By Owen Gleiberman
July 17, 2012 at 12:00 PM EDT
Everett Collection

Andy Griffith and Ernest Borgnine were early, trend-setting examples of stars who made the transition from movies to television, often (in Borgnine’s case) oscillating between them. And because they both jumped mediums, Griffith and Borgnine, who died within a week of each other (Griffith on July 3, Borgnine on July 8), had fans of every phase of their career who didn’t necessarily overlap. Yet during this last week or so, as I thought back over the many, many decades of pleasure that both these actors had given us, I kept returning to what were, for me, their two greatest performances.

One of them you probably know, or at least know of, since Borgnine took the Academy Award for Best Actor for Marty (1955); I still think it’s his most indelible achievement. At least one of these performances, though, I’m guessing that there’s a good chance you haven’t seen: It’s      A Face in the Crowd (1957), which marked Andy Griffith’s big-screen debut, three years before he domesticated himself forever on The Andy Griffith Show. The film is being shown tonight (at 8:00 p.m.) on Turner Classic Movies, and if you’ve never seen it, there is no Hollywood movie in history that you should make a date with more fervently. A Face in the Crowd is such a shockingly, entertainingly prophetic drama of personality and fame and corruption and drunken power in the media age, with such a singular, towering performance by Griffith, that watching it, there are moments when you almost can’t believe your eyes. Taken together, A Face in the Crowd and Marty incarnate the extraordinary, often unsung richness of Hollywood movies in the 1950s. They span the emotional spectrum of that so-much-more-complex-than-we-remember-it decade, with Borgnine’s Marty a sweetly and perfectly etched expression of the quiet desperation of ordinary men and Griffith’s hellfire-in-a-cathode-ray performance as a TV demagogue a feat of acting so mesmerizingly intense that it looks ahead to the electric narcissism of the ’70s.

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Everett Collection

When you grow up watching certain actors on television, there’s a way that everything they’ve done beforehand can seem not quite real. For me, Fred MacMurray will always be the benevolent, slightly halting dad of My Three Sons (a show that ran from 1960 to 1972). MacMurray, of course, is also the star of Double Indemnity (1944), which I consider nothing less than the greatest film noir ever made. Yet every time I see him in that tale of murder and lust, it takes me 15 minutes to adjust to him as a brusquely polite, not-very-nice insurance-salesman sap who calls women “Baby!” In that light, if you define Andy Griffith as the sly hayseed of Mayberry (and really, who doesn’t?), or maybe as the wily defense attorney of Matlock, and then you watch him in A Face in the Crowd, it’s a little like finding out that, say, the Ted Danson of Cheers was once an actor as dangerous as Brando. That’s how daring, startling, and amazing an actor Andy Griffith once was. At least in this one role. He plays a man named Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes, who is discovered in a small-town Arkansas drunk tank by a radio reporter, Marcia Jeffries (the excellent Patricia Neal), who is looking to talk to some losers in jail for her morning interview show. But Lonesome is no run-of-the-mill vagrant. He’s a good ol’ boy with a ferocious gift of cracker-barrel gab, and the ability to grab a guitar and belt out a song like “Free Man in the Mornin’ ” (which he makes up on the spot) as though he were stealing the blues, bottling it, and getting sloshed on it all at the same time.

Lonesome is the earliest screen version of the personality that has come to define our age: the man (or woman) who has no true talent beyond being himself, but who is able to play himself with a genius that allows even his fraudulence to come off as sincere. Lonesome, a wolf in hick’s clothing, is a natural-born “character” who quickly lands his own local radio segment, which becomes a sensation. And the thing is, we can see why. He’s unthreateningly “ordinary,” but beneath his glad-handing “Yes, siree!” charm, his eyes glitter with ego as he takes the stuffing out of stuffed shirts, and he possesses a ruthlessly amoral understanding of how advertising and politics are manipulated by the suits in corporate boardrooms. In a lesser movie, his essentially two-faced nature would have marked him as a “phony,” a huckster demagogue who will stoop to anything to manipulate the public. And make no mistake: That’s just what he is. But the whole provocation of A Face in the Crowd, and the power of Griffith’s portrayal, is that he makes Lonesome a compulsive actor who always says just what he means, because he means just what he says at any given moment. The movie recognizes that the modern showbiz personality is on some level a grinning feel-good sociopath.

