Last night I watched one of my favourite movies, A Face in the Crowd. Favourite not in terms of feel-good, but unsettling. This 1957 movie by Elia Kazan did not win many accolades then because it was so far ahead of its time. But now we are catching up.
The film's protagonist is "Lonesome" Rhodes. He is a selfish, instinctive, amoral drifter. But the man is a showman. He can talk the hind leg off a donkey and in a unique style; he is raw and unfiltered. Now, we instead have Donald Trump.
A radio reporter Marcia meets Lonesome in a jail in a small town in Arkansas. Finding something very appealing in his talk, she takes him under her wing and sets him up with a radio program. Mistaking simplicity for honesty and openness for goodness, and impressed by his natural ability to make the most of a situation, she falls in love with him. When Marcia asks admiringly, "You put your whole self into that laugh, don't you?",
Lonesome tells her, "Marcia, I put my whole self into everything I do". The radio program is hugely successful and he moves up to TV, with Marcia managing his career. She is his kingmaker -- or perhaps here we should shift analogies momentarily to another movie and say, she is his Dr. Frankenstein. Today Marcia's role could go to Tony Schwartz, who ghost-wrote Trump's best-selling biography-cum-business manual, The Art of the Deal and thrust him into the spotlight. Now he says of Trump, "I put lipstick on a pig."
In the movie, although the TV show's sponsors are initially disapproving of Lonesome's disparaging remarks about their products, the crowd loves him for his folky charm, supposedly being one of them, and the unrefined, spontaneous, and seemingly honest nature of his speech.
When the sponsors see the spike in the show's ratings and the increase in sales of their own products, they too begin to sing the praises of Lonesome. He goes from strength to strength, getting ever larger audiences and becoming more powerful in the process. He is soon advising company executives and politicians. Mel, a long-time admirer and colleague of Marcia's, admits about Lonesome, "I'll say one thing for him; he's got the courage of his ignorance." Or as President Obama opined about Trump, "He's not really a facts guy."
In spite of having an intimate and seemingly long-term relationship with Marcia, Larry soon figures out that due to his fame -- and now wealth -- that he can bed numerous women and he makes the most of that. He marries a 17 year old cheerleader, to which Marcia responds, "Betty Lou is your public, all wrapped up with yellow ribbons into one cute little package. She's the logical culmination of the great 20th-century love affair between Lonesome Rhodes and his mass audience." Trump's record speaks for itself.
Lonesome's downfall comes just after the live airing of an episode of his TV show. The credits are rolling and the national TV audience can see -- but not hear -- him chatting in a friendly manner with his guests. In fact, he is disparaging his supporters. So Marcia, realizing that she can and must at last reveal his other side, switches on the microphone, allowing Lonesome's voice to be broadcast. And his loyal audience hears this, "Those morons out there? Shucks, I could take chicken fertilizer and sell it to them as caviar. I could make them eat dog food and think it was steak. Sure, I got 'em like this... You know what the public's like? A cage of guinea pigs. Good night you stupid idiots. Good night you miserable slobs. They're a lot of trained seals. I toss them a dead fish and they'll flap their flippers." Insert here the latest leaked audio recording of Trump discussing gender relations, which goes beyond lewd to "illegal" and to, as Anderson Cooper during the last debate called it, "sexual assault."
That evening, at Lonesome's luxury penthouse, he has planned a party for several political bigwigs -- but nobody shows up. He is alone, with his applause machine playing eerily in the background. Forward to today, where Trump is losing the support of conscientious Republicans.
A Face in the Crowd got lacklustre reviews when it was first released. A New York Times review thought the plot was highly improbable: "Everyone condescends to him [Lonesome] ... instead of taking positive positions that would better represent reality"; "This type would either have become a harmless habit or the public would have been finished with him!"
Over the decades, the movie has grown in stature, is now thought to be prescient and telling, and is often rated among the best. But whether we the public have fully caught up remains to be seen. While Lonesome may well have tried to defend his hot mic diatribe as "locker-room talk", his 1957 audience do not excuse it as such. They deliver him the ultimate punishment: they stop listening to him. Let's see what America does now.
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