Andy Griffith, the charming southern entertainer who died this morning at 86, is best known for two long-running television roles: Andy Taylor, from Griffith’s eponymous 1960s sitcom The Andy Griffith Show, and later as the white-haired, titular defense attorney in Matlock. But before he was Mayberry’s wise sheriff or Atlanta’s revered lawyer from the country, Griffith took on a quite different role in Elia Kazan’s brazen 1957 cautionary tale, A Face in the Crowd. He played a “Demagogue in Denim,” as another character in the film describes him.
That demagogue is Larry Rhodes, a guitar-playing jailbird who is discovered by a local reporter (Patricia Neal) and, thanks to his down-home demeanor and country twang, soon captivates a devoted Memphis television audience under the moniker “Lonesome Rhodes.” (Griffith himself released over a dozen albums, most of them rooted in country and gospel.) What follows suggests the influence of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein—and foreshadows the enormous role celebrity has played in American culture in the half-century since the movie’s release. Rhodes becomes an overnight star so powerful that he can no longer be contained by small-town television. His influence carries over to a national audience and, more dangerously, into politics, as a media coach to an aspiring presidential candidate.
The egomaniacal, sordid rise of Rhodes is incredibly compelling, thanks in no small part to screenwriter Budd Schulberg and Kazan. But it is Griffith who takes the character off the page and brings him terrifyingly to life. It’s easy to see why everyone around him falls under his spell: He’s charismatic, has a way with words, and exudes an idyllic southern charm, as when Neal’s Marcia Jeffries first encounters him in jail.
His charm soon wears off, though, and his descent into monstrosity is perfectly portrayed by Griffith. The performance seems even more remarkable today, given how starkly different it is from the rest of Griffith’s career. But it would be wrong to think this is the main reason the portrayal is so striking. It stands, stunningly, on its own—and if you’ve never watched A Face in the Crowd before, do yourself a favor this July 4, and spend a couple hours with some Independence Day counter-programming: a dark vision of the country brought gloriously to the screen by one of America’s favorite sons.