Rhodes Scholar

This nice post by Shamus about Crossing Delancey star Amy Irving the other day made me curious to see who else had a birthday that fell on Sept. 7 (yes, I've been meaning to write this post all weekend). A quick jaunt to IMDb and their "Today's Birthday" function called up the name of Elia Kazan, who would've turned 98 on Friday (he died in 2003). Whoa.

From Amy Irving to Elia Kazan (with stops, if you like, at fellow birthday celebrities Corbin Bernsen and Evan Rachel Wood). What would Isabelle Grossman make at her delineator sharing a birthday with Kazan, at once an artist, an activist, and a rat, whose dated-but-well-intentioned Gentlemen's Agreement deals directly with the issues of cultural prejudice and anti-Semitism that Delancey threads through its wry romantic comedy? Would she see in him a problematic but fascinating artist like the one she falls for in the film, or merely toss her hands up with an exasperated "Bubbie!"?

More to the point, what do I make of him? I didn't see many birthday tributes to Kazan the other day-- they may have been out there in the film blogosphere, but they weren't terribly prominent. This is not terribly surprising: it's a busy time of year, and depending on one's life and profession, there are festivals to cover, new releases to blog about, courses to plan and teach (and if you're anything like me, you're still behind on summer films and piles of netflixed flicks); the flood of commentary when he received his controversial Oscar in '99 and the responses to his death in '03 may have expressed everything people felt; and in the end, what can be added to this already admirable body of history, memory and critique? Dennis addressed a related topic in his superb post the other day on His Girl Friday (a fascinating riff on that classic film that I'd like to add my own bloggish improvisation to one of these days): how do you say someting new about a seemingly exhausted topic? I suspect my take on Kazan doesn't differ greatly from many: I have tremendous respect for his groundbreaking film and theater work, while hating the testimony in front of HUAC, and the devastating impact it had on so many lives. Beyond that, I could sing songs in praise of Brando and Beatty, Natalie Wood and Eva Marie Saint, muse or mock on the Method, talk about the central role Kazan played in the postwar American cultural consciousness (still plays, when you think about the threads leading out from all those folks). But that's been done, and Kazan's work was always so vibrantly now, so needing to be of the moment (like a cinematic Miles Davis), that to cover old ground feels like a betrayal of the legacy.

Still, I couldn't get him out of my head (he makes his fans his actors, his voice whispering in their ears), and it suddenly struck me as ironic that Kazan's birthday should fall just a couple of days after Mitchell declared his presidential campaign. In a piece for Vanity Fair a few months ago, James Wolcott wrote of Kazan's A Face In the Crowd, and accurately described the film's prescience about the tendency of Beltway pundits to fall for "straight talkers" and "men of the people" like McCain and Bush. I'd like to extend Wolcott's examples to note Thompson; after all, is there anything in the media panting over Fred that wasn't documented and dissected in Crowd, which celebrates its 50th anniversary next month, and is, for my money, the best thing Kazan ever did?

As I was thinking about this, I did a quick web search: surely, I couldn't be the only person who'd made this connection. Indeed, there were a couple of references here and there, which pleased me a great deal (I mourned my lack of utter originality, but was also glad not to be alone) but not as many as I might have imagined (or at least that I found-- if you know of others, please let me know, and we can start a Fred/Lonesome archive or something); indeed, the increasingly less interesting Wonkette saw John Edwards as Lonesome Rhodes; I get the comparison, but Edwards doesn't feel nearly as apt to me as Thompson, a man whose empty rhetoric, actor's training and jus' folks calculations feel so much closer to the mark.

