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!”
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.
Awards Columnist Pete Hammond - tip him here.