A man rises to power by appealing to middle America only to become corrupt by corporations and politicians, and behind closed doors, badmouths all those that support him. Sound familiar? Surprisingly, no, this is not about our current political situation here in the United States. A Face in the Crowd is a film from 1957, written by Budd Schulberg and directed by Elia Kazan, and stars Andy Griffith as Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes, the above mentioned man who rises to power. The film also stars Patricia Neal as Marcia Jeffries, Walter Matthau as Mel Miller, Lee Remick as Betty Lou Fleckum, Rod Brasfield as Beanie and Anthony Franciosa as Joey DePalma. The film continues to remain unsettlingly relevant today for two main reasons: A Face in the Crowd is a critique of the American media and it’s about the corruption of celebrity.
To start, the American media is what creates Lonesome Rhodes. He’s discovered in a jail in rural Arkansas by Marcia Jefferies and she puts him on her radio show. Lonesome is received well by those in the town and is soon given his own hour long show, which quickly leads to a television show. The media has given Lonesome a platform, and the public loves him. Here’s where the first switch in power comes in. Lonesome Rhodes now holds power over the television station. They need him to bring in ratings. He doesn’t necessarily need them, as any television network would take him at this point. He had also been offered commercial deals with corporations. Deals that he took, and helped to grow their brand. Thus making the corporations, mainly Vitajex, also rely on Lonesome. Because he built their product up in the public eye and he could tear the product down. People will listen to him.
Throughout this power shift from media to Rhodes, Rhodes begins to entangle himself with some shady characters, like Joey DePalma, an assistant who quickly becomes Lonesome’s agent. He is driven solely by money.
Vitajex product sales and show ratings go up and up making Rhodes somewhat indispensable. By the time those running Vitajex realize that Rhodes is becoming uncooperative and unpredictable, politicians are seeking out Rhodes, thus entangling the three.
Fuller, a presidential candidate, uses Lonesome as a coach. Fuller needs to appeal more to middle America and, as far as he’s concerned, Lonesome has his finger right on it’s pulse. And, he does. But, only because that’s the narrative the media chose. Rhodes decides to use his influence to promote Fuller, a conservative politician, regardless of if he agrees with him or even thinks his ideas are good. All he knows is that, because of his show, his viewers will listen and do whatever he tells them, and Fuller has promised to create a new Cabinet position for Rhodes: Secretary for National Morale. During this process, Rhodes attitude becomes worse and worse because of those he has surrounded himself with, those who are influencing him. Even his new wife is nothing more than business, when it comes down to it. It’s all to further his narrative of being a down to Earth middle American man.
However, there’s a power switch again. Joey DePalma puts it simply: “As much as the people love you tonight, they can hate you in the morning.” The media has circled back to the ones being in control. Rhodes has become everything he speaks out against, and if his public were to find out, Rhodes would lose all the pull he has with the people. And, if he has no pull, he has no political aspirations or business aspirations. The irony here being that the media had created this monster and now, they can end him just like that. And, that’s just what happens. In proper fashion, the woman who discovered him, Marcia, is the woman to destroy him.
Now, let’s look at this film as a message about the corruption of celebrity. Lonesome Rhodes is ultimately the maker of his own undoing. After landing on the radio, Rhodes soon realizes the kind of influence he has over people. It all starts off innocently enough. He persuades the towns people to take their dogs to the sheriff’s house, as he’s running for mayor, to see if he can handle the job of Dog Catcher. After all, in Lonesome’s home town of Riddle, Arkansas, they had the village idiot be the dog catcher and he did that job just fine. He then persuades the children of the town to go swimming in the radio station owner’s pool, and again, everybody listens to him. The popularity of his radio show gets him a spot on television in Memphis, Tennessee, where, again, he uses his popularity with the people to do some good by calling for donations to help a woman who has seven children and whose house burnt down. Even though this is a harmless way to use his popularity, it makes him realize more and more just how influential he is.
Very quickly, Rhodes gets a commercial for his show, Luffler’s Mattresses. However, he finds that being honest with his viewers instead of reading a written commercial works best for him. This causes Luffler’s Mattresses to briefly pull out of the agreement until they realize that their sales are up by 53%. So, that begins their toxic business relationship.
Thanks to Joey DePalma, Rhodes lands another sponsorship deal, this time with a “vitamin” called Vitajex. The pill doesn’t actually have any health benefits. But, Lonesome proposes that the company change the color of the pill to make it more inviting and then he can fabricate the effects of the vitamin in order to sell more. Simultaneously, Vitajex’s sales go up, as does Lonesome’s show ratings. And, soon, money and ratings become Rhodes’ top priorities.
