Absolute power corrupts absolutely. But when the right actor finds the path straight into a corrupt soul on fire, a strange kind of joy erupts on screen — a sense of true discovery and excitement.
This is what Andy Griffith brought to his film debut in 1957, in "A Face in the Crowd," written by Budd Schulberg and directed by Elia Kazan. (On July 18 Turner Classic Movies honors Griffith, who died this week, with four of his pictures, including "A Face in the Crowd.") As Lonesome Rhodes, an Arkansas drifter who becomes a radio star, a stealth political adviser and a media-manipulating antihero, Griffith was like an attack dog on a rib-eye. Schulberg drew inspiration for his cautionary tale from, among others, entertainers Will Rogers and (especially) Arthur Godfrey, but Griffith brought no trace of impersonation to the project, nor a speck of caution. It's an overwhelming portrayal of pure appetite, need and narcissistic insecurity, and Kazan helped the screen newcomer modulate an essentially unmodulated role.
Like so many vital American pictures, "A Face in the Crowd" failed to find a wide popular audience in its initial release. But time has been good to it. A year later, in "No Time for Sergeants," Griffith proved a well-liked comic actor."The Andy Griffith Show"and, later, "Matlock," exploited Griffith's charm and easy rapport with the TV camera. "A Face in the Crowd" is different; it's a cinematic tale of an apparent overnight success running amok, starring an apparent overnight success who had been honing his craft for years.
Griffith's Lonesome Rhodes is one of the great '50s icons of mass media sleaze. Kirk Douglas' madly exploiting reporter in "Ace in the Hole" (1951) is another. And in "Sweet Smell of Success" (1957), Burt Lancaster's Walter Winchell-like columnist, stone-cold sober but drunk on his own ability to make, break or wipe out a career with a three-dot item, provides the third in an essential triad. All three movies have their polemical side. All three pictures flopped.
And all three endure.
The human monsters at their centers were made human by the actors lucky enough to play them.
If you haven't seen "A Face in the Crowd" in a while, or ever, this is the time. The time is always. There's always another Lonesome Rhodes coming along who bears watching.
Movies on the radio: Michael talks with Bill Leff in the 7 a.m. segment Friday on WGN-AM (720).Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun