A reporter in rural Arkansas (Patricia Neal) interviews a bum in a local jail (Andy Griffith) and discovers he can sing, so she gives him a spot on her local radio show and christens him Lonesome Rhodes. He turns out to be a fountain of homespun charm who is especially empathetic with women listeners (the premise is not improbable -- many careers were launched in a similar way). On his first night on TV, Rhodes makes love to the audience while raising money for a homeless family. He becomes an overnight celebrity, rising from national TV star into advertising, opinion-making, and finally becomes a political kingmaker.
Andy Griffith's performance is a stunner, and his first moments of self-awareness at the end of the movie are remarkable. The rest of the cast is equally good, especially Neal as Rhodes' enabler (whose journey to self-awareness tracks Rhodes' career) and Walter Matthau as a cynical underling who jumps ship. Rod Brasfield is humorous as one of Rhodes' Arkansas cronies who is retained as a yes man.
Griffith portrays Lonesome Rhodes as a human whirlwind, a combination of public servant and public exploiter, in which idealism and egoism are confounded from the beginning. The message is not a simple one -- power corrupts, sure, but people who want power are often corrupt to begin with, and it's hard (and maybe pointless) to tell the difference. Among many real-life models, Griffith's portrayal definitely anticipates Bill Clinton -- a compulsive womanizer, smooth as syrup, empathetic and egoistic, smart and dumb, doing good things for bad reasons.
Patricia Neal's character is no Hillary Clinton -- she protects Rhodes out of love and loyalty, not ambition and cynicism -- but she also plays the enabler/victim role that Hillary was forced into (an inevitable role for those who surround demagogues, I guess). As the creator of Rhodes' myth, she makes the courageous choice at the end of the film to pull the trigger on the myth. (The worst thing about the Clintons was not the sex or even the lying, but that they encouraged Americans to forget our healthy cynicism about politicians.)
The 1950s setting dates A Face in the Crowd, but its relevance is still obvious. Populist pandering has been part of American culture since Andrew Jackson, and it's still with us. In fact, the exploitation of flyover America has gotten ever more cynical -- what with Music Row and lowest-common-denominator TV and televangelists and George W. Bush (with his studied mispronunciation of simple words). Next time you feel like you're getting fooled again by a demagogue, rent this movie and get centered.
Run time: 126 mins
In Theaters: Saturday 1st June 1957
Distributed by: WARNER BROTHERS PICTURES
Production compaines: Newtown Productions, Warner Bros.
Contactmusic.com: 4 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 91%
Fresh: 21 Rotten: 2
IMDB: 8.2 / 10
Director: Elia Kazan
Producer: Elia Kazan
Screenwriter: Budd Schulberg
Starring: Andy Griffith as Larry 'Lonesome' Rhodes, Patricia Neal as Marcia Jeffries, Walter Matthau as Mel Miller, Lee Remick as Betty Lou Fleckum, Anthony Franciosa as Joey DePalma, Percy Waram as General Haynesworth, Paul McGrath as Macey, Rod Brasfield as Beanie, Marshall Neilan as Senator Worthington Fuller, Alexander Kirkland as Jim Collier, Charles Irving as Mr. Luffler, Howard Smith as J.B. Jeffries, Kay Medford as First Mrs. Rhodes, Big Jeff Bess as Sheriff Big Jeff Bess, Henry Sharp as Abe Steiner