Posted in Movie Reviews

The Dark Medium

Remembering Andy Griffith and his incredible performance in 1957’s “A Face in the Crowd” reminds us that once upon a time social issues played a major role in popular entertainment. The result wasn’t always successful in terms of dollars and cents, but more often than not it satisfied on many levels. “A Face in the Crowd”, directed by Elia Kazan, from a script by Budd Schulberg, sounded an early alarm about the dangers of television image-making. Almost twenty years later came a more successful film offering a variation on that theme, Paddy Chayefsky’s “Network”, directed by Sidney Lumet. However, the engines that make these vehicles go are very different. One shows a man-made monster; the other says the audience has made itself the monster by its own willful ignorance.

Cracker Barrel Wisdom, Pre-Implosion

Budd Schulberg’s screenplay, based on his novella “Your Arkansas Traveler”, is the story of a demagogue who buys and sells love through what was then called the “boob tube”. Discovered by a local radio producer, Marcia Jeffries, who in essence creates him—she dubs him “Lonesome” Rhodes (his real name is Larry) and nurtures his folksy on-air persona—he calculatingly woos the housewives in his audience, moving on to a larger radio station and then making the significant jump to television. Lonesome may play the hayseed, but he’s a cunning sharpie. Behind the scenes he’s a user who dumps his first manager, but on camera he’s everybody’s friend, every mother’s loveable, rascally son, and every girl’s dream. While he entertains by taking on the stuffed shirts, we see what television has enabled him to do. He’s in his audience’s living rooms, in their faces and making it impossible for them to deny him. And Lonesome Rhodes plays that for all it’s worth, craving and receiving love and trust from his viewers.

But Rhodes turns ratings into political power when his t.v. sponsor, a would-be kingmaker, seeks his help in coaching a reactionary senator into the White House. His variety show isn’t a big enough platform—he demands a bully pulpit, a second show called “Lonesome Rhodes’s Cracker Barrel”. This section of the film is chilling–Lonesome’s authority is evident in every move, from the way he gently chides Senator Fuller on the air for using a five-buck word like “obsession” and even more, when he turns to the camera, grinning in self-congratulation, when Fuller re-phrases with slang. And the conclusion of “Cracker Barrel” is classic—Lonesome piously reminding his audience that “The family that prays together, stays together” and ending with a rendition of “Just a Closer Walk With Thee”.

As the “demagogue in denim” brought to earth, Andy Griffith deserves all the praise he’s received. He’s matched (and then some) by Patricia Neal as his long-suffering discoverer, Marcia Jeffries. Her scenes cut close to the bone—her dealings with Rhodes’s estranged wife (the wonderful Kay Medford), her humiliating retreat at the airport upon learning of Lonesome’s marriage to the baton-twirling Betty Lou, followed by her self-disgust when she demands a large financial share in Lonesome Rhodes, Inc. The rest of the cast is amazing—Lee Remick, in her first film, as Betty Lou; Anthony Franciosa as that shark, Joey DePalma; Paul McGrath as the ad man, Macey; and a bookishly attractive Walter Matthau in the almost thankless role of Mel Miller (“Vanderbilt ’44”), Schulberg’s mouthpiece. How refreshing to see brains at work in a movie.

“A Face in the Crowd” blames ego run amok for the creation of Lonesome Rhodes. “Network”, on the other hand, blames the audience’s indifference for creating dumbed-down television. Paddy Chayefsky starts us off with a bland, over-the-hill news anchor named Howard Beale (Peter Finch) who’s about to be yanked off the air for poor ratings. His parting shot, an on-camera threat to commit suicide, makes him a hot ticket overnight. His growing derangement (he hears a voice asking him to deliver a message on-air “because you’re on television, dummy”) and subsequent on-camera rants (the classic “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!” speech) play right into the ambitions of Diana Christensen, the new head of network programming (Faye Dunaway).  She creates a news hour featuring sideshow attractions which in 1975 seemed laughable, but have since become all-too real—“Sybil the Soothsayer”, “It’s the Emmes Truth Department” and  “Miss Mata Hari and Her Skeletons in the Closet”, all presided over by that Mad Prophet of the Airwaves, Howard Beale:

“Network”, while as prescient as “A Face in the Crowd”, is a very different experience. In the first place, it’s funny as hell. People screaming out of windows in response to Howard Beale’s rant against indifference (“First you’ve got to get mad!”), Diana Christensen in cahoots with an Angela Davis-type to create “The Mao Tse Tung Hour” and the resulting haggling over residuals with the Great Ahmed Khan (was it an inside joke that Kathy Cronkite, Walter’s daughter, was cast as the Patty Hearst character?). But the film takes a more serious turn when we meet the head of the corporation that owns the network, Arthur Jensen (Ned Beatty). I suspect it was no accident that in this film, with his build and the mustache he sports, Beatty comes across as a dead ringer for Teddy Roosevelt. Despite his cuddly appearance, Jensen relays a chilling message—while we’ve been sopping up the bread and circuses offered by mindless entertainment, we’ve lost our individuality, our souls and our country. When Howard Beale asks why he’s been selected to give this testimony on air, we come full circle with Jensen’s perfectly timed response: “Because you’re on television, dummy”.

Two great films, both of which are–scarily– more relevant now than ever.

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