Monday, April 16, 2007

That Face in the Crowd

In what can only be thought of as extreme irony in light of this week's Don Imus fiasco, I was surfing Friday night and ran across the 1958 Elia Kazan-Budd Schulberg classic A Face in the Crowd. And if ever there was a movie to fit this sordid story, this is it.

In A Face in the Crowd, Andy Griffith gives one of his greatest dramatic performances (and that's not sarcasm; Griffith was a terrific dramatic actor who must have been frustrated by the lack of range available to him in his long run as Sheriff Andy Taylor) as Lonesome Rhodes, a small-time crook turned radio personality who makes it in local TV with his outrageous personality, charming his audience with tricks such as insulting his sponsors (with a twinkle in his eye). This "Peck's Bad Boy" act of biting the hand that feeds you (think Arthur Godfrey) strikes a cord with his audience, and soon Rhodes has his own network show, "Cracker Barrel."

Rhodes becomes a huge star, and it's no wonder why; he's the very image of down-home common sense, with his homespun words of wisdom striking a cord with his audience. In private, however, he's an egomaniac, dominating and berating his staff, including head writer Mel (Walter Matthau), abusing and betraying his lover Marcia (Patricia Neal), who discovered promoted him, and speaking scornfully of his adoring audience as suckers who will fall for anything he pitches. As his sponsor says, "the masses had to be guided with a strong hand by a responsible elite." Soon, Rhodes begins to cultivate the support of politicians, who crave identification with Rhodes' popularity. With his sponsor's encouragement, he assumes the role of kingmaker to the somewhat stuffy Senator Worthington Fuller, presidential wannabe. He quickly dubs the balding Fuller "Curly" and creats for him a friendly, folksy style. Fuller's popularity grows, and with it Rhodes' power. He now fancies himself a real powerbroker, one whose advice and wisdom is sought-after by politicians everywhere.

Like many a woman with low self-esteem, Marcia has turned a blind eye to Rhodes' abuses and indiscretions, continuing to come back for more. However, when Rhodes announces that he will be hosting a party for the nation's political elite, at which he will be named "U.S. Secretary for National Morale," Marcia realizes she's created a monster, one that only she can bring down.

As the final credits roll on his show that night, Marcia, up in the control booth, secretly turns up the sound on the set, allowing the viewers to hear Rhodes mocking them as slobs and gullible fools. The damage is done - the network is deluged by complaints from viewers, sponsors withdraw their support, and the politicians desert him in droves. Marcia, with Mel's support, tells Rhodes it was she who sabotaged his program. Rhodes vows he'll come back, and tries to talk her into staying with him, but she and Mel turn to leave. Rhodes, in the movie's verison of an operatic mad scene, is left in his hotel suite, alone and deserted, the empty chairs and drooping banners the only sign of the party that never was, posing to the sound of pre-recorded applause.

Not before Mel delivers Rhodes the final verdict, however, playing the Greek chorus, with his parting shot: "What's going to happen to you? I'll tell you what's going to happen to you. You'll get a show all right, but it won't be a major network like you had before. Some station after a little while will say, 'Let's try him again. He was big.' You'll have an audience, but it won't be hundreds of millions you had before. You'll make money, but it won't be the same kind of money... And soon someone will come along, a new flavor of the month to captivate the public, and they'll wonder whatever happened to what's-his-name, you remember?..."

And so the movie fades to black, much as Don Imus' career appears to have done. I couldn't help but think, though, that Matthau's speech could just as easily be about Imus. For he will be back, I suspect - the public does have a short memory, and has always been eager to forgive. Then too, there is the sense of hypocracy about the whole thing - Imus being nailed for comments that pale in comparison to some of the language used by blacks and hip-hoppers, not to mention the roles played by bottom-feeders like Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson.

But the lesson for Don Imus has been a harsh one, and he finds, like Lonesome Rhodes, that fame is fleeting. He may find, as Fitzgerald said, that there are no second acts in America - few to compare to the first acts, at least. Yes, they'll remember Imus when he comes back (probably on satellite radio), and yes, he'll be a star. But it won't be the same - not the fame, perhaps, not the money, and almost certainly not the influence that he so obviously enjoyed. Those that used him have deserted him, those that befriended him will lay low for awhile, those that listened to him will find other amusements to preoccupy them.

The irony of it all is so heavy it could be cut with a knife. It truly is spellbinding, to watch Matthau's final speech with Imus in mind, substituting the names as appropriate. If nothing else, it proves that there really is nothing new under the sun. Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad. A more suitable movie for this time, I could not have chosen.
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