Now I've never been one to believe the hype that the 1950s was the greatest time in American history. I think it's a shared delusion: "the time I grew up was the best". But A Face on the Crowd really puts the nail in the coffin of the 1950s being a better, simpler time. I had a chance to see it at the screening at the Dryden.
Andy Griffith plays Larry Rhodes: a hard-drinking egomaniac. We're introduced to him by Marcia (Patricia Neal) who finds him in the town jail (for being a drunk). She's there on a visit for her radio show highlighting the common man called "A Face in the Crowd." It turns out the radio audience is charmed by this man who refuses to give a first name, inspiring Marcia to improvise that he's called "Lonesome" Rhodes. And once news the radio station's ratings have improved because of that interview, they snatch him up on his way drifting out of town and give him his own show.
From there he quickly ascends to Nashville then New York and becomes a national TV presence. All the while, he plays up the act of being a simple country boy as he's courted by members of Congress and the wealthy elite to spread their unpopular and self-supporting ideas. None of it matters much to him, as it all serves to fulfill his sociopathic needs, making him a powerful voice: to the people.
The film spares no one. The entire government is predicated on elite like Senator Fuller, who believes his ideas for how "things should be" are so perfect as to usurp the beliefs of the supposed democratic masses. When Lonesome gets to judge a baton-twirling contest, he takes a 17-year-old bride home; all the while, men in the crowd leer like horny wolves at the taut little bodies and maleable young minds dancing before them. All anyone is interested in is jeir own interests: not a soul cares for another human being.
The whole thing comes off as cynical, but I'd say it's just the presentation that is cynical; it portrays an unflinching view of the truth. In Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, the same kind of truth is told, only through a sympathetic lens: all parties are working for things to be as good as they can be, but every person is making compromises to do so.
But the joy of the film, for all its cynicism, is the details. Walter Matthau plays Mel, a writer for Lonesome's TV show. When we meet him in the writer's room, the wit is quick and clever, and the mood is of martyrdom. It's a perspective that shows a certain honesty, and implies the necessity of the environment. By that, I mean that kind of writer of that kind of show needs the alienation and martyrdom to foster the bay of solitude within the tumultuous showbiz ocean that would otherwise serve only as distraction.
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