I don’t make it a point to visit Big Hollywood too often—mostly because I haven’t had all my shots—but this recent post by editor-in-chief John Nolte sort of started in me an involuntary rolling-of-the-eyeballs. Titled “Will Ben Mankiewicz Be Allowed to Destroy Turner Classic Movies?”, it describes how Johnny-O had to mosey on over to his fainting couch because Big Bad Ben had the unmitigated gall to draw a comparison between the character played by Andy Griffith in A Face in the Crowd (1957) and a certain modern-day radio/television demagogue prone to crying jags while on the air:
Not only was Mankiewicz clearly referring to right-wing talk radio, it was just as obvious with his snide ”cry on cue” comment that he was specifically targeting Glenn Beck.
Why is this one comment worth complaining about? Because we all know that this is how it always starts. Those of us who just want to sit back and relax and enjoy something without having to be on guard concerning a cheap sucker shot aimed at who we are and what we believe in have seen it start just like this a thousand times. Once the dam springs a leak … the dam always ends up bursting. Always. And then, once again, we lose something we love.
For the record, had Mankiewicz abused this opportunity to trash Chris Matthews or Keith Olbermann it would have been just as gratuitous and unwelcome.
I’m surprised Nolte was able to write that last line with a straight face—but then again: “If you believe it, it’s not a lie.”
The Goatee’d One can interpret the meaning of Elia Kazan’s masterpiece in today’s world all he wants, but he needs to keep that interpretation to himself and show his viewers the respect of allowing us to interpret it for our own selves.
If Mankiewicz isn’t mature enough to understand how important this is to the success of a network that enjoys the affection of a whole swath of Americans who have otherwise given up on Hollywood, he needs to be fired. And if Mankiweicz is too thick to understand that ”A Face In the Crowd” remains as effective a piece of filmmaking today as it was fifty years ago specifically due to the fact that it transcends petty partisan politics, he needs to take a leave of absence and read a book.
(*sigh*) Where to begin?
For the record, I’m not a big fan of Mankiewicz’s. While I will readily concede that the man does carry classic movie bona fides (his grandfather was screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz and great uncle Joseph L. Mankiewicz, writer-director of classics like A Letter to Three Wives  and All About Eve ) I find him a bit smarmy and lacking in gravitas. But as far as Ben’s comments went—I don’t think they were out of place. Crowd is an unrelentingly scathing portrayal of a media-created demagogue, and regardless of Glenn Beck’s political views (Nolte’s mention of “petty partisan politics” shouldn’t apply here because to my knowledge Beck has never affiliated himself with any particular political party) he fits the description of the word to a T. In all seriousness, if Nolte has an axe to grind about this he should go after Keith Olbermann—who’s been referring to the lachrymose pundit as “Lonesome Rhodes” Beck on MSNBC’s Countdown for quite a while now.
Nolte describes TCM as “a politics-free zone” and laments that “for the first time in my fifteen years of dedication to this irreplaceable reservoir of the medium I love, I felt sucker-punched.” Well, walk it off, crybaby. If you seriously think that TCM is untouched by politics, let’s just take a quick look at some of the movies frequently shown by the channel: Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), Network (1976), To Be or Not to Be (1942), Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939), Coming Home (1978), The Green Berets (1968), Fail-Safe (1964), Spartacus (1960), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), Meet John Doe (1941), The Parallax View (1974), The Great Dictator (1940), All the King’s Men (1949), The Best Man (1964), The Last Hurrah (1958), The Alamo (1960), Seven Days in May (1964)…and too many more to list. TCM has also showcased documentaries like Hidden Values: The Movies of the Fifties (2001) and featured festivals illustrating how blacks, Asians, and Latinos have been depicted in films. In January, TCM will showcase a festival entitled Shadows of Russia, and anti-Commie agitprop vehicles like Conspirator (1949), I Was a Communist for the FBI (1950), and My Son John (1952) will be among the offerings. As director Joe Dante once observed: “All movies are political, either overtly or coded, often unwittingly. Life is political. To pretend otherwise is to kid yourself and your audience.”
As for “interpret[ing] the meaning of Elia Kazan’s masterpiece in today’s world all he wants. but he needs to keep that interpretation to himself and show his viewers the respect of allowing us to interpret it for our own selves”—perhaps Nolte is unaware of this article written by the Village Voice’sJ. Hoberman from February 2008, in which Hoberman discusses Crowd with the late screenwriter Budd Schulberg:
In the ’80s, Kazan began saying that he and Schulberg had made a movie about Ronald Reagan back in the days when Reagan was still shilling for GE. Although Reagan’s election might have rendered A Face in the Crowd passé, the idea of a remake was floated throughout his presidency. Afterward, it simply became conventional wisdom. No great stretch of the imagination is required to see Lee Atwater as George H.W. Bush’s Lonesome Rhodes or Ross Perot as a Rhodes knockoff—and only a mild sense of tabloid melodrama is necessary to appreciate Hillary playing Patricia Neal to Bill’s Andy Griffith (now vice versa). To watch Bush II work his down-home magic on a preselected crowd is to be reminded of Rhodes’s modus operandi. More recently, A Face in the Crowd can seem to presage the media-manufactured candidacy and TV-honed persona of failed hopeful Senator Fred Thompson. I asked Schulberg if he saw another Arkansas fellow traveler in the 2008 race: “Huckabee has some touches,” he replied.
Poor John-John. Maybe he should heed his own advice of taking “a leave of absence and read a book.”
(Note: When I made the decision to write this post, I was unaware that the subject had been covered by Vadim Rizov at The Independent Eye at IFC.com. His piece—hilariously titled “What year did they invent politics again?”—is a bit more concise than mine, so you owe it to yourself to give it a glance.)