As directed by the great Elia Kazan, from a visionary script by Budd Schulberg (On the Waterfront), A Face in the Crowd presents Lonesome as a cross between two iconic American figures: the cornpone-wisdom everyman Will Rogers, who died 22 years before the film was made, and a newer, more revolutionary talent — Elvis Presley, the sexy good ol’ boy who stole the blues (just like Lonesome does). The fact that Presley made his first convulsive appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show on Sept. 9, 1956, a mere eight months before A Face in the Crowd premiered, suggests that the movie was already on to where Elvis-mania was going (and, in Lonesome’s relationship with a baton-twirling teenage dream played by Lee Remick in her screen debut, where the decadence of fame would lead Presley years later). What’s extraordinary, however, is all the future figures in American politics and pop culture that A Face in the Crowd anticipates. As Lonesome rises to stardom, using his evangelical gift of gab to sell himself as an “authentic” voice of the people, even as he presents himself as a rebel skewering the elites, he’s not just Elvis or Will Rogers with a touch of Charles Foster Kane — he’s Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, he’s Rush Limbaugh and Jim Bakker, he’s Phil Donahue (the housewives all love Lonesome, because he’s a back-door man who speaks directly to them), he’s Jerry Lewis on the Telethon, and he’s also the first reality TV star, a cornpone premonition of Network‘s Howard Beale.

Griffith gives Lonesome the gleam of a true believer, and a pearly-white cackle of laughter that turns more demonic as the movie goes on. When he makes it to the national TV airwaves, he becomes the pitchman for a product called Vitajex (little over-the-counter pills that give you a lift), and the film’s understanding of the way that advertising creates reality would do Don Draper proud. We’re cued to see that Lonesome is becoming a false prophet. Yet by the time he lends his services to a conservative presidential candidate, helping him turn his anti-government-safety-net rhetoric into an appeal to folksy individualism (gee, that sounds kind of familiar), your jaw may be on the floor. Three years before the Kennedy-Nixon debates, A Face in the Crowd imagines the world of postmodern image manipulation in politics with a prescience that would make Karl Rove shudder. See the movie tonight for its manic time-machine brilliance, and for a taste of the wild actor that Andy Griffith, had he not made that pit stop in Mayberry, might have become.

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Ernest Borgnine had about nine lives as an actor: The burly working-class upstart of the ’50s wasn’t necessarily familiar to those who grew up with the bellicose cutup of the ’60s-sitcom version of McHale’s Navy, who then evolved into a more fiercely volatile and goggle-eyed version of his former character-actor self in films like The Dirty Dozen (1967) and Willard (1971) — mass entertainments that reflected the freedoms of the New Hollywood, or, in the case of Sam Peckinpah’s apocalyptic Western The Wild Bunch (a Borgnine highlight), defined those freedoms. But as the dust settles on Ernest Borgnine’s career, I will still always love him most in Marty, the Paddy Chayefsky heart-tugger that, had it been made today, would probably be hailed as a low-key landmark of “indie” empathy. It’s like the blue-plate-special version of Blue Valentine with the two unhippest romantic characters in movie history.

As Marty, a 34-year-old Italian-American butcher who still lives with his mother in Brooklyn, Borgnine plays the sort of decent-hearted loser who is all thumbs when it comes to women, and though you might call the movie sentimental, Borgnine’s portrayal is anything but. He gives Marty a grubby desperation, a fear and barely closeted fury at the mystifying thought that he may be running out of time. Then, on a lonely Saturday night at the Stardust Ballroom, he meets a fellow “loser,” played by the fetchingly plain-Jane pretty Betsy Blair. She’s as out of touch as Marty is, and he’s smitten, but can he shake off his nagging family — and, more pressingly, the nattering neighborhood guys who talk about girls as “tomatoes” they’d like to squash? Can he get past them by growing up?

You can hear, in Chayefsky’s dialogue, an early premonitory echo of the backtalk in Diner, and the touching, small-scale appeal of the movie (which, believe it or not, took the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1955) is that it’s so specific, so true to the automat grayness and listless rhythms of Marty’s life. In one of the film’s defining moments, he’s heading home after his impromptu date, it’s about 1:00 in the morning in the outer boroughs, and instead of waiting for the bus, as he usually would, he punches the metal bus sign and runs out into the street to hail a cab. The beauty of Marty is that Ernest Borgnine made you believe that one man’s impetuous decision to splurge on a taxi cab could be nothing less than a soul reborn.

So who has seen A Face in the Crowd or Marty? Do you agree with what I said about them? And what are your favorite performances by Andy Griffith and Ernest Borgnine?

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