The Perishable Politician

tags: politics, celebrity presidents

Antoine Lilti is a historian at the École des hautes études en sciences sociales, in Paris. 

Excerpted from Antoine Lilti’s The Invention of Celebrity (Polity, 2017).

A Face in the Crowd, directed by Elia Kazan in 1957, tells the story of a drifter from Arkansas, Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes, noticed by the producer of a local radio station looking for someone unknown. Rhodes’s performance is a great success and marks the beginning of a dramatic rise: after he is given a radio show, he goes on television, first in Memphis, then on a national channel. He becomes one of the most popular moderators in the country, accumulating riches and celebrity. His success is quick, unexpected, exhilarating. He uproots in a matter of weeks from misery and homelessness and is propelled into the upper echelons of New York society. His weekly show is watched by millions, a close-up of his face is on the cover of magazines, marketing agencies snap up his services. This spectacular rise, as in all good Hollywood stories, is soon followed by a fall no less spectacular: having become a megalomaniac, angry and paranoid, Rhodes isolates himself, takes refuge in grandiloquence and cynicism, and collapses when the young woman who launched his career reveals his real personality. The end of the film pathetically shows Rhodes ruined, alone, and unhappy, fleeing the symbols of his success.

Beyond this classic story of a rise and fall, the film brilliantly describes the mechanisms and the stakes of celebrity in the American consumer society of the 1950s, transformed by the new audio-visual media forms of radio and television. Marketing issues are omnipresent. Rhodes acts in publicity spots, his celebrity at the service of announcers. Kazan, doing research for the film, met with publicity agents from Madison Avenue, and he amused himself by making a fictive series of commercials, which appeared in the movie. The film cleverly mixes two dimensions of advertisement itself, communication aimed at marketing, and the way in which an anonymous individual, a “face in the crowd,” becomes a public figure, known by everyone. One aspect of Rhodes’s success is his way of making fun of the products he is supposed to be promoting, this iconoclastic freedom guaranteeing the notoriety of the brand, and, ultimately, an increase in sales.

If the program audience is made up of consumers, it is also made up of voters. A Face in the Crowd was the most overtly political of all Kazan’s movies. In the second part, Rhodes becomes the consultant to a senator who wants to run for president. Rhodes advises him with frank brutality to create a media persona in order to become popular. When the senator invokes the “respect” due a politician, Rhodes responds that ordinary people buy beer because they like it, not because they respect it. This way of reducing politics to the immediate satisfaction of the consumer is meant to show Rhodes’s vulgarity, but it also reveals a future for democracy based on advertising, which the rise in political marketing has only confirmed. It corresponds to the feeling of power that overwhelms the media host, persuaded that through power he can get anything he wants from his public. Wanting to transform his cathodic celebrity into political popularity, Rhodes even at one point dreams of a political career. The film shows a certain vague anxiety in the face of transformations taking place in politics, less threatened by classical Caesarism than by a new form of populism, that of marketing, reducing politicians to the status of commercial products aimed at the simple tastes of ordinary people and giving popular stars an unprecedented power to manipulate public opinion. What assures Rhodes’s success is his average-man identity, that he talks like the people and addresses himself to them, offering a form of “grass-root wisdom,” as proclaimed on the cover of a magazine seen in close-up.

Could his success be a metaphor for a new democratic era, the precursor of which began to be felt at the end of the 1950s in America? Did Kazan anticipate the service of Ronald Reagan, a former actor putting his fame and his television mastery at the service of a conservative political message, organized around the simplicity of the people? The Kazan film explicitly laid out the menace of popular opinion controlled by a demagogue. Rhodes repeats: “I am a force,” to the point that he worries those close to him and they end by betraying him in the name of the public good. Celebrity is shown not only as illegitimate in the cultural domain; it becomes dangerous when undue power is exercised in the public sphere. Political criticism of the effects of celebrity and the dangers of media-constructed democracy is the most explicit ideological thread in the film.

Kazan’s worry in 1957 was a response to the growing takeover by new audiovisual media, with a consequent confusing of commercial, cultural, and political issues, given the influence of publicity. A critical discourse had begun to take shape, denouncing the destructive effects of various kinds of media, its capacity to create from whole cloth factitious stars and put them on before a passive and alienated public. Most of the dangers that threaten us regularly—celebrity politics, the influence of advertising, the rapid and ephemeral success of pseudo-stars—were already strongly denounced half a century ago. ...

Read entire article at The Baffler

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