Every now and then there is a movie that has somehow been able to forecast future events. One of the most famous examples was the 1979 release of The China Syndrome which eerily paralleled events that happened just before the film’s release, when a nuclear meltdown threatened Three Mile Island. And I have long maintained that the 1957 classic A Face In The Crowd, criminally under-appreciated at the time of its release, basically presaged the Donald Trump presidential campaign.
This has always been one of my all-time top ten favorite movies, comparable to the brilliance of Paddy Chayefsky’s 1976 Oscar winning Network which itself correctly predicted the rise of an unhinged, ratings-obsessed media. “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore”, anyone? Now in retrospect the film seems to be channeling not only Trump’s rise, but potentially his fall. The Elia Kazan-directed drama written by Budd Schulberg starred Andy Griffith (pre-TV sitcom success), in a brilliant performance, as a country bumpkin named Lonesome Rhoades who is discovered by talent scout Patricia Neal and thrust into the big time thanks to his plain spoken appeal to the common people, who believe everything he says – and then some. SPOILER ALERT: He is eventually brought down unwittingly by an open mic diatribe against the very poor souls who supported his ascent to the top of the show business world. It’s a surreal world we are living in, dictated by what we only once thought could be fiction. Open mics will kill you every time, eh Donald?
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In A Face In The Crowd, Griffith’s Lonesome Rhoades does not, unlike Trump, actually run for President after his success on radio and TV, but instead is convinced that his midas touch can make him a kingmaker simply by backing a mediocre candidate – Senator Fuller – and getting him to come down to the level of his most basic, college- uneducated potential supporters. As an actor on Rhoades’ show asks about this political hack he is backing for President, even though the guy is dead last in the polls, “you really sell that stuff as a man among men?” Without knowing he is still on air, Rhoades replies “Those morons out there? Shucks, I could take chicken fertilizer and sell it to them as Caviar. I could make them eat dog food and think it was steak. You know what the public’s like? A cage of Guinea pigs. Good night,you stupid idiots. Good night, you miserable slobs. They’re a lot of trained seals. I toss them a dead fish and they’ll flap their flippers.”
It’s somewhat reminiscent of the line Trump told during the primaries, after many counted him out due to his “honesty”, when he said he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and they’d still support him. He’s been proven right again and again, at least until Friday when a damaging and sexually explicit Access Hollywood tape from 11 years ago surfaced, featuring Trump making crude remarks about women with the then-host of the show Billy Bush. Suddenly large swaths of the Republican Party are talking about getting him to exit the Presidential race.
Television and the phoniness of reality shows fueled Trump’s improbable rise, and the fact that nothing is ever erased anymore, and everything is on tape somewhere, could signal his demise. It has been predicted many times by pundits, but again as he said he could probably murder someone and it wouldn’t make a difference. A look back at A Face In The Crowd predicts his ascent, maybe not exactly the same way but with certainly the same mindset.
More Rhoades bonmots: “The whole country’s just like my flock of sheep. Rednecks, crackers, hillbillies, hausfraus, shut-ins, pea-pickers – everybody’s that got to jump when somebody else blows the whistle. They don’t know it yet but they are all gonna be ‘Fighters For Fuller’. They’re mine! I own ’em! They think like I do. Only they’re even more stupid than I am, so I gotta think for ’em. Marcia, you just wait and see. I am gonna be the power behind the President, and you’ll be the power behind me,” he says at one point in the film when he is convinced of his invulnerability.
Warren Beatty’s brilliant and prescient 1998 political satire Bulworth did as well in its own way by suggesting a Senator could be more politically successful by going rogue and campaigning in completely politically incorrect and unorthodox ways – the exact mantra of the Trump surge. Beatty and co-writer Jeremy Pikser got a well-deserved Original Screenplay nomination but, like Face, did not receive the attention it deserved from an Academy that is sometimes slow to recognize truly innovative and predictive movies. A Face In The Crowd received exactly zero nominations, even with a towering performance from Andy Griffith that rivaled any other from that decade. The only recognition it got was a DGA nomination for Kazan.
Time has been much kinder. A Face In The Crowd and Bulworth, and of course Network for that matter, are all now considered to be way ahead of their time. All are well worth discovering now as movies that had their finger on the pulse of the bizarre future we are now inhabiting. Sometimes it takes a trip to the past to figure out just how far we haven’t come.
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