Budd Schulberg and Elia Kazan, 1957
#3 of 28 in the 20th century series
I first watched this for a class about the 1950s, but it has attracted renewed attention of late because it is about an emotionally unstable TV host whose career takes a turn when figures on the ultra far right, playing on his bottomless need for adulation, groom him as a figurehead to grab control of the government and implement a reactionary agenda. No bromance with Khrushchev, however. It’s a good movie, and one that to my surprise had a fair amount of overlap with Max Headroom of all things, sharing both its veneer of cynicism about a society that revolves around empty fame and the naivete that lurks beneath that cynical surface.
We first meet the demagogue at the center of the film, Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes, when he is just a drifter who’s landed himself in an Arkansas jail on a drunk and disorderly charge. A reporter for a local radio station swings by to get some tape for her show, “A Face in the Crowd”, which presents ordinary people singing songs and telling stories. Though initially surly, Rhodes is eventually persuaded to belt out a tune, which lands him a gig on the station’s morning show; his tall tales about the goings-on in his (fictional) backwoods hometown and his monologues about the plight of marginalized groups like working-class housewives and homeless black families quickly win him a devoted following and his own show on Memphis television. There he does the Max Headroom thing of mocking the sponsor but increasing sales thereby, which gets him fired but also gets him a successful audition to move up to a national network and host one of those sponsored 1950s shows, half variety hour and half long-form commercial. In this capacity he becomes another Elvis, racking up hit singles and playing to gigantic crowds of shrieking teenage girls (the prettiest of whom he marries), while taking up residence in a hotel penthouse. With the TV ratings he obsessively boasts about marking him as the biggest celebrity in America, Rhodes lands another show, and this one is political commentary, with a chorus of hayseeds from central casting cheering him on as he talks up extremist politicians who want to retreat from our alliances and dismantle Social Security. His Achilles heel is that he has no self-control, and keeps spouting off about his contempt for the “rednecks, crackers, hillbillies, hausfraus, shut-ins, pea-pickers” that he calls his “flock of sheep”: “They’re mine! I own ’em!” he shouts, “They think like I do! Only they’re even more stupid than I am, so I gotta think for ’em!” He even does it on set, mocking one of his own pet politicians with a derisive pantomime — “He’s shakin’ like this” — and prompting the sound engineer to mutter, “Ohh, if they ever heard the way that psycho really talks!”. And so when the Kellyanne Conway figure of the movie turns up Rhodes’s microphone when he thinks he’s off the air, she catches him crowing about his power over “those morons out there”: “I can take chicken fertilizer and sell it to ’em as caviar. I can make ’em eat dog food and they’ll think it’s steak. Sure, I got ’em like this,” he sneers, making a gesture of grabbing someone by the balls, and adding a sing-song “Good night, you stupid idiots!”
Which is where the naivete comes in, because in the movie this ruins Rhodes’s career. Whereas in real life, when Donald Trump declared that “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters!”, his audience responded with appreciative laughs and applause. When Trump announced at a victory celebration that he had “won with poorly educated — I love the poorly educated!”, the only outcry came from liberals who thought they’d caught him in a Lonesome Rhodes moment — the people who were actually there replied with a hearty “Whooooo!”. There’s never really been much to catch where Trump is concerned: he performed his derisive pantomimes at his rallies, knowing the cameras were rolling, and his daily outrages have nearly all been on the record, in speeches and interviews and tweets. The exception was the “grab ’em by the pussy” tape, far worse than anything Lonesome Rhodes says. And suffice it to say that the tape did not ruin Donald Trump’s career. (Unless you buy into the theory that he never actually wanted to be president, in which case maybe it did.)
I suppose there is an argument to be made that Trump hasn’t yet done exactly what Rhodes does in A Face in the Crowd, which is to be an asshole to his own base. Trump has indisputably been an asshole to any number of groups of people, but there is a sizeable segment of the population that prefers to vote for the biggest assholes on the ballot, on the theory that those candidates will use their power to be assholes to all those filthy people I don’t like, but of course they would never use their power to be assholes to fine upstanding citizens like me. And while it’s easy to hear “I love the poorly educated!” as an insult — as in, “I love that the poorly educated are stupid and gullible enough to vote for me” — on the surface it is an expression of affection. It’s a reasonable argument. But I’m not sure I buy it. Recall that the top predictor of whether someone would be a Trump voter was not poor education or low intelligence, but an affinity for authoritarianism, which is predicated on hierarchy. A psychological need to have a place in a hierarchy is a big part of what defines someone as a conservative, temperamentally if not politically (but usually politically also). We tend to focus on the dominance end of that transaction, on the material and psychological rewards of having at least one stratum of society beneath you, people you can exploit and treat with contempt. But the submission end is just as important. There is a security in being led, in letting your betters decide what you should do and what you should think. And part of being a follower is being reminded that you are a follower, often in contemptuous terms. So you get Rush Limbaugh and his “dittoheads”, or in the even more hierarchy-driven world of sports, Jim Rome and his “clones”. Though, really, we as a species have made the whole world hierarchy-driven, and in the famous Seinfeld formulation, the proverbial schoolyards are full of male bullies giving other boys wedgies and female bullies giving other girls eating disorders. Look at the supposed friends who spend all their time insulting each other, or referring back to past humiliations — they may call it “teasing”, or “busting balls” in the case of those who’ve seen too many Mafia movies, but it’s all about establishing a pecking order. There are those who are outraged by the entire framework of kissing up and kicking down, and these people tend to be overrepresented among those who go into the arts and make movies like A Face in the Crowd. And if you are that sort of person, you might well assume that everyone else is too — putting yourself into a foreign mindset is hard, and for someone averse to the whole concept of hierarchy, it’s just so weird to think that there are millions of people around you who embrace it. But look at the goons who have spent the weeks since the election pulling off strangers’ hijabs, screaming at Latino children that they’re going to be deported, tweeting at Jewish journalists that they’re warming up the ovens — their constant refrain is that they’re allowed to do this now because Trump won, because the hierarchies that they feared had been upended with the election of Barack Obama are now safely back in place. And they’re not the only ones who voted for him. Trump got plenty of Muslim votes, and Latino votes, and Jewish votes. He got tens of millions of votes from women. Some members of these groups defied the predictions of A Face in the Crowd by voting for Trump despite the kicking he gave them. But others, in a move that isn’t even in the moral universe of this film, voted for him because of that kicking. Because that kicking was part and parcel of the country they had imprinted on, the one in which they knew where in the pecking order they belonged. Feeling insecure and fearing change, they wanted their country back. And the kicking they received was a comforting signal that the country they wanted back was on its way.