It’s been half a century since A Face in the Crowd had its premiere, but there’s a sense in which this 1957 Elia Kazan flick remains the founding movie of postmodern times. Election years make it only too evident that our popular culture and electoral politics are symbiotic; A Face in the Crowd was the first to dramatize it.
The movie—which screens next Wednesday night at Film Forum, with actress Patricia Neal and screenwriter Budd Schulberg in attendance—has its key scene in a posh private screening room. A group of backers have gathered to view a would-be president’s latest performance. It stinks. The political stage has become televisual, one corporate visionary declares. “Instead of long-winded public debates, the people want capsule slogans: ‘Time for a change!’ ‘The mess in Washington!’ ‘More bang for a buck!’ Punch lines and glamour!” Or government by sound bite and photo op. Soon, a terrifyingly avid TV star named Lonesome Rhodes (Andy Griffith) is recruited to teach this backward pol how to smile and comb his hair, get a nickname, and pose with a dog.
Lonesome Rhodes himself was discovered in an Arkansas county jail by a local radio reporter (Neal). He graces her show with a spontaneous rendition of “(I’ll Be a) Free Man in the Morning,” and she manages to make him a regular. Thus enabled, Rhodes demonstrates the power of the medium on the suggestible, addressing listeners directly and intervening in the life of the town. Before long, he’s graduated from local radio to TV variety shows, first in Memphis and then New York. According to Schulberg, whom I spoke to by phone, he and Kazan did extensive research—not only on Madison Avenue but on Capitol Hill, where they were surprised to discover that there was a mock TV-studio “rehearsal room” in the Senate Office Building.
Performer, tribune, and member of the audience, Rhodes is a focus group of one—as well as the personification of TV and, before the movie ends, a big-time threat to American democracy. A Face in the Crowd is essentially a political horror film. It’s not funny enough to work as satire, a bit doggedly literal for allegory, yet too hyperbolic to convince as drama. Nor was it a hit. As political rhetoric, however, A Face in the Crowd has never ceased to be relevant. Darkly alluded to during the 1960 campaign (decided, so people thought, by a television debate), it was quasi-remade as Wild in the Streets, American International’s contribution to the madness of 1968, re-released (with a nod to George Wallace) in 1972, invoked to explain Watergate in 1974, and reconfigured as Nashville in 1975.
In the ’80s, Kazan began saying that he and Schulberg had made a movie about Ronald Reagan back in the days when Reagan was still shilling for GE. Although Reagan’s election might have rendered A Face in the Crowd passé, the idea of a remake was floated throughout his presidency. Afterward, it simply became conventional wisdom. No great stretch of the imagination is required to see Lee Atwater as George H.W. Bush’s Lonesome Rhodes or Ross Perot as a Rhodes knockoff—and only a mild sense of tabloid melodrama is necessary to appreciate Hillary playing Patricia Neal to Bill’s Andy Griffith (now vice versa). To watch Bush II work his down-home magic on a preselected crowd is to be reminded of Rhodes’s modus operandi. More recently, A Face in the Crowd can seem to presage the media-manufactured candidacy and TV-honed persona of failed hopeful Senator Fred Thompson. I asked Schulberg if he saw another Arkansas fellow traveler in the 2008 race: “Huckabee has some touches,” he replied.
The fact is that A Face in the Crowd is not about any one person so much as a particular system that brings everything together—politics, news, and entertainment—in the democracy of the market. The movie is still “pretty on target,” Schulberg says. “With the right charisma and the right message, it could still happen here.” It could and it does. Screening, plus a conversation with Budd Schulberg and Patricia Neal, 7 p.m. March 5, Film Forum.