Saturday, April 6, 2013

Director Spotlight #13.13: Elia Kazan's A Face in the Crowd

Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. This edition’s director is one of cinema’s finest directors of actors, Elia Kazan.

NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the film in question.

Grade: 95/A

“I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore”. No doubt most readers will recognize that famous line from Network, Sidney Lumet and Paddy Chayefsky’s masterful film about the media, its control over society, and the people who control it. But while Network is the most famous film to deal with the dangers of the media, it’s hardly the first. In 1957, Elia Kazan and his On the Waterfront collaborator Budd Schulberg teamed up again for A Face in the Crowd, a prescient satire on America’s faith in folk heroes, the devolution of politics into bite sized slogans, and the true power television has in shaping the social consciousness. The film drew mixed reviews and was ignored by most awards bodies, but the years have been kind to it, and A Face in the Crowd stands as one of Elia Kazan’s greatest accomplishments.

Marsha Jeffies (Patricia Neal) runs a local Arkansas radio show called “A Face in the Crowd”, and one morning she goes to the county jail to see if she can find anyone of interest. She meets Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes (Andy Griffith in his film debut), an alcoholic drifter who agrees to sing a song for the program so long as he’s let out of jail. The listeners love his folksy attitude and raw singing voice, and soon enough he and Marsha are swept up by a Memphis television show, where Rhodes becomes a bigger hit and eventually becomes a national sensation. Marsha falls in love with him, but the Memphis show’s writer Mel Miller (Walter Matthau) is more skeptical, and with reason. Soon enough, Marsha and Mel learn of Rhodes’ womanizing, his ego, his cynicism, and his hunger for power as secrets about his past trickle out and he starts pulling the strings of a presidential candidate.

Kazan uses most of his favorite tricks- deep focus and close-ups to emphasize realism and heighten emotional moments- but what’s striking about A Face in the Crowd is how confident he is in his performers. More often than not, he allows Griffith to overwhelm the frame, whether he’s in someone’s face or he’s on television and the camera can barely keep up with him. Griffith is one of America’s most beloved icons, but we get a much coarser version of his folksiness here- a braying laugh, a tendency to sweat and leer at women, and a more irreverent attitude towards small towns than most were probably used to at the times. Much of the credit in the details goes to Schulberg, who had a great ability to pick up on how people interacted in any given region, and Kazan, who captures the easiness of small towns, the heat of the south, and the bustle of backstage business. But Griffith’s performance is a real ace in the hole, unpredictable, hilarious, and often frightening.

That isn’t to say that the rest of the cast isn’t excellent as well. Neal was another one of the great talents from Kazan’s Actors Studio, and her work as the film’s protagonist is remarkable, dynamic work. Marsha starts out as a well-educated but still folksy small-town woman who’s just as enamored with Rhodes as anyone else. Kazan makes great use of close-ups to show Neal’s expressive face, often filled with a barely repressed sexual longing for Rhodes that finally boils over just as he threatens to leave. But while Neal makes her relatable and likable, she also captures Marsha’s greatest faults- intense jealousy, gullibility, alcoholism, and vindictiveness when her relationship with Rhodes starts to go south.

The supporting cast is largely excellent as well, from Lee Remick as a teen whom Rhodes takes up with to Anthony Franciosa as a sleazy manager who brings out Rhodes’ worst tendencies, but Matthau is the strongest of the bunch. The actor specialized in playing everymen of various stripes, and Mel might be one of his most interesting: the educated everyman. Mel is no elitist, and he’s as taken in by Rhodes’ charm as everyone else, but he also displays skepticism about the superstar’s intentions earlier than the others. A Face in the Crowd is Kazan’s most cynical film, but it’s a healthy brand of cynicism, and Mel is the first one who brings it. He’s the one who reminds us to ask whether or not what we see on the surface is a lie, and how it might affect everyone if we don’t ask these questions.

