Friday, November 04, 2005

A Face in the Crowd

The White House has released the annual list of recipients for the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor. This year's honorees will recieve their awards next Wednesday, in a ceremony at the White House. Among those being recognized for their achievements are Jack Nicklaus, Carol Burnett, Muhammad Ali, retired Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, radio newscaster Paul Harvey and Andy Griffith.

As a life-long fan of The Andy Griffith Show, I was pleased to see Mr. Griffith honored for his work as an actor and performer. The Andy Griffith Show is, arguably, the greatest sitcom of all-time; its gentle humor and memorable characters still hold up well today, 45 years after the series debuted on CBS. While many of the topical sitcoms that came after it (All in the Family, Maude) seem strident and dated, the Griffith show remains fresh and funny. It remains a staple on TV Land (where nightly reruns still arract a sizeable cable audience) and an influence on the more urbane (and supposedly hip) sitcoms of today. Watch a few episodes of Seinfeld and you'll find that TV's best sitcom of the 90s was actually a direct descendant of The Andy Griffith Show.

While his classic sitcom is enough to cement Mr. Griffith's place in the pantheon of popular culture, his 50-year career also includes the Broadway stage (he received Tony nominations for the comedy No Time for Sergeants and the musical Destry Rides Again), as well as stand-up comedy; his description of a hillbilly seeing his first football game (What it Was Was Football) remains one of the classic monolouges of all time.

But (arguably) Griffith's greatest performance came in the 1957 film A Face in the Crowd, directed by Elia Kazan. Griffith plays Larry "Lonesome" Rhodes, an Arkansas hobo who becomes an overnight television sensation until his cynicism and disdain for his audience are finally revealed. Liberals often describe the film as a study of the manipulation of the media (and the public) by greedy performers and corporate interests. But from a conservative perspective, Kazan's film is also a cautionary tale about the unholy alliance between between politics, the media and celebrities, decades before Hollywood became a subsidiary of the Democratic Party.

Whatever its intended message, the film ranks with the best of Kazan's work, and Griffith turns in a mesmerizing performance as the cold, calculating, yet cornpone Rhodes. Oddly, the film ingored by the Academy Awards and Griffith did not receive a nomination as Best Actor. Some have speculated that the politics of Kazan and screenwriter Budd Schulberg may have prompted the slight. Both Kazan and Schulberg cooperated with the House Un-American Activities Committee in exposing communists in Hollywood.

A Face in the Crowd airs occasionally on cable, and a DVD version was recently released. Almost a half-century after its original release, A Face in the Crowd has lost none of its original power and it's nice to see the film's star, Andy Griffith, receive recognition for his long career and many contributions to our culture. It takes rare talent to span the acting divide between Lonesome Rhodes and Andy Taylor, and Mr. Griffith managed that feat flawlessly--and impressively.

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