Film Slate Magazine Profiles Andy Griffith Andy Griffith died on July 3, 2012 in North Carolina at the age of 86. His career had the longevity of Hollywood legends. He was the happy-go-lucky Sheriff Andy Taylor on “The Andy Griffith Show” and the competent and charming lawyer Benjamin Matlock on “Matlock,” plus countless other TV and Film roles. How did it all get started? How did he navigate such a successful career? His first film role was as Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes in Elia Kazan’s “A Face in the Crowd” (1957) starring opposite Patricia Neal (“The Fountainhead”). This is the often overlooked film in Kazan’s famous cinema canon which includes “On the Waterfront” as well as “East of Eden,” and usually isn’t even mentioned when it comes to discussing Griffith’s career.
“A Face in the Crowd” is a visceral look at the negative impact of celebrity that’s just as accurate today as it was in 1957. Although Kazan intended it as a commentary of capitalism and how it uses celebrity as one of its marketing tools, 55 years later it’s a chilling reminder of the calamity the pursuit of fame causes: fallout that’s much more destructive than just marketing; it destroys the humanity of the person it attracts and everyone around him.
Griffith had no formal training as an actor at the time, with just a bit of television experience as a comedian on “The Steve Allen Show” when Kazan cast him as the lead. Griffith brought a rawness to the role that is unsurpassed. He plays a vagabond who gets rounded up on a drunk-and-disorderly when Marcia Jeffries (Neal) shows up with a microphone to see if she can “discover” anything or anyone interesting to broadcast on the radio in Arkansas. She finds Rhodes, sobering up, whom she quickly gives the moniker of “Lonesome” as he sings and plays the guitar. He’s an instant hit on the air and the station offers him a job in Memphis.
He pokes fun at the radio show’s sponsor, a mattress factory owner, who quickly pulls his ads, putting pressure on the station to fire Rhodes, but his growing fan base protests and he’s reinstated. Lonesome has his first taste of his power as a celebrity. Things heat up with Marcia; they become lovers. Soon he, with the help of Marcia, now his manager/producer, lands a television role along with the show’s staff writer, Mel Miller (Walter Matthau) and the mattress company’s ambitious office worker, Joey DePalma (Anthony Franciosa).
It’s a whirlwind of money and fame as they all ride Lonesome’s coattails. Marcia notices a callousness in Lonesome as he waves at an enthusiastic crowd at the train station as they depart Memphis for New York City. He puts them down in a condescending and insulting way. His ascending fame and fortune gives Lonesome the impression that he is above the “people” now. He quickly has forgotten the humble beginnings where Marcia found him.
In New York, he becomes a spokesman for a product called Vitajex. It is a product that supposedly gives its users energy but the developers freely admit it isn’t really anything but a sugar pill yet Lonesome makes the product a fast seller. Marcia continues to be under his magnetic spell, even when she learns he’s married. His wife comes to New York, offering to divorce him for a payment arrangement. Lonesome spins this as something he didn’t really have control over; he set everything up but the woman didn’t follow through with their divorce. He has an upcoming trip to Texas and tells Marcia, who he claims to love, that he will obtain a divorce in Juarez, Mexico.
Instead of doing this, he elopes in Mexico with a 17 year-old drum majorette (Lee Remick). Marcia, crestfallen from this betrayal, demands more money as he moves his new wife into a luxury penthouse. Meanwhile, his ego balloons along with his fame, fortune and influence. A TV crew member quips that if only the public could hear what he’s really like as he rants and raves behind the scenes. He goes from a product pitchman to politics. He starts to advise a senator in his media relations as he runs for President of the United States. Lonesome has been promised the cabinet position of Secretary of National Morale.
He goes home to find Joey leaving the penthouse; he’s now sleeping with Lonesome’s young wife. He taunts Lonesome with the idea that there is nothing he can do about it unless he’s willing to be destroyed–Joey has this kind of power over his career.
Lonesome, who has already angered everyone around him, starts to really unravel, brutally criticizing everyone and every thing as he plans a big reception for Senator Fuller after his TV show. Marcia and Mel have a drink together. Mel has been especially wary of Lonesome, particularly the way he’s treated Marcia. He reveals that he’s writing a book about Lonesome called, “Demagogue in Denim.” Marcia tells Mel she is going to quit the show. She goes to produce it one last time. As the credits roll and Lonesome starts his torrent of revulsion towards the public, Marcia turns the volume back on and the nation gets to hear the truth about him. Marcia’s face reflects all the conflict she’s feeling because she created this, a monster of ego and exploitation. She literally falls against the knob that turns the volume up. The phone in the studio starts to ring as the public turns away in disgust and the sponsors scramble for damage control.
Lonesome starts to call Marcia when no one shows up for his reception. She intends to ignore him but Mel convinces her she needs to tell Lonesome the truth, that is was her who did it, in order to make the final break from Lonesome’s black-hole of existence. They go together to tell him. A servant plays an applause machine as Lonesome performs without an audience. He’s completely lost touch with reality. She tells him that it was her. Lonesome simply wants to know how to get it all back. Mel goes on to succinctly observe that Lonesome isn’t completely ruined, that the public has a short memory. He’ll be back in some small way and people will ask each other, “Didn’t he used to be somebody? Didn’t he used to be big?” They leave the apartment as he shouts Marcia’s name at the top of his lungs.
So goes the path of celebrity… at least a lot of the time. Griffith must have taken to heart the lessons he learned playing this role. His career was as polar opposite as possible. What an incredible gift he was given to learn this lesson before his career really began and what a gift he gave with his performance: a nuanced, complex, vivacious, rude yet sad reflection of humanity.