Andy Griffith, who died this week, age 86, in his native North Carolina, will forever be remembered as the affable widower sheriff of fictional Mayberry, N.C. With his flappy ears and smalltown sagacity, Griffith’s Andy Taylor became an American icon, a sitcom hero who rode out the cultural maelstrom of the 1960s with implacable country bumpkin charm.
But let’s not forget Griffith’s work in an altogether darker, more disturbing look at the American psyche and its rural roots: In A Face in the Crowd, directed by Elia Kazan, Griffith starred as Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes, a Southern drifter who becomes a media sensation – an American Dream success story turned on its head. Griffith is intense and electric as Rhodes, who sings his way to stardom, embracing a folksy, feisty persona that wins over the masses -- masses whom in truth he harbors nothing but contempt for. “If they ever heard the way that psycho really talks,” Rhodes’ producer mutters with a sense of sorry wonder, and indeed, eventually they do hear.
Sharply scripted (by Budd Schulberg), with a cast that includes Patricia Neal (the radio programmer who discovers Rhodes), Lee Remick (the high school majorette Rhodes runs off with) and Walter Matthau (the TV writer who helps shape Rhodes’ populist image), A Face in the Crowd pulls back the curtain to reveal the cynicism and greed, malevolence and media manipulation that can lurk behind fame’s façade. It’s as timely now as it was in 1957, when Griffith made his amazing acting debut in this amazing film.