Monday, March 30, 2009

On the interest payments of Fame, and the rise of a young man from North Carolina

I used to watch a lot of the game shows as a kid. I can still scat the theme song from The Better Sex, and could probably remember at least several of the villains' names from the Gauntlet on Whew! I spent a great majority of my young life thinking that the stars of Match Game and other game shows were famous solely for being on game shows. I was new to the ways of fame, and had not been alerted to the concept of "coasting", where you do something great early in your career and are able to eat out on it for the rest of your life. Steve Wozniak does not have to do anything else ever for the rest of his life - the man was one of two Steves who created the personal computer business. I'll go so far as to say he was the more important Steve. Bill Gates should call him at regular intervals, just say "Thank you" and hang up. Legacy achieved, mission accomplished.

So why, I ask you why, is he on Dancing With the Stars?

Because people like to be on television. Maybe he got sick of the fact that the other Steve was getting all the face time, and got mentioned as "founder of Apple" and not "CO-Founder of Apple" one too many times.
"You aren't really anybody in America if you're not on TV." 
-Suzanne Stone Maretto (Nicole Kidman), To Die For
It wasn't until years later that I started to catch reruns of The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, and saw Charles Nelson Reilly, and I thought, "Oh, OK, HERE'S what he was famous for". He showed up on Lidsville, and Uncle Croc's Block and a raft of other shows, and I realized, OK, you can be famous for more than one thing.

So I learned about a lot of people careers backwards. I'd see them now, and then see them then, and find the Now performance even more impressive. The aforequoted Nicole Kidman film changed my opinion of her as an actress as well.

And then there was A Face In The Crowd.

I knew Andy Griffith (as did the rest of planet Earth and at least two districts of the Moon) as the star of his eponymous TV show, more recently as the underappreciated Salvage 1, and a fine performer in his own right. As I started to hear more of his stand-up act on Dr. Demento, I realized he had a bit more of an edge to him. Public television got a copy of the original live performance of No Time for Sargeants, the play that really launched his career. It was more in line with the character in Andy Griffith (thought ironically, far more in common with the spinoff show and Jim Nabors vehicle Gomer Pyle, USMC) but still had some cynicism in the writing. I saw the film they made years later, but found it lacking in comparison to the kinescope performance I saw before.

But the manipulative power-mad media darling he played in FitC just blew me away.

Griffith plays Larry Rhodes, who is dubbed "Lonesome" Rhodes by radio programmer Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal), who finds him in a local jail and asks him to sing for her radio show. He has natural charm and charisma, and after a witty monologue and performance, gets a job doing their morning show. His popularity with housewives skyrockets, and he jumps from local radio to television in a twinkling. He makes fun of his sponsor, a mattress manufacturer; quite the common ploy now, but anathema in those days. Only when does the sponsor realize his sales have risen with Lonesome's fame does he allow it to continue.

At this point things begin to accelerate for Rhodes. An office boy in the sponsoring mattress company, Joey DePalma (Finder of Lost Loves himself, Anthony Franciosa) makes a few calls to New York, alerting the major advertising agencies of the events, and informs them that Rhodes is accepting offers. He is whisked to New York and given a national program.

As this occurs, Rhodes starts to realize the power he now wields. His camera-side personality is as affable as ever, but behind the camera he becomes rude and demanding to his friends (for lack of a better term) and staff, including the ever-hopeful-she'll-be-noticed Marcia.
His downfall comes with the simple turn of a knob, and his reaction to it is truly astounding to behold. He gives a Nuremberg-like speech to his empty apartment, with his eager hanger-on running the canned appluase machine.

Walter Matthau plays a writer for Lonesome, and his self-loathing for his job and his career is a cynical counterpoint to the joy and excitement everyone else feels about being in such a fun industry.

The film is a savage attack on the "personality machine" of the entertainment industry, creating stars and dropping them as soon as they get a little taint on them. It has never stopped being contemporary and identifiable.

Citizen Kane wasn't supposed to be any one publishing mogul, but you couldn't help but assume it was Hearst. So too here, while the film wasn't intended to portray any one media star, the one he drew the most parallels to is Radio and TV star Arthur Godfrey, who made a name for himself with his ukelele, his pleasant accent and his gentle skewering of his sponsors. But the amazing thing is, no matter what era of television or radio you grew up on, there's a personality you would SWEAR they based old Lonesome on.

This film is well over 50 years old. It is still as telling about the entertainment industry now as it was then. The only difference is we know more about what total cocknecks the stars are now, and we don't care.

If Lonesome Rhodes were around today, he would certainly appear on Dancing With The Stars.

1 comment:

  1. Great review, and still timely today, not unlike A FACE IN THE CROWD itself! And how awesome was it when Patricia Neal talked about the film when we saw THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL at the (now-defunct?) Darress Theater in NJ?