A Face in the Crowd (1957)
"A Face in the Crowd" charts the rise of a raucous hayseed named Lonesome Rhodes from itinerant Ozark guitar picker to local media rabble-rouser to TV superstar and political king-maker. Marcia Jeffries is the innocent Sarah Lawrence girl who discovers the great man in a back-country jail and is the first to fall under his spell.
Marcia Jeffries is the creator and on air host of a local northeast Arkansas radio program called "A Face in the Crowd", where she finds the common man to perform on air. For the show, she finds a country drifter name Larry "Lonesome" Rhodes, whose improvised songs and straight from the heart talk - often anti-establishment - captures the imagination of the radio listening public. But as Lonesome's fame increases - which includes becoming a regional television personality to a national commentator of social good to a political adviser to an aspiring politician - his true nature comes to light, that of a vain, self-important man who has contempt for the public, who he believes he can manipulate into thinking anything, and anyone who stands in his way. Conversely, many are wanting to get whatever pound of flesh they can from Lonesome. Marcia is there with him as he navigates through his rise to fame, but she may have some say in what ultimately happens in his life, especially as it starts to affect her.
Larry 'Lonesome' Rhodes is in jail when radio personality Marcia Jeffries interviews him and has him sing a song for her weekly radio program. He proves to be quite popular with his homespun humor and decidedly populist song lyrics. He soon has a radio show of his own that becomes so popular that he gets his own television show. Soon everyone wants a piece of him with ships and buildings being named after him. He rises to the occasion and comes to very much enjoy the attention and the power that he has. He begins to exercise that power and becomes arrogant and dismissive of those around him. He is eventually brought down in a very public way.
In Pickett, Arkansas, Marcia Jeffries goes to the local jail to interview the prisoners for her radio program called "A Face in the Crowd". She finds the boisterous drunken drifter Larry "Lonesome" Rhodes that plays guitar and tells jokes becoming the show a great success. Soon Lonesome becomes popular in the small northeast town and is invited to move to Memphis to have his own television show and receiving a high salary. Lonesome brings his mentor and lover Marcia with him and together with the writer Mel Miller, the show is also successful. When he is invited to move to New York, Lonesome realizes how powerful and manipulative he is attracting the attention of politicians. But he changes his personality with arrogant attitude toward his collaborators and disrespecting his audience in the beginning of his fall.
An Arkansas drifter becomes an overnight media sensation. As he becomes drunk with fame and power, will he ever be exposed as the fraud he has become?
- The setting for the film is late 1950s America, a time during which television was rapidly replacing radio as the most popular entertainment medium. Although Rhodes is coarse and abusive, he possesses a colloquial, on-air charm that quickly endears him to the hearts and minds of rural listeners after Marcia Jeffries (Neal), a small-town radio personality, discovers him in the county jail of the fictional town of Pickett, in northeast Arkansas, and lands him a radio show there. A talent scout invites him to appear on television in Memphis, Tennessee, where Rhodes is introduced to Mel Miller (Matthau), a bookish Vanderbilt graduate who writes his scripts. However, Rhodes makes a name for himself by insulting his sponsor to the delight of his adoring audience. Rhodes's sponsor, the "Luffler Mattress" company, is offended but forced to relent in canceling the show when they discover Rhodes's antics are actually increasing their sales (and that the wife of owner Luffler is a Lonesome Rhodes fan).
An opportunistic "office boy" (portrayed by Anthony Franciosa) lands Rhodes a contract in New York City, where he becomes the national TV spokesman for Vitajex, an innocuous dietary supplement. A frenetic montage of Rhode's hyperbolic ads for Vitajex is one of the film's most memorable sequences, revealing the gullibility of the American public to a persuasive con-artist. In the tradition of classical tragedy, Rhodes is undone by his thirst for power and by Jeffries who, despite building his stardom, becomes so fed up that she allows him to expose his contempt for his fans on the air.
As a "Cracker Barrel" broadcast ends, Rhodes is shown, with sound off and an announcer doing a voiceover, smiling and waving to the camera as he speaks contemptuously of his audience. In the control room, Jeffries and the technical staff hear him continue to mock his viewers as "idiots," "morons," "guinea pigs." Fed up with Rhodes' betrayal, aware she helped create the monster, Jeffries pushes slide switches that throw Rhodes's comments on the air. In minutes, furious, betrayed fans who heard the remarks are calling the network. In a symbolic moment, an unaware Rhodes's popularity is shown plummeting as he rides an elevator down following the show. The film ends with a meltdown at Rhodes's penthouse apartment, as Jeffries admits she betrayed him and Matthau predicts his future, that he'll return to the air but it won't be quite as fancy. An uncredited Rip Torn is shown at one point as "Barry Mills," the next young Lonesome Rhodes waiting in the wings.
Interviewed for the DVD release in 2006 and the documentary accompanying the film, Griffith, Neal and Franciosa all express pride in their work in the film, and Schulberg explains the film's origins.