Hammond On Andy Griffith: Not Just Another 'Face In The Crowd'

UPDATED: Andy Griffith gave the greatest performance of his career the first time he ever stepped in front of a film camera. In fact his portrayal of country bumpkin-turned rabidly ambitious and menacing media force in Elia Kazan’s 1957 masterpiece A Face In The Crowd is not only one of the great screen performances of that decade, but just about any other decade too. It’s almost criminal more people have not seen this film, a flop in its time but a hugely influential movie in the intervening years. Paddy Chayefsky’s brilliant Oscar-winning satire Network is often cited as being way ahead of its time in predicting the future power of the media. If that’s the case then A Face In The Crowd, which represented the re-teaming of Kazan and his On The Waterfront screenwriter Budd Schulberg, was about 20 years ahead of Network.

Related: R.I.P. Andy Griffith

Griffith, who died today at the age of 86, was simply brilliant playing this country nobody who in his ability to relate to the regular folks turns into a huge media star, but a fake one with an ice-cold inner being who uses his newfound celebrity status as an unbridled grab for power behind the mike. “The whole country’s just like my flock of sheep….I’m not just an entertainer. I’m an influence, a wielder of opinion, a force…a force!,”  said Lonsome Rhoades. “Rednecks, crackers, hillbillies, hausfraus, shut-ins, pea pickers – everybody that’s got to jump when somebody else blows the whistle…they’re mine, I own them. They think like I do. Only they’re more stupid than I am so I gotta think for ’em…you just wait and see. I’m gonna be the power behind the President!”

Related: EXCLUSIVE: Ron Howard On Andy Griffith

When I saw the sad news on Deadline that TV icon Andy Griffith had passed away this morning I didn’t first think of one of the great TV dads ever, Sheriff Andy Taylor of Mayberry. I didn’t think right away of the crafty southern lawyer Matlock. I didn’t even think of Private Will Stockdale , the signature folksy Broadway role for which he won a Tony nomination  in 1955 (he won another Tony nom in 1959 for the musical Destry Rides Again), a character he re-created in the 1958 film version of No Time For Sergeants. That one was a smash for Warner Bros and Griffith that led to his iconic TV series success. No,  I thought immediately of A Face In The Crowd,  the box office flop he did for Warners the year before, the one no one saw at the time and the one that incredibly did not receive a single Academy Award nomination that year.

Forget the fact that lesser films, including the soapy Peyton Place, swept up multiple major nods in 1957 from the Academy, it’s remarkable 55 years after its debut in late May of ’57 that at the very least Griffith’s towering debut did not somehow merit Best Actor Oscar recognition. Look at this biting all-knowing portrayal now and you realize he should have won. He wasn’t even nominated, an egregious oversight that ranks with the worst omissions in Academy history. I consider this performance and Kazan’s film one of the ten best I have ever seen. Kazan said in his book, “Kazan On Directing” that he and Schulberg conceived the movie “as a warning to the American people”. Unfortunately not many of them saw it including, apparently, members of the Motion Picture Academy.

Nominees for Best Actor that year were Marlon Brando playing not nearly as memorable a southerner in Sayonara, Anthony Franciosa (ironically a co-star in Face In The Crowd) in the drug addiction drama A Hatful Of Rain, Charles Laughton in Witness For The Prosecution, Anthony Quinn in the forgotten Wild Is The Wind and a deserving winner Alec Guiness in The Bridge On The River Kwai, but even that great performance in the year’s winning Best Picture doesn’t seem as powerful to me today as Griffith’s. Certainly none of them have the same relevance half a century later.

Perhaps the Academy just felt Kazan and Schulberg had gotten enough Oscar glory three years earlier when On The Waterfront swept the awards but it seems a shame Griffith wasn’t deservedly heralded, not even as Most Promising Male Newcomer at the Golden Globes. James Garner, John Saxon and John Wayne’s son Patrick got that honor over Griffith! The fact is, unlike the Tonys, Andy never had much luck on the Hollywood awards circuit. Incredibly he had only one Emmy nomination over the course of his career and that was as a supporting actor in the 1981 NBC mini-series Murder In Texas (a category being eliminated next year by the way). There was nothing for his work on The Andy Griffith Show or Matlock or any other number of fine performances in television over the years.

