Elia Kazan can be and has been called many things: a cinematic genius, an actor’s director, a womanizer, a government stoolie, an uncompromising artist and three-time Academy Award winner. But whatever your opinion of his personality, his temperament, or his choices, you have to admit that—given the ways his body of work and his biography reflect the kind of fraught, paradoxical nature we in the States have never been able to help but mythologize—he is probably the most American director of his time. In the searing 1957 satirical drama A Face in the Crowd, Kazan and writer Budd Schulberg gave us the most potent distillation imaginable of the love-hate affair Americans have with the people who charm and hurt and swindle us. This parable about a small-town con man who attains the power to sway the nation to his whims is America: our fanaticism, whimsy, and desire for elusive authenticity at the expense of our souls. And now, as we watch the rise of real-life faux-populist demagogues around the globe, the message at the heart of this film, despite the wry humor that still keeps it afloat, is often too truthful to bear.
A Face in the Crowd not only predicted the outsize role of television as influencer in chief in American culture but also issued an overt warning: the hucksters will swarm to this new medium, and, try as you might, you may not be able to resist their enticements. It’s not as though consumers had never been bamboozled before TV; we Americans have always embraced our hustlers, as long as they’re willing to put some sweat and tears into the hustle. Our self-mythologizing about “bootstraps” lends itself to an appreciation for the sheer effort in the art of hucksterism, perhaps because our national history is itself a long con in which unattainable hopes of ascent or escape are peddled to us for a small monthly fee. But with the advent of television, we invited the snake-oil salesman off the street corner and right into our homes, and Kazan and Schulberg found this both exciting and supremely disturbing—consider that only 12 percent of homes had had a TV in 1950 and that by 1957 that number had soared to 80 percent.
Schulberg had published “Your Arkansas Traveler,” the short story on which his script for A Face in the Crowd would be based, in 1953, a year before the release of his first collaboration with Kazan, On the Waterfront. In the story, Schulberg gives us, in the words of Marcia Coulihan, the local-radio host and producer who discovers Lonesome Rhodes, this vivid early description of the lowly drifter whose power to manipulate and sway his devoted audiences will soon become apparent:
He’s big and he’s western . . . He’s kind of big all over, like a husky fullback three years after he broke training. He’s got a ruddy, laughing face, the haw-haw kind. He must be well into his thirties, but he’s boyish. He stands there in an unpressed brown suit and cowboy boots, shifting from one foot to another, shy-like, though something tells me deep down he is about as shy as a bulldozer.
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