A Face in the Crowd

“There’s Nothing as Trustworthy as the Ordinary Mind of Ordinary Man.” 

So readeth a banner on the wall of Lonesome Rhodes. Lonesome himself is on the balcony, raving like a Tom Waits-voiced Tarzan about how the people listen to him, because the people love him, because he is the people and they are Lonesome. He’s playing to an empty house, his own empty penthouse, lonely and cavernous, wrapped in sinister shadows. But his friend Beanie is laying on the applause – loud and often – on a machine that Lonesome, himself, invented. It applauds him and laughs with him and oohs and ahs at his wise sayings. He starts to sing that he’s ten thousand miles from home, but he breaks off. He’s breaking down. 

What is this madness? A face in the Crowd, directed by Elia Kazan in 1957 is a remarkable, odd, oddly contemporary film. It tells the story of Lonesome Rhodes (Andy Griffith in his screen debut), a drunken drifter picked up in a jail by an eager Sarah Lawrence graduate (and all that that implies) played by Patrica Neal. She records him for a radio show on the voice of the common people, called Face in the Crowd. He charms her, and the recording she makes of his banter and songs sparks a following. He’s irreverent and folksy. He becomes a star, a personality, first in Arkansas, and then throughout the country.

In New York his show is sponsored by Vitajex, a placebo that he sells as a libido-enhancer in a Big Lebowski-esque dream sequence. The CEO of Vitajex loves his brash style and the ever-increasing sales it produces, and introduces him to a man running for senator, a tepid, aristocratic person with conservative feed-the-rich values. Rhodes sells him as a man of the people. He gives him him the folksy nickname “Curly” and proves with frightening effectiveness that performance and image are more important than values or ideals. Like much of the “tea party” movement, like Trump at his rallies, Sean Hannity claiming to be a “stinky Walmart shopper” (what is he actually saying here?), or Mehmet Oz awkwardly buying crudités as though he’s never been to a grocery store in his life, these men peddle a lie of populism with the motive of keeping “the common man” ignorant, poor, and manipulable.

And as A Face in the Crowd shows, the purpose of the deception is more cynical and sinister than gaining votes. The businessman funding the lie persuades Rhodes that the elite class are genetically superior, and that it’s their duty to tell the lower classes how to think and feel. To put it in Trumpian terms, rich people have better genes, and are constitutionally smarter than poor people. With a staggeringly blind eye to all of the systems built into our history to keep poor people poor, and to keep rich people like Trump rich, with a nauseating sense of entitlement, he mused, “And I said to myself, if they can stay so poor for so many generations, maybe this isn’t the kind of person we want to be electing to higher office. How smart can they be? They’re morons.”

In the beginning of the film, Rhodes is irreverent towards the company that endorses him and suspicious of any commercial enterprises. He appeals on the air for all of his listeners to help a woman whose house has burnt down. By the end he’s on TV, exchanging quips with his senator about the evils of social security, and thinking of his audience, the crowd, the ordinary people, only in terms of the money, votes, or adulation they can give him. He’s seduced by the idea that he could become one of the elite, that he could guide the thinking of the masses, become an “influencer.” He’s funded by the Koch brothers of the day, to tell people what to buy, and to vote for the guy who will keep them poor, suspicious, and under-educated. He’s an ordinary person, but some people are more ordinary than others.

The film’s themes are startlingly relevant today: the intersection of commerce, politics and entertainment; the cynicism of the entertainment industry about the intelligence of their audience. Towards the end of the film, Patricia Neal’s character recognizes the monstrosity of the creature she’s created, and she leaves the mic on while he talks to his lackeys about his contempt for the “idiots” who adore him. “Those morons out there? Shucks, I could take chicken fertilizer and sell it to them as caviar. I could make them eat dog food and think it was steak. Sure, I got ‘em like this… You know what the public’s like? A cage of Guinea Pigs. Good Night you stupid idiots. Good Night, you miserable slobs. They’re a lot of trained seals. I toss them a dead fish and they’ll flap their flippers.” People are offended and betrayed. His career crashes, his friends and lovers and sponsors leave him, and he’s back where he started, ten thousand miles from home, and he doesn’t know where to go.

Kazan made A Face in the Crowd to examine the destructive influence of television and the entertainment industry on politics. How depressed he would be today to see how much worse it has gotten. Reality TV and twitter have lowered the discourse and raised the temperature to such an extent that it’s easy to lose any sense of the humanity underneath it all. The anonymity of internet interaction has allowed for a complete erosion of any sense of decency in our politics or our conversations. What frightening new ways we’ve discovered to sow discord, and to exploit ignorance and fear.

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