A chilling classic about power and persuasion that is very much a statement on the world today
One aspect of films I find fascinating is the fact they stay the same while we change, yet when you watch a film over time, it seems to change. “A Face in the Crowd” is a perfect example of this phenomenon. This brilliant film, which was a cautionary tale at the time it was made, has turned into an enthralling and chilling in-depth look at our world today of politics and media. Without spoiling the film, it is the tale about the dangers and consequences that ensue when a dishonest entertainer inherits fame and power and enters politics. When I first watched this film decades ago, its power and extraordinary depth evaded me. The film was made just after the McCarthy Era had ended (which I talk about towards the end of the “High Noon” blog post). During that time the. “House Un-American Activities Committee” (HUAC) interrogations were being televised, and “A Face in the Crowd” was a warning about mixing politics with television. A character in the film describes TV as the “greatest instrument for mass persuasion in the world”.
Viewed today, the film’s themes are so relevant it is frightening: the invisible seduction and dangers of fame and power; how the need for power makes truth irrelevant; the blurred lines between entertainment, business and politics; how everything becomes a facade for obtaining more and more control; how the public can easily be manipulated by someone morally bankrupt who plays by their own rules with no real regard for the people; once the trust of the people is gained, you can make them do just about anything; personality sells over substance; and I could keep going. It is such a fully rounded and detailed character study, that it is grippingly mind boggling to watch today. I guess humanity doesn't change very much after all. Just like one of its themes, the film blends fact and fiction, using names of actual newspapers and magazines, and having real people playing themselves in cameos - all of which place the story into the real world. “A Face in the Crowd” is a powerful reflection on where we are and where we want to go. Let me emphasize that as dark as it may sound, the film is highly entertaining and captivating, with tremendous performances and first class direction.
“A Face in the Crowd” was directed by one of the world’s superlative film and stage directors, Elia Kazan (nicknamed “Gadg”). Known as an actor’s director, he always worked closely with his actors, and managed to extract incredibly rich emotions and behavior. Scores of actors did their best work in his films (his films contain 21 Academy Award nominated performances with nine Oscar wins), and he introduced to the big screen so many brilliant actors such as James Dean, Eli Wallach, Eva Marie Saint, Lee Remick, Jo Van Fleet, Andy Griffith, and Warren Beatty, to name a few. His films were personal, and regularly revolved around social issues or injustices. A film had to mean something to Kazan or he wouldn’t make it. Like many at the time, when he was young he had joined the American Communist Party and then left it. In 1952, when he was Hollywood’s #1 film director, Kazan was twice brought to testify before HUAC. With the threat of losing his career and being blacklisted, he named names of others who were party members, knowing they would be blacklisted. He later said it was the least painful of two horrific choices, since he thought there was a real threat to the US from communists. He felt it was his duty to give names (evidently, he gave names of people HUAC already knew about). What hurt him the most amongst those blacklisted and his Hollywood peers, was that he put an ad in the New York Times a few days later defending what he did and urging others to speak up as well. The entire episode hung on him like a scarlet letter for the rest of his life to one degree or another. One interesting result was that afterwards, his already penetrating and daring work became even more bold, provocative, and complex, and "A Face in the Crowd" is an example of that.
Born in Istanbul,Turkey, Elia Kazan moved to New York when he was eight. In the 1930s Kazan started as an actor in New York City and soon joined the Group Theater, a company which produced plays with social and political themes. He began directing their plays in the mid 1930s, becoming quite successful. He hit it big directing three Pulitzer Prize winning plays on Broadway: Thornton Wilder’s “The Skin of Our Teeth”; Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire”; and Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman”. In 1947, he founded the Actors Studio (which I talk a bit about in the “A Place in the Sun” post) and often worked with Method actors. Kazan directed his first feature film,“A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” in 1945, and would direct 19 features, including many supreme classics such as "Gentleman's Agreement", "East of Eden", "Baby Doll", "Splendor in the Grass", "America America”, “Wild River” and two films I consider among the greatest ever made, “Streetcar Named Desire” and “On the Waterfront”. Additional Kazan films will be featured on this blog in upcoming posts. He won two “Best Director” Academy Awards out of seven career nominations, and was awarded an additional honorary Academy Award for his body of work in 1999. I remember watching him receive his honorary Oscar on TV. He got a standing ovation, of sorts. Still snubbed by many in Hollywood, some in the audience didn’t stand or even applaud. For some reason I particularly remember actor Nick Nolte sitting with his arms crossed and an unhappy look on his face. No matter what you may think of Kazan, his work was unparalleled. For Kazan’s stage work he won three Tony Awards out of seven career nominations. He was married three times, including once to actress Barbara Loden. Elia Kazan died in 2003 at the age of 94. He is one of my favorite directors and his films are always an exciting adventure to behold.