Lonesome Rhodes, at this point, has effectively made his viewers believe that he is the same as they are. He is “middle America”. We even see citizens wearing buttons that say “I am Lonesome”, further connecting them to him, even though he is no longer like them. To push this agenda even further, Rhodes marries Betty Lou Fleckum, a southern girl who he met while judging a baton twirling contest in the south. Marcia puts it the best way possible:
Betty Lou is your public, all wrapped up with yellow ribbons into one cute little package. She’s the logical culmination of the great 20th-century love affair between Lonesome Rhodes and his mass audience.
We watch as Rhodes quickly becomes all the things he used to hate.
Just as Vitajex begin to see that Lonesome Rhodes is unpredictable and uncooperative and therefore could easily destroy their business, he gets involved with several politicians. These politicians use Rhodes as a coach of sorts, to teach presidential candidate Fuller how to get the vote of middle America. Rhodes informs him that there is no line between politics and entertainment, that “politics is people”. Then, in an important moment for the audience to understand how Rhodes’ brain works, he talks about his friend Beanie, who he knew from Arkansas way back when. Rhodes views Beanie as an imbecile. He uses Beanie to judge what is working on his show and what isn’t. Because, if Beanie, an imbecile, doesn’t like something, then Lonesome’s 65 million viewers won’t like it. Because that is what he has come to think of his audience. He thinks they are idiots who will hang on to his every word.
Here is where Rhodes’ fame begins to destroy him.
He soon discovers that his wife is sleeping with his manager, Joey. And, before Rhodes can say anything to him, Joey reminds him that he owns 51% of the stock for Lonesome Rhodes’ empire, and that he could destroy him with a snap of his fingers. Because Rhodes can’t do anything about his manager, he “fires” his wife, Betty Lou, and sends her back to Arkansas. He uses that exact word, further proving that so much of his “life” is for show and to push the idea that he is the people’s person.
Rhodes continues to grow his ego with the promise of a new cabinet position (Secretary for National Morale) , should Fuller become the President-Elect. This furthers Rhodes’ confidence that he can do no wrong and that people will love him no matter what he does.
Just picked up another million. This whole country’s just like my flock of sheep. Rednecks, crackers, hillbillies, hausfraus, shut-ins, pea-pickers – 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 Fuller’. They’re mine! I own ’em! They think like I do. Only they’re even more stupid than I am, so I gotta think for ’em. Marcia, you just wait and see. I’m gonna be the power behind the president – and you’ll be the power behind me!
Finally, after telling Marcia how he has her to thank for everything, she let’s Lonesome show who he really is, by turning on his mic when he thought it was off. His viewers hear what he really thinks of them. They hear how he really feels. And, by the time Rhodes reaches the bottom floor from the elevator, his career is over and he doesn’t even know it.
It’s not until later at his place, where he was supposed to have a banquet to announce more for the Fuller campaign, that he finds out everybody has cancelled. Everybody he knows is distancing themselves from him as quickly as possible. Rhodes realizes that nobody needs him and he’s back down at the bottom. Does he learn the lesson of “don’t bite the hand that feeds you”? I don’t think so. What’s to become of Lonesome Rhodes? Mel Miller, one of the television writers, says it perfectly:
Suppose I tell you exactly what’s gonna happen to you. You’re gonna be back in television. Only it won’t be quite the same as it was before. There’ll be a reasonable cooling-off period and then somebody will say: “Why don’t we try him again in a inexpensive format. People’s memories aren’t too long.” And you know, in a way, he’ll be right. Some of the people will forget, and some of them won’t. Oh, you’ll have a show. Maybe not the best hour or, you know, top 10. Maybe not even in the top 35. But you’ll have a show. It just won’t be quite the same as it was before. Then a couple of new fellas will come along. And pretty soon, a lot of your fans will be flocking around them. And then one day, somebody’ll ask: “Whatever happened to, a, whatshisname? You know, the one who was so big. The number-one fella a couple of years ago. He was famous. How can we forget a name like that? Oh by the way, have you seen, a, Barry Mills? I think he’s the greatest thing since Will Rogers.”
Lonesome Rhodes is destroyed by his own doing. He allows the fame and money to inflate his ego until it burst. The media turned him into a huge sensation they couldn’t do without and, when their monster got out of control, they quickly killed him, leaving a wreck of a man calling out for the only person who ever truly cared about him and his well being: Marcia Jefferies. She continues to blame herself for everything. But, Mel speaks these words of wisdom to ease Marcia: “You were taken in, just like we were all taken in. When we get wise to him, that’s our strength. We get wise to him.”
63 years later and we, as a society, have not learned the lesson this film teaches. Putting people on pedestals and giving them such power is dangerous because it can corrupt even those who have good intentions. Combining corporations, politics, and entertainers can lead to some toxic relationships and some serious consequences. But, just remember: When we get wise to him,that’s our strength. We get wise to him.