A Face in the Crowd: American Character

Elia Kazan can be and has been called many things: a cinematic genius, an actor’s director, a womanizer, a government stoolie, an uncompromising artist and three-time Academy Award winner. But whatever your opinion of his personality, his temperament, or his choices, you have to admit that—given the ways his body of work and his biography reflect the kind of fraught, paradoxical nature we in the States have never been able to help but mythologize—he is probably the most American director of his time. In the searing 1957 satirical drama A Face in the Crowd, Kazan and writer Budd Schulberg gave us the most potent distillation imaginable of the love-hate affair Americans have with the people who charm and hurt and swindle us. This parable about a small-town con man who attains the power to sway the nation to his whims is America: our fanaticism, whimsy, and desire for elusive authenticity at the expense of our souls. And now, as we watch the rise of real-life faux-populist demagogues around the globe, the message at the heart of this film, despite the wry humor that still keeps it afloat, is often too truthful to bear.

A Face in the Crowd not only predicted the outsize role of television as influencer in chief in American culture but also issued an overt warning: the hucksters will swarm to this new medium, and, try as you might, you may not be able to resist their enticements. It’s not as though consumers had never been bamboozled before TV; we Americans have always embraced our hustlers, as long as they’re willing to put some sweat and tears into the hustle. Our self-mythologizing about “bootstraps” lends itself to an appreciation for the sheer effort in the art of hucksterism, perhaps because our national history is itself a long con in which unattainable hopes of ascent or escape are peddled to us for a small monthly fee. But with the advent of television, we invited the snake-oil salesman off the street corner and right into our homes, and Kazan and Schulberg found this both exciting and supremely disturbing—consider that only 12 percent of homes had had a TV in 1950 and that by 1957 that number had soared to 80 percent.

Schulberg had published “Your Arkansas Traveler,” the short story on which his script for A Face in the Crowd would be based, in 1953, a year before the release of his first collaboration with Kazan, On the Waterfront. In the story, Schulberg gives us, in the words of Marcia Coulihan, the local-radio host and producer who discovers Lonesome Rhodes, this vivid early description of the lowly drifter whose power to manipulate and sway his devoted audiences will soon become apparent:

He’s big and he’s western . . . He’s kind of big all over, like a husky fullback three years after he broke training. He’s got a ruddy, laughing face, the haw-haw kind. He must be well into his thirties, but he’s boyish. He stands there in an unpressed brown suit and cowboy boots, shifting from one foot to another, shy-like, though something tells me deep down he is about as shy as a bulldozer.

In the film version, Schulberg introduces Rhodes as an overnighter at the local jail, a self-professed “tumbleweed boy” whose “Mama Guitar” travels with him across the South. While the film’s Rhodes can passionately belt the blues, the short story depicts him as a storyteller who wields a cigar-box-and-piano-wire guitar but only as a prop—Kazan had made room for actor Andy Griffith’s musical talents.

This was Griffith’s first film role, after earning a degree in music and starring in plays and musicals. But his ease onstage wasn’t his only Rhodes-esque quality. Griffith, a native of North Carolina, had capitalized on his homespun, folksy delivery as a comic monologuist in his early career, including recording in 1953, under the name Deacon Andy Griffith, a best-selling comedy album titled What It Was, Was Football, a twisty, good-natured story about a country preacher perplexed by a college football game, full of asides and tangents and vivid descriptions that could have oozed like syrup from Rhodes’s own mouth. In A Face in the Crowd, as you watch Griffith segue from one cracker-barrel anecdote to the next, oscillating between golly-gee humility and wistful cowboy wisdom, you get the undeniable sense that this actor was born to play this character.

That is not to say the role was easy for Griffith. Kazan frequently assigned him homework. “I would get up in the morning and study,” the actor told entertainment journalist Ray Bennett in 1986. “I had pretty well learned the whole script before we started; I like to do that if I can. I’d get up, and I would try to guess the colors [Kazan] wanted. He always wanted about twelve more than I had imagined. He would tell me what he wanted, and then he’d say, ‘Now, go off and prepare.’” Griffith found that the necessary preparation increased exponentially as the character became more and more grandiose. In the throes of filming the final sequence, in which Rhodes becomes a full raving madman, Kazan had to resort to methods beyond the Method. In a 1974 interview with Michel Ciment, the director said, “I had him drunk all through the last big scene, because it was the only way he could be violent—in life, he wants to be friends with everybody.”

