It is rare that I am completely blown away by a film, but this one might as well have been dynamite in my living room. Wow.
Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal) is a small town radio personality who highlights average people through her show called "A Face in the Crowd". She visits the local jail looking for someone to do something interesting for her show and gets more than she bargained for with 'Lonesome' Rhodes (Andy Griffith). He is a drifter with a short fuse and a big appetite for alcohol which is what landed him in jail. He does a few snippets of songs which are good, but is so engaging and charismatic when he talks on the show that she asks him to start doing his own show on their station. His "folksy" charm (they compare him to Will Rogers more than once) leads to a TV show in Memphis which then leads to a national show in New York, with Marcia by his side helping him along the way. Unfortunately, his head expands as much as his audience size and before long Marcia is trying to figure out how to deal with the monster she unwittingly created.
So let's get to the stunning performances.
This is Andy Griffith's film debut and by far his best performance. He plays a megalomaniac who is one of the most dangerous "wolf in sheep's clothing" type characters I have ever seen portrayed. Here is this charming man whom everyone is instantly drawn to because he is like them. However, in private, he really isn't like them. He is a hooch drinking, woman chasing, selfish man who can't see anything past his ratings and his own self. He takes everything he can from everyone and gives nothing in return. To see sweet old Andy Griffith in such a despicable role is quite the shock and boy, does good ol' Andy give it to the audience for all it is worth. In one of my favorite scenes, he is judging a baton twirling competition. Beautiful Lee Remick catches his eye as she twirls in her little skirt and his wolf-like stare is so intensely sexual that I think even I blushed for Remick. Someone sees him staring at her and says, "She is only 17." His response, with what I imagined as invisible drool on his chin was, "She looks like a very sweet child." The leer doesn't go away, only intensifies. Oof. Remember, this is Andy Griffith!!
I think Andy has gotten most of the acting kudos for this movie in recent history because of how we perceive him based off his wholesome image. However, it would be a shame to not give kudos to Patricia Neal for her performance. I was amazed at the difference of her character in the beginning versus the end. In the beginning, she looks so young and vibrant - maybe even a little sassy. She lights up the screen. By the end, she looks drawn, shrunken and exhausted. The light has totally gone out. It would be a mistake to think this movie is all about Lonesome Rhodes because I think this movie is as much about her as well. It is about Marcia being charmed by Lonesome, same as everyone else, but slowly realizing what a cold and uncaring man he really is. It is about her decision to stay with him because she can't untangle herself from his web and also because she feels a burden to try to clean up the trail of destruction he leaves in his wake. It is about how it chips away at her soul to stay there with him and help him continue to grow and flourish even though she knows she is only making her monster more powerful by doing so. Her role is crucial because it is her love for him that keeps us, as the movie audience, from turning on Lonesome as he does so many terrible things throughout the movie. As long as she continues to stay with him, then we think there must be something redeeming so we stay with Lonesome too. If you watch this movie twice, and really pay attention to Patricia Neal both times, I think you will agree with me that her performance is stunning.
I will add in a quick paragraph about Walter Matthau in this too. I like that he gives the movie some much needed balance. He is Mel Miller, a writer on the Lonesome Rhodes show, and catches on to Lonesome quicker than anyone else. It is his writer's sarcasm and subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) jabs that gives voice to what the audience is thinking. For instance, Mel says "I'll say one thing for him, he's got the courage of his ignorance." Mel also happens to be in love with Marcia. In one of the sweetest scenes where he is describing himself he says, "Didn't you know? All mild men are vicious. They hate themselves for being mild, and they hate the windy extroverts whose violence seems to have a strange attraction for nice girls. You should know better." They continue talking and he so tenderly touches her jawline with his finger. It was such a sweet gesture that spoke volumes of how deep his love was for her. Such an incredibly intimate moment, all with just a simple touch.
Everything about this film is top-notch. Budd Schulberg wrote an amazing script and Elia Kazan, the director, took several first-time movie actors and guided them through performances of a lifetime. If you rent the DVD, there is a great documentary about this film where they interview Andy Griffith about what it was like to debut in this film. Kazan wanted his actors to feel the scene, not try to act the scene. Kazan told him, "If you think it and feel it hard enough, it will come out through your eyes, and the camera will see it." As an example, he tells us exactly what Kazan's direction was to him for the baton twirling competition, and I almost choked on my dinner when I heard that tidbit. The documentary is a must see.
I have raved and raved enough about this movie. If you haven't seen this - PROMISE ME - you will go out and watch it immediately. You will NOT be sorry. After you watch it, please report back here and tell me how brilliant I am for making you watch it. :-)