Punchlines and Glamour: A Face in the Crowd Revisited

Still from “A Face in the Crowd.”

A Face in the Crowd is a classic example of a movie that has ripened over time. More or less a flop when it came out 60 years ago, winner of no awards despite Andy Griffith’s (yes, that Andy Griffith) and Patricia Neal’s superb performances, Budd Schulberg’s hard-hitting and literate script, and Elia Kazan’s seamless direction, the film is now seen by many as one of Kazan’s very best, rivaling even On the Waterfront, his other and more warmly received project with Schulberg.

The word that comes up repeatedly about the film is “prescient.” Made when television was still in its so-called Golden Age, Crowd predicts and depicts TV’s game-changing impact on American culture in general and electoral politics in particular. According to Kazan, he and Schulberg in the Red Scare era “were always talking about and looking out for native, grass-roots fascism. … We were both aware that television could be what it has, in fact, turned out to be, an almost hypnotic terrible force.”

Crowd is also a rare example of true, total collaboration, with Kazan and Schulberg commenting on and modifying each other’s work at every step, from the initial draft of the screenplay to casting to final edit. The two had something other than talent in common: they were both “friendly” witnesses for the House Un-American Activities Committee in the early 1950s. Both named names of fellow Communist Party members from the 1930s, thus saving their own careers from the Hollywood blacklist. Schulberg did it as quietly as possible, hoping that the memory of ratting out old comrades and destroying others’ careers would eventually fade. The more flamboyant and egotistical Kazan made the mistake of taking out an ad in the New York Times brazenly defending his actions, blaming McCarthyism on Communist secrecy, and characterizing the Party in J. Edgar Hoover terms as a “dangerous and alien conspiracy.”

As a result of this very public and self-serving apologia, Kazan became the best known of the cooperative witnesses and perhaps the most famous stool pigeon in American history. Old friends avoided him, sometimes forever, and 47 years later, when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences gave him a lifetime achievement award, a good proportion of the Oscar night attendees kept their hands apart during the aged and doddering Kazan’s moment of dubious glory.

Unfriendly HUAC witness and long-time blacklistee Abraham Polonsky said at the time: “I don’t like Kazan, but I try not to confuse my moral hatreds with my aesthetic hatreds. He made a lot of good pictures, so you could say he deserves an award for his work – I just wouldn’t want to give it to him. He was a creep. I wouldn’t want to be wrecked on a desert island with him because if he was hungry, he would eat me alive.”

That’s Elia Kazan: great artist, less-great human being. His story is in part one of personal equivocation and self-justification, but it also reflects the larger legacy of the McCarthy period, when a lot of people had to make terrible choices in a postwar world that seemed to have lost its black-and-white ethical delineations. It’s no coincidence that Kazan’s post-HUAC films exude ambivalence, or that his two collaborations with Schulberg have as theme the moral necessity of betraying one’s friends.

Budd Schulberg was a Hollywood princeling, the son of an early movie mogul. A gifted novelist and screenwriter, who as a youth had collaborated with F. Scott Fitzgerald on a movie project, he too came within HUAC’s sights and gave the committee what it wanted, trading integrity for career. Much of Schulberg’s work, like the 1941 Hollywood novel What Makes Sammy Run, is about the moral and spiritual cost of the American cult of success.

After Kazan testified, Schulberg sent him a sympathetic letter, saying he understood what he had gone through. The two cooperative witnesses, who retained similar liberal politics, joined forces to create Waterfront in 1954, with Kazan coaxing out a game-changing performance from Marlon Brando. Buoyed by the film’s success, the pair then decided to adapt Schulberg’s short story “Arkansas Traveler” into an epic movie about the American political situation in the television age.

“Arkansas Traveler” and ultimately Crowd originated in an exchange between Schulberg and Will Rogers, Jr., son of the entertainer and down-home wit. Schulberg was talking about his father, prompting Rogers – who was then running for congress on the strength of his famous name – to exclaim, “My father was so full of shit, because he pretends he’s just one of the people, just one of the guys … but in our house the only people that ever came as guests were the richest people in town, the bankers and the power-brokers of L.A. And those were his friends and that’s where his heart is and he [was] really a goddamned reactionary.” The conversation lodged in Schulberg’s memory, eventually morphing into the rise-and-fall story of hillbilly folksinger/TV star/quasi-fascist demagogue Lonesome Rhodes.

The film’s first act is a 1950s Horatio Alger story, as Lonesome hurtles from drifter and drunken jailbird wielding his “Mama Guitar” to free-wheeling, appealingly unpredictable small-town radio host to cornball TV personality to national on-air spokesman for “Vitajex,” a virility pill as phony as Lonesome’s own good ol’ boy ingenuousness. The second act depicts the transition of Lonesome from mere entertainer to sneeringly hypocritical political player, bringing to mind the career path of a certain narcissistic reality TV star of our own time. The third act is tabloid-style celebrity implosion, as Marcia, Lonesome’s discoverer, handler and sometime lover (played beautifully by Patricial Neal), seeing how corrupt and dangerous Lonesome has become, brings the whole construct crashing down by exposing on air Lonesome’s lacerating contempt for his audience.

