Donald Trump: Just Another "Face in the Crowd"?

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Source:   —  April 13, 2016, at 6:02 PM

The program is a hit, propelling the star into public consciousness. He strikes a powerful populist chord, and intoxicated by his ratings, imagines himself as a shaper of opinion and a political force.

Donald Trump: Just Another

A television producer takes a chance and builds a program around a man with number TV experience. The program is a hit, propelling the star into public consciousness. He strikes a powerful populist chord, and intoxicated by his ratings, imagines himself as a shaper of opinion and a political force. Although initially the establishment believes they can utilize him, it soon becomes clear he's unmanageable. His egotism is boundless, and his megalomania frightening. In the end, his own intemperate words prove his undoing. Oh, and along the way he dumps the woman who helped him rise, to marry a glamour girl about half his age.

Is this the backstory of a two thousand sixteen presidential candidate?

Actually, it'south the plot of A Face in the Crowd, a brilliant film made nearly sixty years ago. Written by Budd Schulberg and directed by Elia Kazan -- both giants in their day -- the film marked a stunning acting triumph for Andy Griffith, in his first film role, as the central character, Lonesome Rhodes. Patricia Neal superbly plays the producer and a youthful Walter Matthau forms a one-man Greek chorus, commenting on the proceedings and foreseeing their ultimate conclusion.

The artists behind A Face in the Crowd created their masterpiece in one thousand nine hundred fifty-seventh. Although tiny black-and-white television sets had appeared in American living rooms only a brief time before, their power was obvious to Schulberg and Kazan. With phenomenally prescient perspective, they imagined the potentially toxic intersections between mass media, celebrity and political power.

At the time it was released, the film garnered neither critical nor favorite success. In the NY Times, critic Bosley Crowther doubted that the Lonesome Rhodes character "demonstrating his personality -- his gusto, his candor, his shrewdness, his moral laxity... his thirst for power" had much credibility. The creators of this "raw, vulgar, roughneck, cornball" are "hypnotized" by their creation, losing their "intellectual reason and... the potentiality of their theme." In the genuine world, "this type would either have become a harmless custom or the public would've been finished with him!" Tiny did he know.

Crowther also identifies what he views as an obvious hole in the film: "What he symbolizes in society is barely hinted or discreetly overlooked," he wrote. But is Crowther'south focus skewed by his disbelief in one thousand nine hundred fifty-seventh that this character could be real? Should he instead have asked: What does this phenomenon declare about our society? Why's this man loved? In two thousand-sixteenth when we know he's distant more than symbolic, can we discover the answers? Some pundits blame the Trump electorate: xenophobic, racist, sexist, and uneducated. But Trump'south supporters may look themselves as helpless victims, whose jobs have been exported to Mexico or China, or whose salary have been driven down by contest from migrants. Maybe the contempt of the "elites" for Trump voters, combined with Trump'south contempt for the "elites" may be portion of his secret sauce. Indeed, there is number consensus on why the American people -- or at minimum an apparently significant piece thereof -- discover him appealing. Did Kazan and Schulberg give us a hint back in one thousand nine hundred fifty-seventh?

In the film, they allow not a social reasoning -- although they give us a grim view of a society that, as one character points out, has a brief memory and is anxious to adore again -- but propose the seductive power of media as at minimum one force that's propelled us into our current state of affairs. In one of the opening scenes we look the undiluted thrill in the radio producer'south wide-eyed realization that she'south just uncovered a media treasure trove in the raw, brash voice that says what it wants in defiance of authority, bawdy laugh and all. It's monstrous but that means success, and her eyes tell us the repercussions simply don't register in her mind at that moment.

Whatever the public'south rationale for its attraction to a Lonesome figure, the role of media then and now -- particularly with its current transformation into social and reality TV realms -- cannot be denied. According the filmmakers' original vision, however, its power holds the potential to alleviate both excellent and bad--or truth and deception. And if Schulberg and Kazan are to be believed, what seems love a dreary state of democracy in the United States may just be saved by the same mechanisms that helped create it.

"A demagog [sic] with a commanding rating could menace our democracy," Schulberg wrote in the June one thousand nine hundred fifty-seven issue of TV Guide. "But a moment of televised truth, a single shot of conspirational whispering behind hands, can prick the conscience of a nation more effectively than a dozen righteous editorials."

On a similar note, Kazan told Michel Ciment, for Kazan on Kazan, that portion of their original intention was to draw the public'south attention to what the faces on the screen actually say: "Television deludes some people, exposes others."

Three months into two thousand sixteen, and several high-profile, media-salivating missteps later, Trump hasn't followed the Lonesome Rhodes character arc, yet. Then again, it takes a 42-floor elevator ride down for Lonesome'south career to sink. Trump Tower has fifty-eight stories.

Frequently "political art" is a predictable reaction to the headlines of the moment. But sometimes artists look things in the zeitgeist that the rest of us miss or perceive but dimly. With A Face in the Crowd, Schulberg and Kazan create a stellar example of art presaging the reality of a distant future with uncanny accuracy.

You can look the film on Netflix DVD, Amazon or Warner Archive, Vudu, or from your local library. And you should.

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