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Elia Kazan’s America

Not only did 'A Face in the Crowd' foretell our current situation—it also communicated several truths about American society.

Elia Kazan is one of the greatest directors in the history of cinema, and yet his name is controversial in Hollywood. This is made clear when Martin Scorsese and Robert DeNiro nervously presented an honorary Oscar to Kazan in 1999. The crowd did not immediately erupt into a standing ovation. On the contrary, some sat, others clapped halfheartedly, and a few expressed utter contempt. This reception can be traced to Kazan’s turning in eight members of the Communist Party to the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1952. While Hollywood scorned him, he was proud of the more “personal” films he made afterwards, writing, “The only genuinely good and original films I’ve made, I made after my testimony.”

Kazan did not disavow his actions, saying late in life that he selected “only the more tolerable of two alternatives that were either way painful and wrong.” When actress Zoe Kazan was asked about her grandfather, she did not simply condemn him, rather, she remarked that she thinks of what “it meant for my grandfather as an immigrant to this country to have his Americanness tested and the choice that he made from that.” If his Americanness was tested in the 50s, ex-Communist Elia Kazan thought he passed such a test, and the films that followed were reflections of it.

To adopt Kazan’s description, one of his “genuinely good” films is 1957’s A Face in the Crowd. It revolves around an entertainer who curries favor with the public but whose character does not merit such esteem. The movie provides a useful parallel to Kazan’s naming names of Communists whom he viewed as a threat to America, reflecting the personal nature he says was present in his post-1952 movies.

There have been a few opinion pieces describing this film as predicting the rise of Donald Trump due to its blending of an entertainment personality with political demagoguery. However, A Face in the Crowd is not simply a warning about the dangers of populism, nor is its protagonist simply “Trump before Trump.” Kazan’s understanding of the American character is revealed not merely through the shifty entertainer but also the people who fueled his rise.

The film begins with Marcia Jeffries, a journalist for a small-town Arkansas radio station, reporting from inside the local jail. She exclaims that “people are fascinating wherever you find them.” That is certainly the case when she meets Larry Rhodes, whom she gives the nickname “Lonesome.” This character, the film’s protagonist, is played brilliantly by Andy Griffith in his film debut. 

Lonesome is immediately appealing to both the fictional radio audience and to the film viewer due to his undeniable charisma. He plays the guitar, sings folk songs, and seems to be a genuine person. Americans enjoy the elevation of a likable man from humble origins, so the audience is drawn to him. He gets his own local radio show, and he earns the goodwill of an ever-expanding audience of ordinary folks. He leaves the small town for the opportunities of the city and cleverly talks his way into his own television program in Memphis. 

Early in his Memphis show, he brings out an African American woman whose house has burned to the ground. He requests that his audience help this person in need, and there are several cuts to a bunch of ordinary folks in different locations getting out their spare money to help her. When the money pours in the next day, he declares, “Ain’t nothin’ in this world you can’t do when you let the best side of you take over.” Lonesome’s viewers are working class and ordinary folks who do their part when someone else is in need. 

After he moves on to a show in New York City, Lonesome is brought in to advise a conservative senator’s campaign for president. They screen a clip of the politician giving his sober talking points. His acolytes clap at the speech while a less well-spoken and more shabbily dressed man called “Beanie” yawns profusely and stretches in dramatic fashion upon the lights being turned on.

Senator Fuller beams with pride: “I know that’s not what the American people want to hear, but I think I know what’s best for them.” He does not view himself as representative of the people but rather presumes superior knowledge of what policies government should enact for them. He is the expert, so the people should and will defer to his superior judgment.

Gen. Hayworth agrees with his policy of economic austerity and smaller government, but he also notes that the Senator needs to get the voters to like him enough for them to listen. A newspaper owner in attendance says his paper has endorsed the Senator from his first run for public office. He’s never been “a grandstander, backslapper, baby kisser,” to which the General exclaims, “That’s exactly what he’s got to become. The majority don’t see eye to eye with him.” In other words, merely describing what one deems to be good policy is insufficient to convince a populace not inclined to support it. 

The newspaperman says that the people will respect Fuller for being direct and honest, so they will vote for him. It is here that Lonesome chimes in saying no one buys any product out of respect: “You’ve got to be loved, man. Loved!” The newspaperman exclaims that there is a still a distinction between politics and entertainment.

Lonesome retorts with something profound in a seemingly simple statement: “Politics is people.” Nobody else in the room understands this insight. They view it as beneath them to sympathize with or attempt to relate to the people they represent. Consequently, Lonesome’s advice comes off as beyond the pale.

Senator Fuller begins to see the merit to campaigning in a more immediately appealing way. Lonesome notes that he is an entertainment professional, so he will assess the Senator’s performance just as he would a guest on his own show. And he concludes that the Senator is not good for ratings: “If I wouldn’t buy him, do you realize what that means? If I wouldn’t buy him, the people of this country would not buy him for that big job on Pennsylvania Avenue.” Lonesome points to Beanie and asks him what he thought of the Senator’s personality: “Flatter than last night’s beer.” 

He describes himself using a term that is used today to describe internet personalities: “influencer.” However, Lonesome’s folksy charm will soon fade away, and he descends into madness. This is made clear through a climactic scene in which he reveals his true view of the audience: “They’re mine. I own them. They think like I do. Only they’re even more stupid than I am, so I gotta think for them.” The influencer holds the people in contempt in the same manner as the politician.

The mistake in assessing the message of this film is to dismiss everything Lonesome says because he himself was a bad man (even worse than what could be described here) who contradicts his own advice and image. He certainly did manipulate his audience, but he should also serve as a reality check to the out of touch intelligentsia. He appealed to a vast audience because he both seemed like them and seemed to like them.

America is a democratic-republic with representation as a defining feature. The Senator and those of his ilk care not for listening to the people, and they presume that they have superior knowledge, although the film gives no evidence for this being the case. The tagline for Lonesome’s New York show is: “There’s nothing as trustworthy as the ordinary mind of the ordinary man.” This communicates a fundamental truth about our body politic: the average American is fundamentally good. 

In today’s social media echo chamber of influencers, extreme fringes have been wrongly elevated to represent the typical American of a liberal or conservative bent. This film never impugns the motives of Lonesome’s audience, contrary to the assessment that his foibles represent our own. The most despicable characters are not the people but rather the prominent few who abuse their trust.

A Face in the Crowd is a political film of the highest order, and it should be treated as such. Kazan crafted a movie that, for the careful viewer, foretold of our current situation while providing lessons for how we should operate within it. Lonesome was right: “Politics is people.” While the people themselves are good, they can be manipulated. This film shows why the elites need to be better holders of the public trust and the public must be more critical of the elites. Just as Kazan played his part in the fight against Communism, his film serves as a clarion call for Americans to recognize that their way of life is under constant threat by a prominent few who neither share their principles nor decent character.

Joey Barretta is a fourth-year doctoral student studying American Politics and Political Theory at Hillsdale College. He has written for The Imaginative Conservative, The Federalist, and The American Mind.

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