Griffith suffered the awards curse of making it all look too easy, but he didn’t seem to mind.  I do. When you consider there are hairdressers in town whose shelves are lined with Emmy statuettes, it just seems unfair that the medium’s true Icons like Griffith or Jackie Gleason never even had one. Thankfully the Academy has at least included them in their Hall of Fame. But as far as I can tell Griffith’s most significant competitive awards win from the television industry was the People’s Choice Award he got in 1987 as Favorite Male Performer in a New TV Program for Matlock and the “Single Dad Of The Year” award he got from TV Land in 2003 for their Andy Griffith Show reruns.

In terms of movies that initial blastoff in A Face In The Crowd turned out to be his first and only real shot for Oscar immortality. After he ended the Griffith show he did try to reignite his starring film career by playing  a small town Reverend, the same kind of folksy character as Andy Taylor in Universal’s forgettable 1969 family comedy, Angel In My Pocket. Over the years he would turn up in an interesting film here and there like the underrated Jeff Bridges starrer, Hearts Of The West (1975),  and there was even a little mild Oscar buzz for his amusing role as Old Joe, a diner’s wise customer in 2007’s  Waitress, but it wasn’t to be.

No, there was never going to be another A Face In The Crowd for Andy Griffith. Our loss. So again, when I heard the news of his passing I thought of this movie which still has so much to say about the way we were and the way we are. It also has a lot to say about the raw, underappreciated talent of Andy Griffith. If his death does anything it would be great to put the focus on this classic movie (it will air as part of a TCM tribute July 18) and its star, perhaps giving new life and appreciation to both for new (and old) generations to come.

That might be greater than any award Hollywood could dream up for a star who was anything but just another face in the crowd.

  1. “A Face In The Crowd” is with out a doubt a masterpiece that was way a head of its time. A movie that is still being talked about to this day for predicting how our media is run today. God Bless Andy Griffith for giving probably the most unappreciated powerful acting performance ever on film.

    Andy should get a posthumous Oscar for that performance, he clearly deserves it in spades.

  2. Nicely put. There are those handful of prophetic dramas and comedies that most people have forgotten or overlooked. “A Face In The Crowd” blew me away when I stumbled on it, one late night, many years ago, and it continues to do so today. Along with the aforementioned ‘Network’ and the other masterpiece of that period, ‘Sweet Smell of Success’, our future, at least in regards to our media, was proffered. To bad nobody took heed. Fare thee well Lonsome…

  3. an awful performance, horribly over the top, one can only imagine what a great actor like brando or tracy or even lancaster would have done with the role…he was a d list actor with no talent , and anyone who rents that movie is wasting their precious time on this earth.

    1. Hopefully people will be more respectful when you die than you have been today. No matter your opinion, today is probably not the day and this is probably not the forum for such negativity. Most of us can only hope to have the impact that Andy Griffith had on America during his wonderful career.

    2. A Face in the Crowd IS an excellent film. Remember that Griffith portrayed a megalomaniac. I liked Brando, but as far as over-the-top acting is concerned, I need only to mention The Fugitive Kind. Awful. And I will not mention Lancaster in The Rose Tattoo. Sometimes I think that people are so fond of toned-down acting (which very often does not elicit any emotion whatsoever in the public) because their first encounter with ‘moving pictures’ is by means of video-games. I want to see the actor show fear, love, irritation, tenderness, lust, pain, wrath, pensiveness. After all, he is supposed to be a vector of emotions.

    3. Of course his performance was over-the-top. His character was over-the-top. Lonesome Rhoades was megalomaniac and was portrayed perfectly.

      I don’t know who won the Best Actor Oscar that year, but I know it should have been Andy Griffith.

    4. You are entitled to your opinion although your timing is obnoxious. Nevertheless – I just rented “A Face in the Crowd” and I thought it was amazing. You criticize Andy for being “over the top” and then suggest Burt Lancaster? Ironic. Spencer? Brando? (Brando – really?!) Umm, I guess another actor could have played Lonesome Rhodes, but Andy WAS Lonesome Rhodes. I can’t believe he wasn’t nominated for his performance because he certainly deserved it. (Maybe he did such a great job as Sheriff Taylor that people like you have trouble seeing him play a man as disturbing as Lonesome?)
      RIP Andy…

  4. The best write up on Mr. Griffith I’ve read today and when I heard that he passed away my first thoughts were about his performances in A Face in the Crowd and the TV movie Murder in Texas.