Elia Kazan often worked closely with playwrights and screenwriters, and “A Face in the Crowd” is no exception. The film’s screenplay was written by Budd Schulberg. The son of a film producer, he started as a novelist and wrote a then scandalous book about the inner workings of Hollywood titled "What Makes Sammy Run?”. He too was a former member of the American Communist Party, was called to testify before HUAC, was a “friendly” witness, and named names. Schulberg met Elia Kazan as a result of them both testifying, and is best known for his first collaboration with Kazan in 1954’s “On the Waterfront” for which they both won Oscars (“Best Writing, Story and Screenplay” for Schulberg and “Best Director” for Kazan). “A Face in the Crowd” was based on one of his short stories. He wrote for television and films, and is most remembered for his two collaborations with Kazan as well as the Humphrey Bogart film “The Harder They Fall”. Budd Schulberg died in 2009 at the age of 95.
“A Face in the Crowd” marks the film debut of Andy Griffith, who stars as “Larry ‘Lonesome’ Rhodes”. Not an easy undertaking for your first time out, and Griffith is exceptional. He was more of a comic at the time, never having studied acting. Seeing him in a play, Kazan thought he had a quality right for “Lonesome” and once again Kazan’s instincts were accurate. Griffith is arrestingly believable on all levels in a very difficult and complicated role. Perhaps his real life naiveté with acting and filmmaking was a blessing, as despite “Lonesome’s” malevolence, he exudes innocence. Griffith’s comic side also helps counter the manipulative demigod he portrays. Kazan worked so well getting Griffith to conjure emotions for the character, that Griffith reportedly started to become somewhat like “Lonesome” on the set. Perhaps that is why he didn’t portray such a dark character again until about two decades later, and is mostly known for playing likable, folksy types. Andy Griffith studied music early on and could play the guitar and sing, and does both very well in this film. He worked almost exclusively in television after “A Face in the Crowd”, working from 1957 until 2009, most famously as the star of two classic TV series “The Andy Griffith Show” (from 1960 until 1968), and “Matlock” (from 1986 until 1995). He appeared in just a handful of films including "No Time for Sergeants", "Waitress" and "Spy Hard”. Though atypical for him, his performance in “A Face in the Crowd” stands out as the most intricate and perhaps finest acting work of his career. He was married three times. Andy Griffith died in 2012 at the age of 86.
Patricia Neal who stars as “Marcia Jeffries”, is also outstanding in the film. I talk more about Patricia in my film #7 post about “The Day the Earth Stood Still”. Always a great actress, her portrayal in “A Face in the Crowd” grounds the film and is pivotal as to why the film works so well. She carries a cautious vulnerability, and you can sense emotions bubbling deep inside her, be it longing, conflict, hope, despair, ambition, love or hate. We feel for her character, and since “Marcia” has feelings and hope for “Lonesome”, so do we. It keeps us, like her, waiting for the good news to arrive. Neal has credited Elia Kazan with being an important influence in her career, and her best onscreen performances begin with this film. She is simply fantastic!
