Monday, April 18, 2011

A Face In The Crowd (1957)

A wonderful, gritty (especially for its time) depiction of a small-town country bumpkin who, despite his surly, alcoholic nature, becomes a national country star and moral compass. The film shows how the opportunistic producer, played by Patricia Neal, who coddles and nurtures the lost, but talented "Lonesome" Rhodes, digs her own grave by giving the volatile, thoroughly undeserving superstar her full idolatry and attention. Despite the urgings of others from inside Rhodes' camp, she refuses to save her public and personal dignity by sticking with Rhodes, and overlooks his monstrous ego, careless nature, and apocryphal hypocrisy for the small, fleeting moments of tenderness and weakness he exhibits towards her. The depiction of this moment in post-WWII Americana, which we tend to look at through Nick-at-Nite goggles, a admiring the sexless, raceless, prosperous suburban bliss, is revealing and merciless in a way that few movies, particularly Hays Code-era films, were able to achieve. These are not characters to idolize, emulate, or identify with; even the most morally upright "good guy" of the piece (played by Walter Matthau, of all people) only emerges unscathed due to his mostly passive, and, one might say, cowardly nature. The "Star is Born" ill-fated celebrity trajectory is painfully rendered, as Rhodes' small-town beginnings lend itself so perfectly to his average American persona that it is easy to see how his more crude, selfish tendencies are swept under the rug for ratings and commercial spokesman gigs. And the key factor in making these sort of grand, ambitious themes work is the central performance by television star, Andy Griffith.

Thankfully, or unfortunately, Griffith's pristine, stalwart figure he cut out during his 8-year run on the Andy Griffith Show (which came 3 years after this film) has defined his public image in the years since, which makes his feral, uncompromising role in this picture all the more shocking. He drinks, spits, and smokes with none of the over-the-top staginess so common in pre-1960 cinema. He barks out the worst bile imaginable at all his loved ones, and then successfully, and convincingly, coddles up to Neal nearly immediately after. And when he sings, we, just like everyone else, are transfixed at his ability to vocalize his rawest emotions through his country twanging. He never sang like this on the show, and it defines his stage persona within the film so well that, once offstage, his character is allowed to be biggest bastard he can, because once he is performing, all is forgiven. Had the singer been a more clean-cut, Ricky Nelson type, the film would have dated horribly, but with Griffith's musical touch, the film never loses its luster, nor is the viewer reminded of the terrible laws that kept American cinema intellectually castrated until the Vietnam era. The other performers, thankfully, are capable enough to keep up with Griffith's bravura turn: Patricia Neal is unrelentingly sympathetic, even at her weakest, Matthau (as a fellow producer) cuts a simultaneously understanding and bluntly realistic figure, and Lee Remick, as Rhodes' underage wife (Rhodes' persona has shades of Jerry Lee Lewis), is appropriately wide-eyed and reverent. The dialogue, the music, and the staging (particularly the open-floor TV studio scenes) are all remarkable, involving, and evocative. Elia Kazan, whose On the Waterfront and The Last Tycoon I really enjoyed, achieves a raw power unseen in much of his other work; there are no odd, forced innuendos or double entendres here.

Highly Recommended. This movie is more relevant in today's gossip-hungry, celeb-worshipping culture than it was in those pre-internet, pre-Us Weekly, and pre-Vietnam days, when successfully feigning innocence and integrity to millions of people was only mildly impossible.

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