We first encounter A Face in the Crowd (1956; dir. Elia Kazan) as what seems to be a film about the discovery and rise of a country music star whose sharp satiric humor and music might win him a place on the stage of the Grand Old Opry. In that sense, the film is about the rise and fall of an American hero, another tale of the American Dream.
The main character Lonesome Rhodes exploits the hillbilly image by suggesting in his music and his rambling radio and television monologues that down-home values—which include family and religious values—as well as his natural-born suspicion of government, bureaucrats, the wealthy, and the educated—give him a common ground for talking to and representing the interests of the common individual. On his Memphis television program, he develops this kinship by championing the cause of a poor black woman with eight children whose house has burned down. On his first show he invites his audience to send in contributions, no more than fifty cents, to help her buy a house to replace the one she’s lost. This championing of the downtrodden immediately cements Lonesome’s audience—which is mainly working class. It also wins him an African American audience. By the next week, his fans have contributed more than $18,000. On another broadcast he expresses sympathy for the hard work of housewives and mothers, suggesting that their men don’t appreciate them. This also brings him an audience of devoted women admirers, who are also attracted to his wild vigor and implied sexuality. His rugged good looks and his singing attract still another audience, mainly of younger women.
It’s easy to overlook the fact that Lonesome’s championing of the black woman would have been highly controversial in Memphis, TN, of 1957. Walter Matthau’s character says as much. Rhodes readily expresses his indifference to any social or cultural barriers or rules that tell him how to act or what to think. He’s a self-styled populist, and his populism helps him to win millions of listeners.
Gradually, however, A Face in the Crowd morphs into an exploration of the rise of the media, specifically of television, in American popular culture. It examines the power of the American media to shape and control public opinion. The film was made when the American television industry was still seeking to discover what its role might be in American culture. Budd Schulberg’s screenplay gives expression to the fear that media celebrities might use the new industry to gain control of public opinion, to sway the public mind and shape national events. The rise of such media stars in the 1950s as Billy Graham, the evangelist, and of Elvis Presley, whose songs and gyrations provokes audiences to Dionysian frenzy, provided some evidence that there was good cause for concern. This was a concern that had already been seen in other films, especially in Richard Rossen’s All the King’s Men (1949) and Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1940), where a newspaper magnate uses the media, including the newspaper chains he owns, to wield economic and political power.
Several historical factors inform this focus on media, politics, and public opinion. The 20th century was a period of demagoguery, when leaders on both sides of the Atlantic rose to fame and power on the basis of a populist political message and a dynamic media image. Father Coughlan, Marcus Garvey, Huey Long, George Wallace, and many others were American examples. Hitler and Mussolini and Stalin (in different ways) were examples from Europe. The film responds to the very real fear of the takeover of the American government by such a figure. During the late 1940s and early 1950s, fear of undue communist influence in the American government and right-wing political zealotry resulted in the rise of Joseph McCarthy, the senator who held hearings seeking to identity communist infiltrators in various corners of American government and culture, and whose reckless behavior destroyed numerous reputations and led to a low point in government.
Ultimately, although American politics now depend heavily on the media, things did not turn out in precisely the way that Schulberg prophesied. On the other hand, he was not that far off the mark. Candidates who look handsome and personable on screen tend to do better in the polls than those who don’t. There are exceptions, of course. John McCain, not the most photogenic fellow, did win the Republican nomination for president in 2008, even though he was running against the swarmily handsome Mitt Romney, former governor of Massachusetts. Barack Obama clearly profited from his dynamic speaking style and eager appearance, both of which came across effectively on the television screen. However, it’s doubtful he changed his entire personality, as Rhodes attempts to convince Senator Fuller to do in the film to attract voters.
A Face in the Crowd is also a hillbilly film, exploiting in the role of “Lonesome Rhodes” the comic stand-up career of Andy Griffith in the 1950s. Griffith, not a trained actor, plays the role of the self-styled and very self-aware hillbilly hick to the hilt. Even from his first appearance in the film, where he’s sleeping off a drunken spree in a small-town jail, he’s shown as a calculating fellow whose primary concern is “me, myself, and I.”
Patricia Neal plays a young radio producer who from the start is hoodwinked by Lonesome’s charm, down-home wit, and singing. Even at the end of the film, she’s still swayed by his influence, even after she knows he is a duplicitous manipulator of herself and of everyone else.
The film never really shimmers, in that sense that creates mystery and ambiguity and uncertainty and that makes a film or literary work memorable. Some might argue for shimmer in the final scene, where Rhodes bellows in desperate agony after Marcia. Yet up to this point the film has spent so much time pinning Rhodes down, making clear that we have no doubts about him or the forces that make him who he is, that the shimmer hardly matters.
A Face in the Crowd may have been an important influence on Robert Altman’s film Nashville, where an unseen candidate uses blaring loudspeakers, radio and television announcements, and rallies with country music singers to promote his populist political message. An important scene early in Altman’s film comes when the singer Barbara Jean arrives at the Nashville Airport to be greeted by throngs of adoring fans, high school hands, and baton twirlers. This seen is specifically reminiscent of the one in Face where Lonesome Rhodes judges a baton twirling contest.