Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

If Andy Ran in Mayberry Today Big Money Could Crush His Hopes of Being Sheriff

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

If Andy Ran in Mayberry Today Big Money Could Crush His Hopes of Being Sheriff

Article excerpt

The headline in The New York Times Tuesday was typical of the way Andy Griffith has been remembered across the nation: "Andy Griffith, Folksy TV Sheriff from Mayberry, Dies at 86." Other obits remembered Griffith for his long-running role as the lawyer Matlock -- another folksy (if more cantankerous) character.

But Griffith's rise to fame in the late 1950s took an odd route through a film that harnessed Griffith's natural Southern charm to a frenetically dark message about the mixture of politics, advertising, money and media.

In Elia Kazan's "A Face in the Crowd," Griffith plays a rogue hillbilly, Larry "Lonesome" Rhodes, who is discovered picking on his "git-tar" in a drunk-tank by a small-town, college-educated radio producer, Marcia Jeffries, played by Patricia Neal. With Marcia's help, Rhodes evolves into a multimedia star who uses his charisma to convince his audience to buy everything from vitamin pills to presidential candidates.

Rhodes knows he has the power to sway his rural, southern and working-class audiences, those "rednecks, crackers, hillbillies, hausfraus, shut-ins, pea-pickers -- everybody that's got to jump when somebody else blows the whistle," even though he belittles and berates them when his microphone is turned off. Marcia eventually exposes him by leaving his mic on, and at the end of the film Rhodes is left alone in his penthouse, drunk, lonely and desperate for the love of his audience that he thought was real.

I first used "A Face in the Crowd" in the classroom in 1997 in a course about films that took aim at the culture industry -- in this case, television.

By 1957, when "A Face in the Crowd" debuted, television had mightily shrunk the film-going audience, and Elia Kazan and Budd Schulberg used the character of Lonesome Rhodes to swipe at both the power of the idiot box as well as the gullibility of the mass audience.

One of the central arguments of "A Face in the Crowd" is that big money, big advertising and big media have the power to distort our democratic system. If this was more prophecy than reality in 1957 the film is a poignant reminder today, in the wake of the Citizens United Supreme Court decision, that we are uniquely challenged to overcome the influence on our politics of billionaires and 24-hour cable news programs. …

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