  5. God Bless Andy Griffith he is a Icon and father figure to a lot of us. He will be miss. Prayers to his family.

  6. He was not nominated for Best Actor??
    The Academy and Foreign Press members should be ashamed!

    1. Unmentioned here is the whole Kazan HUAC testimony around that time, which surely caused a lot of ill will come awards season.

  7. A drama major in college when “Face In the Crowd” was released I remember being blown away by the film and it was the first thing to pop into my mind when I read of Mr. Griffith’s passing. Don’t know if it ever made it to DVD but I’m now gonna hunt for it as I am eager to see it again. RIP Andy Griffith and thank you for your largely unheralded body of work.

  8. The true Masters of the actors art never seem as if they are “acting”. Mr. Griffith was one of the greats, one of the few true Icons.

  9. I saw it as a young teen and never bought into it or him for a minute. May he rest in peace.

  10. Brilliant post Pete – thank you for giving giving A Face In The Crowd the proper spotlight it deserves. That film was incredible as was Andy’s performance. After recently screening that film I was bl

  11. Brilliant post Pete – thank you for giving giving A Face In The Crowd the proper spotlight it deserves. That film was incredible as was Andy’s performance. After recently screening that film I was blown away by Griffith’s “dark side” and was super disappointed that side of his versatility as an actor wasn’t taken advantage of to it’s true potential. RIP AG – I grew up watching Mayberry and was floored by A Face In The Crowd – the man was truly talented – also great to hear he was a pleaure to work with and put out positive energy on set –

  12. Amazing film and performance. A cautionary tale for today. Are you watching your Glen Beck TV?

  13. I remember that movie very well…I was young when i saw it and my first thought was Oh Andy Taylor is in a movie. THAT thought quickly fell by the wayside. He also did another movie in which he played a cousin to Gov. George Wallace who was convicted of killing a black sharecropper..one of the first wealthy white men to ever be convicted of such a crime. He was amazing in that as well.

  14. Thank you Mr. Hammond for your truthful and powerful piece on ANDY GRIFFITH.

    When I stumbled onto A FACE IN THE CROWD, while at graduate film school, I was simply mesmerized by Griffith’s performance.

    He showed a very, very vivid range of emotions cascading all over the place.

    His character…was one without power; in a jail when we first meet him.
    And he jumped to the top of pulling the strings on a future presidential candidate
    by using — guess what? Pushing people’s emotional buttons.
    A wiley man, who came from the same general populace of the people he could manipulate.

    That was a large part of the story’s foundation.
    There was no over the top work going on here.

    You have to understand the emotional fragility and ego centric insecurities in someone making comms like this so called BIG MAC did, regarding ANDY GRIFFITH’S powerful performance in A FACE IN THE CROWD.

    And then you wish BIG MAC the best and go back to regarding Andy Griffith, long and successful work, as an American treasure all along.

  15. Not sure why some people have to die to get the attention that they deserve. R.I.P. Mr. Griffith.

  16. Great work Pete. The best piece written by far on this mans genius.
    I would like to mention that besides Griffith’s performance in FACE IN THE CROWD being sheer brilliance so was the script and the direction. It all came together.

    Don’t underestimate how shocking this film was at the time it was released.

  17. Thank you, Ron Howard. for your kind words on a man who must’ve been a Mentor,
    a Father Figure to you. You can ask anyone who worked with Andy (and I did), and
    they will all say what a wonderful human being he was. I, too, loved his work.
    Fight on!
    Ken DelConte

  18. I truly agree. Griffith’s performance in “A Face in the Crowd” is one of the greatest in cinema history. I watch that film over and over again and marvel what acting genius lay disguised behind the role of a genial television sheriff, never to be allowed out again. Of course I enjoyed “The Andy Griffith Show” and was soothed by his deceptively easy going performance, but how I wished that he had been given another role like that first. There was no doubt that this was genius, because his similarly sly, sweet and knowing performance as Will Stockdale confirmed that hewas an actor with incredible comic timing and great dramatic depth. We’ll miss him; we should miss him.

  19. Thanks for putting A Face In The Crowd at the major, point of your piece. His performance and that film were and still are mesmerizing. Marvin Levy

  20. an absolute masterpiece of a film and definitely a performance by Andy that should’ve not only won him an Oscar, but should’ve put him in the same league as Newman, Brando, etc. and launched him to film stardom. it’s been consistently among my top 5 films ever, since the day I saw it back in the 60’s.

  21. Actually, it’s already on DVD. Go to Warner Bros’s DVD store on their website or go to (if there’s any) an independent video retail store.

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