The director Elia Kazan was born 113 years ago, in what was then the Ottoman Empire and what is today Turkey. Though he died in 2003, Kazan has remained a controversial figure and there’s still a lot of debate over what his artistic legacy should be. As a director, he revolutionized both Broadway and Hollywood. He made films about topics that other directors wouldn’t touch and he played a huge role in making Marlon Brando a star and popularizing the method. (I’ll allow you to decide whether that’s a good or a bad thing.) He won two Oscars and he’s been cited as an influence by some of the most important directors of the past century.
Kazan was also a former communist who, at the height of the 50s red scare, testified in front of the HUAC and who “named names.” Kazan often claimed that he only identified people who had already been named. Many of his former colleagues, however, felt that Kazan had betrayed them and never forgave him. Though Kazan always denied it, many felt that his decision to name names had more to do with settling personal scores than with any actual concern about national security. Not helping matters was that Kazan’s 1954 film, On The Waterfront, was widely viewed as being Kazan’s attempt to justify being an informer. Indeed, Kazan’s post-HUAC films seemed to alternate between thinly veiled attempts to paint himself as a hero and attempts to remind people that he was still a liberal.
That adds an interesting subtext to his best film, 1957’s A Face In The Crowd. In this film, Andy Griffith plays Lonesome Rhodes, the type of down-home entertainer who would probably have been quite popular with the supporters of HUAC. A reporter played by Patricia Neal falls in love with Lonesome and helps him become a celebrity with a national following but, too late, she discovers that Rhodes is hardly the folksy and naïve country boy that she originally believed him to be. Instead, he’s a master manipulator who, drunk on his own power and fame, makes plans to transform himself into a political power. Lonesome is portrayed as being a down-home fascist, a countryfied version of the infamous Father Charles Coughlin. At the same time, one could also argue that Rhodes, with his seething contempt for the people who follow him, was also meant as a commentary on the people who claimed to represent the workers but who only saw them and their struggle as a means to an end.
A Face In The Crowd may have been Kazan’s attempt to remind his detractors that he was still a man of the Left but it’s far more interesting as a work of prophecy. There’s really not much difference between Lonesome Rhodes and the modern day celebrities and influencers who are currently famous simply for being famous and who, for the right amount of money and ego-stroking, are more than willing to propagandize for one side or the other.
In this wonderfully acted and directed scene, Lonesome Rhodes gets drunk on his own power and reveals just how corrupt his outlook has become. Making this scene all the more powerful is that it’s easy to imagine our current leaders springing something like Secretary of National Morale on us today.