In his autobiography, Kazan says he was “particularly proud of A Face in the Crowd, and still am.” But he wasn’t entirely satisfied with the way the tale shifted from biting, Brechtian satire to something more conventionally melodramatic. In an interview, Kazan said, “I think a picture that tries to do something as difficult as this picture has to be perfect, and I don’t think we were, not quite.” He found the work programmatic and one-sided, noting regretfully that “the character of Lonesome Rhodes was a puppet designed to show what a son of a bitch he was.”

He’s being hard on himself. It’s a terrific picture with few peers in its portrayal of the nature and power of the American media industry. (One is The Sweet Smell of Success, which came out within a month of Crowd and was co-written by Kazan’s old Group Theatre colleague, Clifford Odets.) Lonesome Rhodes is one of the movies’ great bad characters, thanks in part to a performance by Andy Griffith that is more maniac than Mayberry. Crowd remains not only a powerful cautionary tale, but also that rarity, a successful and sophisticated Hollywood satire.

Its problem is that it was ahead of the zeitgeist, leaving its audience more bemused than enlightened. Critical reception was mixed and off-kilter, with the New York Times reviewer observing that Lonesome’s character “builds up so swiftly that it is never made properly clear that he is a creature of the television mechanism and the public’s own gullibility.” In fact, these points are underscored, perhaps to a fault.

The movie brings together so many threads that continue to define American culture, capturing the interconnectedness of media, big business, advertising and politics and revealing how these come together to confuse and seduce the public into misunderstanding its situation and acting against its own interests. In a word, Crowd is about false consciousness – where it comes from, how it works, whom it serves. The movie takes us behind the scenes, so that we look directly at instead of through the unwinking eye of the bulky television cameras of the period, which, turn the living world into shadows on a screen. Deeper and deeper we go, as the film demystifies the business and political arrangements behind the image factory, with its agenda of conformity in service to ever-accelerating consumption.

A key element of the system is the pseudo-celebrity who lures the audience into a false intimacy, which in turn creates a group identity built around charismatic personality. This is also more or less the definition of fascism. What Schulberg and Kazan understood early on is that commercial TV exists to create a brain-deadening cult of celebrity, thus transforming the older and firmer world of articulated values, thoughts and ideals to a miasma of contentless, addictive images. They realized that a TV culture is a selling culture, subsuming quaint notions of civic virtue and public life to the hipper imperatives of fashion and private lifestyle. Whatever their political twists and turns over the years, Schulberg and Kazan remained incisive cultural critics. In TV they perceived the end of critical intellect as a force in American life and the final enthronement of the mass man, humored by pseudo-populist demagogues in thrall to the vested interests.

There are many disturbingly resonant lines in the film, as when the General – the industrialist and power-broker behind the Viagra-like Vitajex – says of his spokesman Lonesome, whom he wishes to turn into a pliable political instrument: “He’s merely popular – but Lonesome Rhodes could be made into an influence, a wielder of opinion, an institution positively sacred to his country, like the Washington Monument, I suspect. My study of history has convinced me that in every strong and healthy society from the Egyptians on, the mass had to be guided with a strong hand by a responsible elite. Let us not forget than in TV we have the greatest instrument of mass persuasion in the history of the world.”

It is astounding that in 1957, with HUAC still very much alive and CP members underground or in jail, a Hollywood movie could enunciate so precisely the radical critique of managed democracy, in which power is in the hands of the chosen few, supported by a cultural ideal of passive citizenship. In the General’s monologue we hear the patronizing voice of Edward Bernays, the man who created modern public relations by infusing the insights of his uncle Sigmund Freud into marketing campaigns that bypassed viewers’ ethical and rational capacity and plunged headlong into the national id.

Because of the painful psychological contradiction between theoretical equality and actual, experienced powerlessness, the system needs a mediating figure like Lonesome Rhodes, who, while siding with the elite, rhetorically and symbolically represents the common person. By muddling issues of class and power, and emotionalizing and oversimplifying complex issues, the demagogue provides cheap reassurance, thus defusing tension and anxiety.

