The sheer number of films released each year guarantees that some of them will appear to predict certain aspects of the future, but while Blade Runner (1982) foresaw digital billboards and Minority Report (2002) envisioned advertising targeted directly at individuals, other predictions reach beyond technology and consumer products. Network (1976) is probably the most often mentioned on that count as it forecast the rise of profit-oriented, yellow journalism, but Elia Kazan’s A Face In the Crowd (1957) deserves a similar recognition and respect. It not only anticipated the power television would have in influencing the public’s response to entertainment personalities and politicians but as mentioned in think pieces several times over the past few years, it also captures the rise and fall of someone like presidential candidate Donald Trump. Well, it predicted his rise anyway — the prophecy falls apart in its naive belief that the American people would turn their collective back on the man once his true face was revealed.
The film introduces viewers to a radio producer named Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal) who’s on the hunt for a personality capable of holding listener attention for a few minutes of airtime. She finds a man named Rhodes (Andy Griffith) in a small town drunk tank, and while he’s an ornery jerk at first, he quickly reveals a talent for spinning folksy yarns and plucking a guitar. Marcia sees something more in him too, and soon he’s hosting his own radio show and amassing an ever-growing audience.
Rhodes — nicknamed “Lonesome” by Marcia after he refuses to provide a first name — is hailed for telling it like it is and speaking common sense, and he finds fans across all types of people. The working middle class love him for his willingness to criticize the establishment and acknowledge their needs, and minorities are thrilled to see him address their existence and relevance as well. Corporations and the wealthy are equally excited as a few words from him can increase their profits. Lonesome can compel the masses towards his bidding, and it’s not long before millionaires with political ambitions come calling.
He’s hardly a mere puppet, though, as what strikes some as integrity is actually just a combination of ego and irrationality. While Lonesome berates and mocks one advertiser, he happily toes the line for another — his disinterest in both is equal, but he’s a man moved only by his own interests and whims. Efforts by Marcia and others to learn more about his early life are met by elusive and circular answers to their questions, but still, his popularity rises. He’s not unaware of his growing cult of personality, and the more he goes off script the more the people respond.
While his handlers, including the Koch brother-like General Haynesworth (Percy Waram), are unable to fully control him they still recognize the power he holds. Haynesworth taps Lonesome to help a GOP presidential candidate with a charisma deficiency, and it works. The politician climbs in the polls as the American people follow Lonesome’s lead, and soon the entertainer turned influencer is being promised a new cabinet position as Secretary of National Morale.
Marcia’s growing awareness of who he really is — a liar, a cheat, a womanizer, and a man who will always put himself first — is blinded by her own romantic interests, but fearing a near future where his whims could hold the president’s ear or even where Lonesome himself could be president, she decides to act. As the end credits and music roll over his live television show, she flips the audio to Lonesome’s microphone and broadcasts him talking to a group of young men he’s trying to impress. Suddenly, TV viewers hear Lonesome’s true self as he mocks the politician he’s been bolstering as well as his own audience. “This whole country’s just like my flock of sheep,” he says before going on to call his fans trained seals. “I can make ’em eat dog food and they’ll think it’s steak,” he says with a smile. “Goodnight, you stupid idiots.”
He doesn’t mention grabbing women by their genitals, but it’s clear he thinks he has the American people in the palm of his hand all the same.
It’s here where fiction and reality diverge. Audiences in the film react as you’d expect and hope — they immediately turn on Lonesome. Calls flood the TV station from both lower and middle-class listeners understandably offended by his words and behavior. Wealthy benefactors abandon him equally as fast as he’s dropped from advertising contracts and shunned by the political elite, and just like that, he’s finished. His rage sees him lash out at those around him including the use of a racial slur towards a trio of black servants, and he’s left screaming alone into the empty night.
Real Americans, though, reacted quite differently when gifted with similar revelations. They heard the vile things Trump said when he thought the mics were off and saw details about his past lies, comments, and actions — and then voted him into the White House. “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose voters,” he said in early 2016, and while he never tested the theory, we’ve little reason to doubt the comment’s accuracy.
There are differences between Lonesome and Trump, but they’re specific to their lives rather than their behavior and demagogue-like personas. One grew up poor while the latter was born to wealth, Lonesome moved into entertainment and then business while Trump did the opposite, but both used those stepping stones as an entrance into politics. Both appealed to the masses with their lack of a verbal filter and their appearance as outsiders ready to shake things up, and lies were their everyday truths as they created a cult of personality built on a false image. Where Lonesome invents an “applause machine” — think a sitcom’s laugh track — Trump exaggerates crowd sizes and audience numbers, and both prefer the misdirection of a sound bite over the detailed and informed message.
Kazan and writer Budd Schulberg were sincere in their belief that Americans would wake up and do the right thing in the presence of the truth, but while audiences of the 1950s might have — with the emphasis on “might” — audiences of today failed to rise to their level. No, not all Americans, obviously, but while the film shows a reaction of universal disdain for Lonesome’s true self, enough real-world Americans carried Trump into the most powerful position in the world. They valued the validation and voice he gave to their racial and economic concerns above all else, and nothing else mattered.
The closest the filmmakers get to acknowledging our rubber-band morality when it comes to celebrity comes courtesy of a writer for Lonesome’s show played by Walter Matthau. After all is said and done, he tells Lonesome that the American people have a short memory and that he’ll probably be back on TV after a cooling off period in one form or another. Add this to everything else Kazan, and Schulberg got right as evidenced by the open arms extended to the likes of Rob Lowe, Chris Brown, Louis C.K., and others after their assorted behaviors saw them temporarily vilified. We presumably have our limits when it comes to celebrity forgiveness — sorry Bill Cosby — but it’s an embarrassingly long walk getting there.
A Face in the Crowd remains a masterpiece of American cinema and a film that prophesied the worst of us while hoping for the best. We’re easy marks, and Kazan and Schulberg suggest that given all the information we’re also capable of recognizing and correcting our errors in judgment. It’s not news that television is “the greatest instrument of mass persuasion in the history of the world,” but at a certain point one would hope enough of us would wise up to its illusions and empty promises. The camera may or may not add ten pounds, but how do we measure the false appearance of integrity, honesty, and morality? And, ultimately, will we even care to?
The Criterion Collection’s release of A Face In the Crowd is new to Blu-ray/DVD and available at Amazon, and while it’s a must-own for the film alone it’s also worth it for the inclusion of two new interviews and a retrospective doc from 2005.