A Face in the Crowd is perhaps Elia Kazan’s greatest work, and it is most certainly his most prophetic. The awful truth about Kazan is that he became a better director after he named names in the HUAC witch-hunt. He initially pleaded the Fifth Amendment, but in his second testimony he sang—and he also became more interested in the grey areas of the stories he told. He was never remorseful, unlike Sterling Hayden, for example, in whose face you can see the pain when he discusses it in interviews. In his autobiography, Hayden wrote: “I don’t think you have the foggiest notion of the contempt I have had for myself since the day I did that thing.” Kazan has always claimed that the eight people he named as Communists, including Clifford Odets, were already known to HUAC so it didn’t have any real effect, but that’s beside the point—that’s just him justifying his despicable actions.
In the aftermath of his testimony, Kazan becomes friends with the writer Budd Schulberg, who had also named people in his HUAC testimony, and they decided to work together. Their collaboration culminated in Kazan’s two best films: On The Waterfront and A Face in the Crowd. Both men were ex-Communist Party members who still were committed lefties, and that was reflected in their work together, Kazan had become something of a darling of the right due to his testimony. But if the right thought Kazan might be on their side, A Face in the Crowd cemented the fact that he wasn’t.
Andy Griffith, who was essentially known as a stand-up comedian at the time, plays Lonesome Rhodes, a drunken white trash drifter with a guitar. The character was loosely inspired by Roy Rogers. Rhodes is plucked out of a jail cell to sing on the radio, and due to his charisma he soon gains local, regional and eventually national attention with his folksy charm. His ascent to stardom is helped by radio and television, and it’s a biting critique of media manipulation for ratings. Rhodes initially seems like an innocent drunk, but as the film progresses it peels away the act, and you see him as this malevolent monster of a man. His newfound celebrity makes all his worst impulses possible, and he has eyes set on political power.
When A Face in the Crowd came out in 1957, it received a mixed response, often on ideological grounds… the right hated the film, and the left embraced it only so far due to Kazan’s involvement. But it has gained in reputation in the years since, and was the forerunner of future films like Network and Spike Lee’s homage Bamboozled with its biting critique of media complicity and control. Griffiths had a long career, but only had a little over a dozen roles in cinema. Fittingly (or ironically) he would find stardom in the medium of television. The cast of A Face in the Crowd also boasts great performances from Patricia Neal, Walter Matthau and, in her film debut, Lee Remick (when I see her on the screen I never get the Go-Betweens’ first single out of my head…)
For today’s viewers, it’s impossible to watch A Face in the Crowd and not see Donald Trump starring back at you: Rhodes even ends up in a very Trump Tower-like penthouse. However, another contemporary comparison would be Jordan Peterson, with his folksy bigotry and mass cult following, and his deliberate manipulation of primarily young men with his platitudes on free speech, anti-political correctness and individualism. You’ll find that he doesn’t actually believe in free speech or individualism if you dig into his beliefs and actions. He is a textbook grifter who is conning people and often getting his hands on their money (he was making 60 grand a month from donations on Patreon till he left the service) and clearly has contempt for his audience, much like Lonesome Rhodes at the end of the film.
The comparison to Trump is valid, but unlike Rhodes he hasn’t had that comeuppance moment, not even after saying “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters,” nor after infamous Access Hollywood “Grab them by the pussy” tape, but hopefully it’s coming. However, he is also somebody who works that perceived outsider appeal like Lonesome Rhodes, even if he is the definition of an “insider”. He was always a “celebrity,” but it wasn’t till his reality show The Apprentice that his brand and personality become a staple of television viewing for so many Americans.
The disc Criterion has compiled includes interviews with Ron Briley, author of The Ambivalent Legacy of Elia Kazan, and Andy Griffith biographer Evan Dalton Smith, who gives context on the director and star. The old 30-minute documentary from the Region 1 Warner Bros. DVD is also included, along with the theatrical trailer. The booklet includes an essay by critic April Wolfe, excerpts from director Elia Kazan’s introduction to the film’s published screenplay, and a 1957 New York Times Magazine profile of Griffith. The cover art is by Marc Aspinall and is one of the best from Criterion in recent years which perfectly sums up the maniacal performance Griffiths gives.