Opposite Griffith, Patricia Neal is magnetic as Marcia Jeffries (renamed from Schulberg’s story), who stumbles on Rhodes in a rural northeast Arkansas jail cell while recording her show A Face in the Crowd and then must attempt to corral him, lest he destroy them both on his rise to fame. Every time the guffawing monster she has created boils over into buffoonery or violence, it is Marcia’s face, open and serene even when it is watchful, that brings him back to room temperature. Kazan smartly holds on these moments, when Marcia and Rhodes gaze deeply into each other’s eyes, searching for what they may be able to exploit in the other. She is his tamer, his enabler, and eventually his lover. Her eyes glimmer with hope and fascination, driven by blind curiosity to see how far this hayseed can travel on the wind. As author Foster Hirsch once said to Neal, “The film is in your eyes.” It is through Marcia’s perception of Rhodes that we first fall in love with him, then come to understand his monstrosity.

By the time Neal was cast as Marcia, at the age of thirty, Hollywood had already chewed her up and spit her out once. A trained theater actor with a husky voice and an undeniable presence, Neal had been born in a Kentucky coal-mining town, and carried with her a ruggedness that never quite fit the typically refined and feminine roles she was given in her early screen career—New York Times critic Bosley Crowther even once called her manners “gauche.” It was as though Hollywood hadn’t yet come up with a role worthy of her unique talent for playing unvarnished women. So in 1952, Neal returned to her first home, the stage, with a production of The Children’s Hour, and was met with adoration. It was after he directed her onstage in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof that Kazan asked her to play the dauntless and brashly charming Marcia. Neal fully embodies this woman who can jaw with the men as a peer and exudes unconscious confidence. At times, Marcia slouches, her posture imperfect and unromantic, but even when she makes her body diminutive, she still owns the screen.

Every performance in A Face in the Crowd is idiosyncratic and impeccably real: Walter Matthau personifies intellectual cynicism as the nerdy, exasperated Mel Miller, and Lee Remick (in her first film role) bursts onto the screen with impish and contagious appeal as the baton-twirling Betty Lou Fleckum. And many scenes teem with faces and bodies, Kazan using deep focus so that the background actors’ expressions are visible and vivid throughout. The repeat viewer of A Face in the Crowd becomes a participant—it’s possible to make a different choice about what to see in a frame each time. Many of the extras who layer these shots with meaning and humor were pulled directly from the town of Piggott, Arkansas (fictionalized as Pickett in the film), where some of the location shooting was done.

Kazan and Schulberg took up short-term residence in Piggott for research and then were joined by some members of the cast and crew for part of the production—Remick, a New Englander, even lived with a local family for a time to study southern diction and the art of being a majorette. Kazan said later that he and Schulberg had each eerily become the kind of local celebrity they would be lampooning in the film, gaining special access to the community, even being welcomed by the mayor and the governor. “Everywhere I walked in Piggott, people were following me,” Kazan said. “It was like we had the whole town under the reverse of martial law! As though we had liberated the whole town.” 

The preproduction research Kazan and Schulberg undertook extended beyond location scouting to investigate the shamelessly intertwined relationships between advertisers, entertainers, and politicians. They went to Washington to talk with people in politics about television’s impact on campaigning, and sat in on creative meetings at the Madison Avenue ad agency that handled the Lipton tea account. Kazan remembered being amused by the admen’s serious debate over how to visually represent the word brisk in commercials. “The discussions were really ludicrous; you could hardly keep a straight face at them,” Kazan said. “But as well as the ridiculous side, you could feel the intense, neurotic pressure they all worked under.” This research found its way into the film in the form of a commercial for a product called Vitajex, a pill composed solely of dextrose, aspirin, and caffeine but hawked as if it were Viagra. 

In the commercial, beautiful, scantily clad women croon about the benefits of the pills, then a pinup girl sits up in bed and clasps a comically large Vitajex bottle to her ample bosom. This miracle product promises its users virility and preys on men’s insecurities, while the strapping Rhodes assures them that it certainly works for him. It’s a vivid illustration of the way the cons of the modern consumer-political landscape are most readily swallowed by those most insecure in their own identities. (Consider that a 2018 New York University study showed a correlation between men whose online searches include terms like “erectile dysfunction,” “hair loss,” and “testosterone,” and those who vote for swaggering alpha figures.) Like the faux cowboy George W. Bush and the showbiz “folk” hero Ronald Reagan before him, Rhodes isn’t selling results so much as a false sense of security.