We see this process at work when Lonesome tutors the right-wing, upper-crust Senator Fuller, a presidential candidate who is failing to gain traction with voters because his stiff, formal style makes for bad TV. When the new and improved Senator Fuller sits on a rustic cracker barrel in a Manhattan television studio and attacks Social Security and the New Deal in a folksy manner, complete with references to Daniel Boone, he’s leading viewers out of contemporary reality and into the mythologized world of 1950s TV westerns. It’s reactionary thinking with a common touch, aiming at the creation of a false unity, based on cultural clichés, between those who work for a living and those who profit from their labors. Schulberg and Kazan would have heard a fair amount of analysis along these lines during their time in the CP. (It should be noted that radicals and progressives, despite their animosity toward the two turncoat filmmakers, loved this movie, while conservatives universally hated it.)

If there is any sign of hope in this noir-tinted satire, it’s that it shows how self-consuming Lonesome’s cracker-barrel phony populism is on the human level. No one is more aware than Lonesome of his own emptiness, ignorance, isolation and basic fraudulence. The higher his ratings, the more he despises his audience for falling for his transparent machinations. For Lonesome, it’s all a cynical joke, as signaled by his trademark braying laugh, which is more demonic than joyful.

But the hollowness of his truth-less, narcissistic existence eats away at him. When Lonesome’s child-bride (played by Lee Remick in a slyly sexy debut) cheats on him with his sleazy manager – who owns 51 percent of Lonesome, including apparently his marriage bed – the TV star goes to Marcia for the last time, needing the balm of decency and sanity that only she offers. In her apartment, he reveals not only that his scorn for his viewers is based on his own self-loathing, but also that, in a dance of co-dependence, his viewers’ susceptibility to his toxic charm is rooted in their own sense of inferiority:

“The whole country is just like my flock of sheep. Rednecks, crackers, hillbillies, hausfraus, shut-ins, pea-pickers [perhaps a Code-acceptable translation of ‘shit-kickers’] – everybody that’s got to jump when somebody else blows the whistle – they don’t know it yet, but they’re all gonna be Fighters for [Senator] Fuller. I own ’em. They think like I do. They’re even more stupid than I am, so I better think for ’em.”

In the end, though, the movie is not optimistic. Its two creators, having abandoned their hopes for revolutionary transformation from below, seem to have developed a less than sanguine view of the average gal and guy. Other than the liberally educated Marcia and her writer-friend Mel (a mordant Walter Matthau), the American public as seen here consists mainly of middle-class opportunists and working-class chumps. Lonesome Rhodes may crash and burn, but as the film ends and the camera focuses on a gigantic neon Coca-Cola sign flashing away in the distance, we realize that some other demagogue will take his place and the media mill will grind on.

The movie has much to say about our current national predicament, as we move from the merely Lonesome to the truly Loathsome. It proffers a method for ridding ourselves of media monsters by revealing their authentic, concealed, hostile selves, thus breaking the spell that binds us to them. Donald Trump, though, reveals himself with abandon every waking hour, and grows only stronger in the eyes of true believers. Whence his Teflon coating?

In part, it’s his orange glow of wealth and privilege, placing him so high on the food chain that he appears immune to self-doubt and outward criticism. In a culture of denatured, secularized Calvinism, in which money in the bank is a sign of grace and hence of virtue, and the ultimate taunt is, “If you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich?” Trump’s opulence serves as armor against charges of fakery – armor that the white-trash Lonesome lacks. (This is likely the reason Trump is so loath to disclose his tax returns – less because of any conflicts of interest they might reveal than because they might show him as merely affluent, rather than the Midas of Mar-a-Lago.)

Trump’s other great strength is his salesman’s soul. Lonesome is ambivalent about shilling for others, humiliating the owner of a mattress factory that sponsors his show while massively bolstering his sales. Trump was born in position to shill only for himself, a cause he really believes in. In a commercial-saturated culture we are habituated to the hustle and have a grudging admiration for the hustler who is hungrier than the rest and more desperate to wheedle, please and tease us into submission. Like Lonesome, Trump pours his creepy, predatory sexual energy into his on-air persona. The effect is repellant but weirdly intriguing, at least to his followers and the media outlets that cannot get enough of him. Trump is the ultimate Method actor – always in character, performing himself. Every Tweeted whopper, tantrum, insult and outburst – and every outraged rejoinder by critics – strengthens his hold on the role of the fearless provocateur-in-chief, baiting a hated Establishment and staying true to his vain, batty, mercenary self.

When talking to Senator Fuller about how to humanize the politician’s dust-dry image, Lonesome scoffs at the idea that a candidate should earn the respect of voters:

“Respect? Respect?? Did you ever hear of anyone buying any product – beer? hair rinse? tissue? – because they respect it? You’ve got to be loved!”