Of course, Thompson can't pull the gag off as skillfully as Lonesome Rhodes, the small-town hustler and proto-fascist who uses his charm, his guitar-pickin' and his homespun "common sense" to rise to the pinnacle of media success in '50s America (like Thompson, he fetishizes his small-town roots in order to stay the hell out of his small town); look at his straining grin in that clip above, his teeth so big and alive they almost seem ready to devour the rest of his head. Ever since I saw the film in a college class years ago, I've thought it nailed a certain variety of media egotism, of both the right and the left. Andy Griffith has never been better, never used his innate likeability and good ol' boy appeal for richer purpose. This was his film debut, and it's a remarkable one, even if it unfolded in some offbeat ways. His Rhodes is at once a raging ball of energy, yelping and hooting and screaming his way into people's lives, and an insecure beast of tremendous neediness: watch as he uses his mumbling and fidgeting-- not even able to look Patricia Neal in the face--as tools to worm his way into her hotel room (the whole thing captured in a long shot of beautiful light and shadow by cinematographers Gayne Rescher and Harry Stradling, Sr.): you'll never watch Matlock the same way again. No one often knows where they stand with Rhodes, and even if they recognize his manipulations, they still play along. Two years after Kazan's epic, Otto Preminger made Anatomy of A Murder, a film which, as David Thomson notes in his Biographical Dictionary of Film, turns James Stewart's "aw shucks" persona against itself, revealing the artificiality of the shy guy pose. But by 1959, Stewart had already made Rear Window and The Naked Spur and Vertigo, already bared his psychosis on-screen; while a success on Broadway (in "No Time for Sergeants"), Griffith was a cinematic unknown, which makes his emotional nakedness and violent outbursts all the more effective; three years after Crowd, he'd slip into the protective shell of Sheriff Andy Taylor, and rarely plumb such dark depths again (of all the movies I missed this summer, I am most curious about Waitress-- I've heard he's fabulous in it).

Lonesome Rhodes, though, lives on (from Salon):

"My story is just another American story," says the former senator, his baritone Tennessee drawl rounding the edges of his words. "Growing up in a town that wasn't quite this big. My folks came in off the farm. Didn't get a chance to go to high school or any further education. Had to go to work. Became the most wonderful parents anybody could have. Because they really saw in me a little more than I saw in myself sometimes."

Thompson goes on like this for about 20 minutes, keeping the crowd's interest, even though they are squeezed in like matchsticks at one end of Music Man Square, an indoor museum built to celebrate the musical of the same name. "I've seen America from every vantage point. I've seen it from the factory floor on the graveyard shift," he says. "I've been able to dine in foreign capitals with foreign leaders all over the world."

His speech patterns are hypnotic and calming. He paces back and forth, looking at shoes as often as faces. Nothing is forced, emotional or too complex. He explains his decision to abandon a lucrative acting career for the world's most difficult job, presidential candidate, as if he woke up one morning and decided to put down the whiskey bottle for his family. "I could sit back and read somebody else's script and maybe clip coupons once in a while," he says. "Or I could step up."

Happy Birthday, Elia Kazan, and know that your legacy, however problematic, is still very much with us.


Jonathan Lapper said…
I came so close to picking this for 1957 in my Oscar posts but just barely didn't. Griffith is extraordinary and it's a crime of sorts that he wasn't nominated for "Best Actor". His performance was easily better than the rather lazy job Brando phoned in for "Sayonara" for which he was nominated.

I first saw this film in 1991 as Rush Limbaugh was beginning his ascent and remember thinking at the time that it was amazingly prescient. I also agree it is Kazan's best. For one thing, as I noted before in my Oscar post for the fifties, it doesn't have that icky self-justification of "On the Waterfront" that has always made me feel a little dirty after watching it. If you can equate getting your career back on track by naming the names of people you've worked with in front of a witch hunt committee to courageously turning evidence on a gangster who knows what kind of self delusions you're capable of.

Thanks for the post.
Cinephile said…
I first saw it in 1994, the same fall that Newt Gingrich was about to ascend to the Speaker's post, so it felt timely to me, too. I haven't see "Sayonara," but it's hard to imagine anyone better than Griffith is in this-- just so forceful and fearless, walking that fine line between monstrousness and (at least occasional) sympathy. And Patricia Neal is her usual, quietly spectacular self, too. Thanks for the comment!

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