Kazan had a knack for discovering new talent - either totally new faces, or actors who weren’t quite yet known. “A Face in the Crowd" has three actors in smaller roles that would go on to become big stars, and Anthony Franciosa (sometime billed as “Tony”) is one of them. As the sleazy “Joey DePalma”, Franciosa does a fine job representing ambition and corruption in the film. “Joey” is everything “Lonesome” becomes, but without the facade. Anthony Franciosa began his career on stage, hitting it big in the Actor’s Studio production of “A Hatful of Rain” in 1955 (directed by Kazan), for which Franciosa received a Tony Award nomination. “A Face in the Crowd” was his second film, and his third was the film version of “A Hatful of Rain”, for which he would receive his one and only Oscar nomination (for “Best Actor”). Franciosa was known for having quite a temper and for being difficult. Although he became a star, perhaps that is why he didn’t become as big and important a star as he probably could have. He even once notoriously kicked a photographer, which cost him ten days in jail. I believe he had the most interesting and best roles early in his career, and from the 1960s on he appeared mostly in television as well as some lesser films. He worked until 1997. Some of his other noteworthy films include "The Long, Hot Summer", "The Swinger", "The Naked Maja, "Wild Is the Wind", and "Period of Adjustment". He was married four times, including once to actress Shelley Winters, who appeared on Broadway with him in “A Hatful of Rain” (I wrote about her in the “A Place in the Sun” entry). Anthony Franciosa died in 2006 at the age of 77.
“A Face in the Crowd” was an early, small, but meaty role for actor Walter Matthau who would go on to become a huge star. In “A Face in the Crowd”, Matthau portrays “Mel Miller”, the cynical guy who represents clear headed truth. There is a simple straightforwardness to his character, who doesn’t fall prey to deception, and he is a refreshing contrast against just about everyone around him. Walter Matthau would become known for playing funny, deadpan, gruff but likable types, and for those of you familiar with his work, this role may seem unusual. However, at the beginning of his career he portrayed darker more serious roles (even villains) until people realized he could excel at comedy. Walter Matthau started in theater and began appearing mostly in television beginning in 1950. "A Face in the Crowd" was his fourth film. He would continue to work primarily in television throughout the 1950s, landing more film roles in the 1960s, becoming a big star from the late 1960s onward. He was a success in the Billy Wilder film, “The Fortune Cookie” opposite Jack Lemmon (I talk about Wilder in the “Double Indemnity” post). Matthau would win a “Best Supporting Actor” Academy Award for that film. It was the first of eight movies he made opposite Jack Lemmon, with whom he had such playful chemistry. Matthau would go on to receive two more Oscar nominations in his career, both for “Best Actor” (one for "Kotch" and one for "The Sunshine Boys”). He appeared in a lot of classic films, among those not yet mentioned are "The Odd Couple", "Hello, Dolly!", "Cactus Flower", "Plaza Suite", "The Front Page", "The Bad News Bears", and "Grumpy Old Men". He garnered just over 100 acting credits to his name, working up until his death. For his work on Broadway he won two Tony Awards, along with a third nomination. He was married twice. Walter Matthau died in the year 2000 at the age of 79. I loved him as a kid.
The last very notable actor in the film that became a big star (and top notch actress) is the beautiful and extremely talented Lee Remick, who plays “Betty Lou Fleckum”. “A Face in the Crowd” marks her film debut. Like her other cast members, she is perfect in her role, and brings a youthful beauty and somewhat devilish quality to her portrayal. She even worked at baton twirling for the role. This Oscar, Emmy and Tony Award nominee began her film career playing sexy and seductive women, usually with some sort of edge. Later her roles were less about her looks and more about her inner workings. Lee Remick first appeared on television in 1953 and her breakthrough film role came in 1959 with the classic Otto Preminger film “Anatomy of a Murder”. She worked again with Kazan in “Wild River” opposite Montgomery Clift in 1960. Remick continued to appear in television along with films and theater her entire career (mostly appearing in television from the 1970s on). Some other classic films she appeared in include “Days of Wine and Roses” (for which she received her one and only Academy Award nomination, for “Best Actress”), “The Omen”, “The Long, Hot Summer”, "The Detective", "A Delicate Balance", "Baby the Rain Must Fall", "The Wheeler Dealers", and "Experiment in Terror”. She was married twice. Lee Remick died in 1991 at the age of 55. I’m a gigantic fan of Lee Remick!
Like many other films considered classics today, “A Face in the Crowd” was not very well received upon its first release. Despite its magnificent script, directing, and performances, it didn’t receive a single Academy Award nomination. This powerfully engaging film can be understood so much more profoundly today than in 1957, as it provides an eerily detailed and accurate depiction of our world’s current state of affairs. So get ready to watch a very intriguing film that will make you think and feel. Enjoy “A Face in the Crowd”!
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