Kazan plays with a number of his old tropes- a plain white dress for Marsha, emphasizing her purity; common men who fight for public interest- only to subvert them, revealing more complicated, often nastier characters beneath the surface. We first get the idea that Rhodes isn’t all he seems after he and Marsha leave Arkansas on a train for Memphis- the crowd has gathered to say fond farewells, but as the train pulls away and Rhodes waves, his aside that he’s glad to leave “that dump” reveals that something is amiss. We get clearer ideas after he starts giving into sponsorships, despite his earlier proclamations that he’d rather have his pride. He signs on to sponsor Vitajex, an essentially useless pill, as he claims that it’ll rejuvenate certain parts in men. Kazan then uses a brilliant montage filled with singing women in skimpy (for the time) outfits, sexualized cartoons, suggestive graphs, and Rhodes’ own sexual charisma to show just how much cynical exploitation of sex plays in the advertising game.

Marsha soon becomes Kazan’s darkest, most depressing expression of his interest in alienation. Possessive of Rhodes after he marries the teenaged Remick, she screeches at him that “’A Face in the Crowd’ was my idea- it belongs to me! And I’m going to be an equal partner”. She knows it’s turned into a cynical exercise, but she can’t help but use it to her advantage even as it does little more than turn her into a sad, lonely drunk, sitting in shadowy bars. Mel seeks her out, appealing to her fury, her sense that she’s been betrayed, and her genuine decency when he claims he’ll expose Rhodes for the fraud he is with his new book, Demagogue in Denim. But Marsha’s too hung up on Rhodes to stop.

That title for Mel’s book is an awfully sharp laceration of both Rhodes and America’s tendencies to put its faith in folk heroes. On the surface, Rhodes is a man who undercuts pretensions, speaks to common sense, and stands up for the common man- a Will Rogers for a new era. But he has backers who he’s willing to lean on and even control as he gets more powerful. He makes appeals to women, saying that they have it harder than most, only to womanize and take advantage of young girls. He uses his folksy attitude to leverage for more money. He appeals to religion, but even Marsha notes that she’s never even seen him hold a Bible. Everything about him screams folk hero, but he benefits from corporations in a way that none of his salt of the earth followers can.

A key scene shows his first meeting with Mel, whom he derisively refers to as “frontal lobe” and “Vanderbilt ‘44” (after Mel’s alma mater). Mel does nothing but try to support Rhodes at first, but he’s an intellectual, something that Rhodes responds to with nothing but vitriol.  It’s indicative of the truth behind Rhodes- he wants a less educated public so that he can take advantage of them more easily, as he does as he supports an isolationist reactionary (Marshall Neilan) running for president. He teaches the country club type businessman to act ignorant, appeal to Rhodes’ ignorant flunkie Beanie (Rod brasfield), and to invoke Daniel Boone’s name when knocking Social Security. He is Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, and Ronald Reagan long before any of those false folk heroes exploited public ignorance for personal gain.

The film does bring Rhodes’ downfall in a moment from Marsha that’s motivated as much by her personal problems with Rhodes as with her guilt over his power. When she flips a switch to let Rhodes’ opinion that his viewers are “his flock of sheep” and “dumber than I am”, it all comes crashing down. She’s wrought with conflicted feelings, knowing that she’s ruined a man she still loves to some degree but also that she did the right thing, and as she collapses over the sound board, sobbing, the film reaches its emotional peak. Kazan uses a great expressionist montage of an elevator going down to symbolize Rhodes’ plummeting ratings, all while using faces of real people reacting to the monster’s true feelings about his viewers. And then things get really ugly.

Kazan had used fascistic imagery earlier in the film to emphasize Rhodes’ power, but there’s something even more disturbing (if darkly funny) about a drunken, desperate Rhodes in his penthouse, ranting to a crowd of no one like a folksy dictator as Beanie uses an applause machine to create a synthetic audience for his mad friend. A high shot of him looking down at Marsha is equally effective. He’s got one follower left, so he thinks, but she’s utterly horrified at what she’s created, and her rebuke of him is a final straw. Or so one might think. But as Mel illustrates, “peoples’ memories aren’t too long”. Rhodes will be back, even if he never gains the same popularity. One can only have hope that those with heads on their shoulders can keep in mind that no famous man, however common he might seem, is without his dark secrets. “We get wise. That’s our strength”.

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