We've Seen This Election Before, In Classic Movies

Oct 25, 2016
Originally published on October 25, 2016 6:00 pm

We keep hearing that this election is like no other, but when I watch old movies, I often hear echoes of what's going on in the campaign.

The guy who opines in A Face in the Crowd (1957), say, that in the then-new age of television, "instead of long-winded public debates, people want capsule slogans."

Though the stellar ratings for this year's presidential debates suggest that people are actually looking for a little long-windedness these days, his thoughts on sloganeering still apply nearly six decades later — the Clinton campaign's "Let's Be Stronger Together"; the Trump campaign's "Make America Great Again."

Life imitating art? Maybe vice versa. Either way, when I hear dispatches from the campaign trail, and close my eyes, what I see are scenes from classic films.

The big one is A Face in the Crowd, in which Andy Griffith plays Lonesome Rhodes, a reality TV star pre-reality TV, and it goes to his head.

"I'm not just an entertainer," he claims, "I'm an influence, a wielder of opinion, a force."

What conjured him for me was Donald Trump's oft-repeated assertion that "People love me, and you know what, I've been very successful, everybody loves me."

Now, I cast no aspersions. To paraphrase former vice presidential candidate Lloyd Bentsen, in the movies I knew Lonesome Rhodes, Lonesome Rhodes was no friend of mine, but Donald Trump is no Lonesome Rhodes.

What Trump is, is a guy who burnished his image on TV, went on to become a "force," and then found himself in trouble when a TV microphone captured him in an unguarded moment, speaking disparagingly and occasionally obscenely about women.

A microphone left on also figures in A Face in the Crowd, with the principal difference being that Rhodes is caught on mic disrespecting not just women, but everyone. He is unaware that a flipped switch has sent the bile he is spewing out to the very public he is disparaging as "a lot of trained seals."

"I toss 'em a dead fish," he goes on, "and they flap their flippers."

Needless to say, this does not go over well. But note that he is being pilloried more for human failings than for making a political mistake. For the first time in ages, my election-year thoughts are not filled with campaign satires like Wag the Dog.

The real campaign this year has so outstripped anything Hollywood considered believable in an election movie that you have to turn to other genres for comparisons. Still, the apolitical films dovetail pretty neatly with this campaign, or at least, with the negatives in it.

For instance, while A Face in the Crowd is a perfect film for the anti-Trump crowd, if you agree with the Republican nominee that Hillary Clinton ought to be locked up, the film to catch is The Lion in Winter, where you can see how the locking-up thing plays out.

The year is 1183, and Peter O'Toole's King Henry II is allowing Katharine Hepburn's sharp-tongued Eleanor of Aquitaine out of jail for the first time in a decade or so. It doesn't take long for the anger to well up in her so ferociously, you can understand why he locked her away.

"I could peel you like a pear," she hisses at one point, "and God himself would call it justice."

Such a nasty woman.

Hollywood's record on glass-ceiling-breakers isn't great. There's The Devil Wears Prada, of course, and more recently the Hunger Games movies, but for decades, Hollywood insisted women be mostly decorative, not powerful.

There was always one exception: Queens were allowed to be as strong as any man. Think Elizabeth I, played by everyone from Bette Davis in The Virgin Queen to Judi Dench in Shakespeare in Love, where she startled a theater audience by pronouncing Gwyneth Paltrow's "illusion" as a woman playing a man playing a woman "remarkable." Then she notes that she knows "something about a woman playing a man's role. Yes, by God, I do know about that."

And, by God, I do know something about journalists, who have been taking quite a few hits on the campaign trail this year, both from Trump ("corrupt media, pushing completely false allegation and outright lies") and from Clinton, who has been so wary of the press that she went nine months without holding a single news conference.

As befits a town that lives and dies on publicity, Hollywood can be skeptical about reporters, too. In Ace in the Hole, Kirk Douglas claims to be "a pretty good liar" and establishes that he is less concerned with truth than with how a story plays. He orchestrates a whole media circus around a guy trapped in a mine.

If you believe that the search for juicier stories has contributed to making a mess of this year's election, I'm guessing you might see a parallel or two as he offers to build up a corrupt sheriff. He'll push him so hard, he says, that when the election rolls around, "the guys running against you will vote for you."

All of which is to say that the media think they can control a story, celebrities think they can control their fans, and politicians think they can control the world.

The Greeks called this "hubris," and in drama — as you'll see if you check out any of these films — it rarely ends happily.

In life? Well, we'll find out two weeks from today.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

We keep hearing that this election is like no other. But is that really true? Listen to this from the 1957 movie "A Face In The Crowd."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A FACE IN THE CROWD")

PERCY WARAM: (As General Haynesworth) Politics have entered a new stage, the television stage. Instead of long-winded public debates, the people want capsule slogans. Time for a change.

SIEGEL: Six decades later, what was true at the dawn of television about sloganeering still applies.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HILLARY CLINTON: Let's be stronger together, my fellow...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: We will make America great again.