Schulberg’s inspirations for Rhodes were homespun politicians and entertainers like Huey Long and Will Rogers, but especially radio and television host Arthur Godfrey. In his heyday in the forties and early fifties, Godfrey had been the consummate pitchman. His monologues were extemporaneous, meandering but endearing, and he projected for his audience an image of veracity, primarily by frequently assuring the folks at home that they could in fact trust him. (It never stops being surprising how effective this tactic of convincing one’s followers of a claim simply by repeating it over and over can be.)

Schulberg was fascinated by Godfrey, who somehow sustained his career even after his popularity waned as a result of a series of embarrassing on- and off-air incidents that belied his wholesome image. Matthau’s Mel Miller, a kind of avatar for Schulberg, caps the film with a speech that reflects the writer’s mistrustful view of such a man, conceding that Rhodes will likely be back on television eventually, even after being abandoned by his fans. “People’s memories aren’t too long,” Mel says. This may be the hardest-hitting insight in the film, that Americans love a rehabilitation story. It helps explain how a businessman who has done nothing but fail at business could come to star in a reality television show that claims to teach success and business savvy. Or how a loony ex–vice presidential candidate like Sarah Palin could parlay a sound defeat into a career as a media personality, or how male entertainers who’ve finally been disgraced after decades of sexually harassing women could be given op-ed-column inches in which to plead their cases mere months after their ostracism. We crave a good comeback.

One also can’t help but wonder whether Kazan and Schulberg were contemplating their own public falls from grace in the making of this film. Both had testified in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee (Schulberg in 1951, Kazan in 1952), naming names of friends and former collaborators who had belonged to the Communist Party, and had seen their reputations and relationships suffer as a result. Their creative partnership grew out of the pain and the professional vacuum that came from being shunned by people they had worked with in the past; Kazan reached out to Schulberg, and they began collaborating on Schulberg’s script about dockworkers in New York City, undertaking an intensive research process that anticipated what they would do for A Face in the Crowd. They met with a longshoreman who had stood up to the criminal mob that controlled the dockworkers and their union and had then named names in testimony before the commission charged with investigating the corruption that governed the docks. In using his story to inform Marlon Brando’s character in On the Waterfront, writer and director saw a way to make a film with a liberal and proworker but anticorruption, antisecrecy message, which many at the time and since have naturally read as a defense of their own HUAC testimonies. 

But in its own way, perhaps, A Face in the Crowd can be read as a less defiant apologia, or at least an illumination of how deeply individual lives can be affected by the influence of television—the same medium that had enabled Senator Joseph McCarthy to intensify the red scare that had caused such upheaval in Kazan’s and Schulberg’s careers (and ruin for so many others) is what allows Lonesome Rhodes’s ego to run amok on such a monumental scale. The movie was not positively received or reviewed, and Neal would later say she felt that wasn’t because people didn’t like it but because they didn’t want to see Kazan and Schulberg succeed. Despite the film’s satirical and over-the-top elements, many critics now consider it one of Kazan’s most personal works. With its pinpointing and examination of such a peculiar fault in our country’s DNA, perhaps it’s also the most American of his films—even more so than America America (1963), the story of a poor Greek man who dreams of immigrating to the United States, or the director’s final movie, the F. Scott Fitzgerald adaptation The Last Tycoon (1976), a drama consumed with the ins and outs and trivialities of Hollywood. Interestingly, Kazan later said he’d come to feel that he and Schulberg had made Rhodes too comically evil, in their depiction of him as a megalomaniac lulling himself to sleep in a high-rise penthouse with the raucous applause of an imaginary audience.

To call A Face in the Crowd prescient wouldn’t quite be accurate. That would suggest that the American phenomenon Schulberg’s script and Kazan’s film capture hadn’t been with us from the beginning. This is a country where two-bit entertainers have frequently joined the political class, buoyed by name recognition and charisma alone, and it’s perhaps the only developed nation in the world where this happens so often. Americans today might like to think we are on to bilkers and crooks like Rhodes, that we can see a con for a con. In 2010, Neal sat down at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood for a postscreening discussion of A Face in the Crowd. The audience was asked: “How many of you seeing Lonesome Rhodes on TV would trust him or be drawn to him?” The response was only a smattering of applause. Later that year, season 10 of The Apprentice premiered on NBC.