If I mention the name Andy Griffith, you’re probably going to think of The Andy Griffith Show or Matlock. Well, before Griffith gained success as the affable and wise Sherriff Andy Taylor on the Andy Griffith Show during the early 1960’s, he made his film debut in Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd, also starring Patricia Neal, Walter Matthau, and a very young Lee Remick in her film debut. The film was released in 1957, and though it initially received mixed reviews, Griffith’s performance is so spellbinding and so different from his other roles, that the film might just leave you in a little shock. The other actors’ performances are strong too, but Griffith’s role is such a departure from the roles that made him a household name, that if you’re like me, and you grew up watching either The Andy Griffith Show or Matlock, you might be speechless when you see his performance.
Marcia Jeffries, played by Patricia Neal, hosts a radio show called “A Face in the Crowd,” where she interviews people from different walks of life. While visiting a jailhouse in Arkansas, she meets Larry Rhodes (Griffith), who is a drifter and a drunk. He reluctantly agrees to be on her show. From the moment he starts sharing his stories and playing his guitar, Marcia sees that Rhodes is special and that he could have a bright career in radio. After his release from jail, Rhodes becomes a regular guest on Marcia’s show as “Lonesome Rhodes.” His knack for storytelling and quick wit make him an immediate success. Listeners adore him and eventually he starts getting deals to do bigger shows, including television.
The success, however, starts to change Rhodes, or rather, it reveals the darkness of his character. His immense popularity is so sudden that as a result, he starts to feel invincible. He becomes egotistical, unpredictable, and disloyal. He shows little respect for his sponsors and investors, but there is little anyone can do to reach Rhodes. Matthau’s character as staff writer, Mel Miller, sees Rhodes clearly before anyone else does. He tries to warn Marcia, but she loves Rhodes and she’s the tether that keeps Rhodes grounded. Rhodes genuinely cares about Marcia, but his lack of control and detachment prevents him from truly loving or caring about anyone too deeply. For example, he promises himself to Marcia, but then immediately afterwards runs off with a 17-year-old baton twirler (Lee Remick). His string of betrayals eventually catches up to him, and he pays a hefty price. Whether or not he will ever really overcome his fall remains unclear, even at the end of the movie. As Walter Matthau’s character speculates, Rhodes was too famous to completely disappear from celebrity status but Matthau felt that Rhodes would never reach the great heights he once achieved.
Surprisingly, A Face in the Crowd received mixed reviews because some critics felt the ending was anticlimactic. I didn’t. And now the movie is a considered by many critics to be a critical success. Schulberg’s ending to this film is realistic. The original story was written in 1953, when a scandal could end a career. However, Schulberg expresses the darker side of humanity. The cream does not always rise to the top, and not every villain is consumed by flames. Fame and money are leverages in society, especially in today’s society, which means some people can get away with bad behavior for which other people would be punished. Rhodes’ character is very reminiscent of some of the high profile controversial celebrities we see today. Celebrities are often rewarded for scandal. Scandal equals fame and fame equals money and money equals power.
Budd Schulberg wrote the screenplay for A Face in the Crowd. The film is based on his short story, “Your Arkansas Traveler.” Schulberg experienced a very interesting and successful career trajectory as a writer. During WWII, he worked for a wartime intelligence agency, and he was one of the first servicemen to free the victims in the concentration camps. Schulberg went on to write many Hollywood movies, such as the critically acclaimed film On the Waterfront, for which he won an Academy Award.
A Face in the Crowd launched Andy Griffith’s career and it showcased incredible acting from Patricia Neal, Walter Matthau, and Lee Remick. Neal’s portrayal of the modest and sensitive Marcia is the perfect foil to Rhodes’ bombastic personality. This movie offers an important lesson about life. Double standards do exist, and, at least in this country, celebrities are our royalty. They are not invincible, but they are often treated with a much gentler hand.