For all his manifest hatefulness, Trump intuitively follows Lonesome’s advice. As an anti-politician, Trump offers only personality, not coherent programs. Reason, dialogue, history, facts are the tools of the devil Establishment, and he will have none of them. They only get in the way of his fuhrer-like pseudo-love that he offers to his audience, who themselves are in love not with Trump’s non-existent principles, but rather with the grandiose rich-kid entitlement that is his brand and which they can only dream of ever possessing, as well as with his preposterous billionaire-outsider stance, which articulates their accurate but inchoate sense that the game is rigged against them. In a mechanized, computerized, rationalized and atomized society, Trump’s infantile hyper-emotionalism and palpable need for attention and adoration look almost like sincerity, if you’re very alienated and squint hard.

“Politics have entered a new stage, a television stage,” says the General to his right-wing allies. “Instead of long-winded public debate, the people want capsule slogans: ‘Time for a change,’ ‘The mess in Washington,’ ‘More bang for the buck’ … punchlines and glamour. We’ve got to find 35 million buyers for the product we call Worthington Fuller.”

The General is right – we will not return to a Guttenberg era of syllogistic logic, artful oratory and nuanced analysis. We are indeed hard-wired by now for sound bites and click bait, as our swirling, frenetic electronic environment reduces the average American’s attention span to less than that of the average goldfish. Crowd demonstrates how a boob tube culture greases the path to Trumpism, that rancid amalgam of economic royalism and cultural faux-populism.

What is the answer to Trumpian xenophobic populism? We know now that it’s not the militant anti-populism of the Hillary Clinton campaign, a billion-dollar, consultant- and data-driven fiasco that only served to highlight the candidate’s reflexive condescension and lack of overarching message or purpose. The more furiously she marketed, the less she communicated; the more effort expended on outreach, the more impermeable the bubble around her. Every word she spoke in that steely manner seemed to imply that the non-Rhodes scholars and non-Law Review editors out there were wrong in their central perception that the future is not on their side.

A pure product of the educational and professional meritocracy, Hillary Clinton could not acknowledge without imperiling her own identity and self-esteem that the world may show itself as less fair or benign to those who work for a wage rather than a salary or retainer. The system must be basically just: after all, it had rewarded her own hard work so bounteously. And it would achieve its final, diversity-kissed perfection by making Hillary Clinton – the female avatar of a patriarchal system – president, just as it had made a man of mixed race and multicultural background the genial face of embedded white privilege.

Voters saw that her allegiance to the system was much deeper than that of Trump, the leering confidence trickster who believes only in universal avarice. Indeed, the central irony of the election is that Republican candidate Trump, the arrogant plutocrat who has made an art of chiseling customers and employees, revealed a keener sense of the realities and indignities of class than did his Democratic opponent. It’s no wonder that Trump bested Clinton among white men who had not graduated from college by fully 49 percent (72 to 23 percent, according to exit polls) and non-college-graduate white women by 28 percent. Maybe if Hillary Clinton, like Senator Fuller, had hired a Lonesome Rhodes type to give her lessons in common-touch charm, she could have lessened this margin. But it’s unlikely she would have tolerated his pretension-poking, non-Ivy League presence near her person.

Only one rival seemed to worry Donald Trump. That was Bernie Sanders, the iconoclastic leftish populist who also appeared to have some inkling of the injuries and injustices of class. What used to be known (prior to Bill “NAFTA” Clinton) as the Democratic Party’s blue-collar base preferred Sanders, but the party hierarchy did not share the love. By tilting the contest toward the candidate with more baggage than a dozen Kardashians, the insiders indicated that they saw Trump’s quasi-fascism as less of a threat to the status quo and their own cozy situation than Sanders’ rather mild brand of New Deal social democracy. A generation ago, Democratic Party and organized labor hackdom did a similar number on George McGovern’s campaign. Blunting and co-opting progressive uprisings: this is what the DNC does best, working overtime to keep the world safe for capitalism.

The fact that A Face in the Crowd gets better and truer with age is proof that we still live within the political-cultural paradigm it depicts. We see how pseudo-populism works, as the demagogue inevitably unites with the Establishment he ostensibly opposes, inviting a backlash of even more hysterical resentment, paranoia and rage. Until it is confronted by a serious and well-organized movement of progressive change that speaks to issues of class, concentrated corporate power and systemic inequality, the party of regressive pseudo-change will continue to capture the incandescent anger that is out there and push society ever farther to the right. Whatever happens personally to the erratic, half-cracked Donald Trump, Trumpism has been unleashed in all its telegenic nihilism, turning American politics into a sinister reality TV show that will be canceled only when we recognize and stand up to the forces that sponsor and produce it.

Hugh Iglarsh is a Chicago-based writer, editor, theater critic and film buff. He can be reached at hiiglarsh@hotmail.com. This essay is an expanded and revised version of a “Teach-in” talk given in April 2017 at Facets Multimedia. With gratitude to Facets director Milos Stehlik for inviting me to present this great movie for our time. 

Hugh Iglarsh is a Chicago-based writer, editor, critic and satirist. He can be reached at hiiglarsh@hotmail.com.