.

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