SIEGEL: Life imitating art, or maybe vice versa. Either way, critic Bob Mondello says when he hears dispatches from the campaign trail and closes his eyes, what he sees are scenes from classic films.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: The big one is "A Face In The Crowd" about a guy who becomes a reality TV star pre-reality TV, and it goes to his head.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A FACE IN THE CROWD")

ANDY GRIFFITH: (As Lonesome Rhodes) I'm not just an entertainer. I'm an influence, a wielder of opinion, a force.

MONDELLO: That's Andy Griffith as the movie populist Lonesome Rhodes. Here's what conjured him for me.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: People love me. And you know what? I've been very successful. Everybody loves me.

MONDELLO: Now, I cast no aspersions, to paraphrase former vice presidential candidate Lloyd Bensten. In the movies, I knew Lonesome Rhodes. Lonesome Rhodes was no friend of mine. But Donald Trump is no Lonesome Rhodes. What he is is a guy who burnished his image on TV, went on to become a force, and then found himself in trouble when a TV microphone captured him in an unguarded moment.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: I just start kissing them. It's like a magnet. You just kiss. I don't even wait. And when you're a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.

MONDELLO: A microphone left on also figures in "A Face In The Crowd," except that the disrespect expressed on mic isn't for women - it's for everyone.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A FACE IN THE CROWD")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Oh, if they ever heard the way that psycho really talks.

MONDELLO: A flipped switch takes care of that.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A FACE IN THE CROWD")

GRIFFITH: (As Lonesome Rhodes) You know what the public's like. They're a lot of trained seals. I toss them a dead fish and they'll flap their flippers.

MONDELLO: This does not go over well.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A FACE IN THE CROWD")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (As character) Why, he's a monster.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #2: (As character) I can hardly believe it's the same Lonesome Rhodes.

PAUL MCGRATH: (As Macey) It is, only this time his personality finally came through.

MONDELLO: All of this, let's note, is about human failings, not about making political mistakes. For the first time in ages, my election-year thoughts are not filled with campaign satires like "Wag The Dog." The real campaign this year has so outstripped anything Hollywood considered believable in an election movie that you have to turn to other genres. Still, they dovetail pretty neatly with this campaign, or at least with the negatives in it. For instance, while "A Face In The Crowd" is a perfect film for the anti-Trump crowd, if you agree with Mr. Trump that Hillary Clinton ought to be locked up...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: For what she's done, they should lock her up.

MONDELLO: ...The film to catch is "Lion In Winter," where you can see how the locking up thing plays out.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE LION IN WINTER")

KATHARINE HEPBURN: (As Eleanor of Aquitaine) How dear of you to let me out of jail.

PETER O'TOOLE: (As King Henry II) It's only for the holidays.

MONDELLO: It's the Middle Ages, and Katharine Hepburn's sharp-tongued Eleanor of Aquitaine has been locked away for a decade or so. It doesn't take long to figure out why.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE LION IN WINTER")

HEPBURN: (As Eleanor of Aquitaine) I could peel you like a pear and God himself would call it justice.

MONDELLO: Such a nasty woman. Hollywood's record on glass ceiling breakers isn't great. There's "Devil Wears Prada," of course, and more recently "The Hunger Games." But for decades, Hollywood insisted women be mostly decorative, not powerful. There was always one exception. Queens, like the one Hepburn was playing, were allowed to be as strong as any man. Think Elizabeth I played by everyone from Bette Davis to Judi Dench in "Shakespeare In Love."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE")

JUDI DENCH: (As Queen Elizabeth) I know something of a woman in a man's profession. Yes, by God, I do know about that.

MONDELLO: And, by God, I do know something about journalists, who've been taking quite a few hits on the campaign trail this year.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: Corrupt media pushing completely false allegations and outright lies.

MONDELLO: Mrs. Clinton, meanwhile, is so wary of the media that she went nine months without holding a single press conference. And, as befits a town that lives and dies on publicity, Hollywood can be skeptical about reporters, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ACE IN THE HOLE")

KIRK DOUGLAS: (As Chuck Tatum) I'm a pretty good liar. I've done a lot of lying in my time.

MONDELLO: In "Ace In The Hole," Kirk Douglas plays a reporter who's less concerned with truth than with how a story plays. He orchestrates a whole media circus around a guy trapped in a mine. If you believe that the search for juicier stories has contributed to making a mess of this year's election, I'm guessing you might see a parallel or two.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ACE IN THE HOLE")

DOUGLAS: (As Chuck Tatum) Now, how's this, Sheriff? By tomorrow, I'll have your name all over the paper - the man who rushed here at the first cry for help to direct the rescue operations. By Tuesday, everyone in the state's going to know you. I'll pile it on every day. Six days of this and I'll make you a hero. The election's in the bag. In the bag? The guy who's running against you will vote for you.

MONDELLO: The media think they can control a story. Celebrities think they can control their fans. Politicians think they can control the world. The Greeks called it hubris. In drama, it rarely ends happily, as you'll see if you check out these movies. In life? Well, we'll find out two weeks from today. I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.