Tuesday, July 03, 2012
In Memoriam: Andy Griffith, 1926-2012
It's supposed to be an insult, describing a performer as a "professional [ethnicity]"--someone who, with little else to recommend him, makes a living pandering to stereotypes. Andy Griffith, born in 1926 in Mount Airy, N.C., was a lifelong professional Southerner, but he turned that into an honorable calling. As much as anything--his huge range, his astonishing career longevity--it makes him unique.
The work cycles through all the images of Southernness, good, bad, and ambiguous. He first popped onto the radar doing a hillbilly-preacher routine, "What It Was, Was Football," that remains hilarious, in large part because it's so obviously a put-on. Never trust a Southerner who's playing dumb. At most, they're probably just feeling cornered. (The Siren knew a man who, like Griffith, was from North Carolina. The guy was getting a Ph.D. from Princeton, but threatened with ejection from a nude beach for refusing to shuck his swimming trunks, he took the Mayberry accent to Defcon 1 with "Hey, c'mon y'all. I'm Baptist." He stayed, and so did his swimsuit.) The joke in "What It Was, Was Football" is also on the audience that's willing to go along with the fantasy of a redneck who doesn't understand football, even in 1953.
Later, on TV in 1955, on stage and in the 1958 movie of No Time for Sergeants, Griffith took the same basic character and again played around with whether or not you believed he's actually this clueless. A psychiatrist (James MIlhollan), assigned to analyze Griffith's Private Will Stockdale, needles him with "I think that I would rather live in the rottenest pigsty in Tennessee or Alabama than the fanciest mansion in all of Georgia. How about that?" And Griffith responds with the air of a man employing infinite tact: "Well, sir... I think where you wanna live is your business."
In between, in 1957, Griffith had his finest 125 minutes in Elia Kazan's A Face in the Crowd, a portrait of venality so potent that people still argue over which pimple on our nation's body politic is the best latter-day analogue for Lonesome Rhodes. The Siren isn't going to have that argument (this is a tribute, not a brawl). But Rhodes is another example of a man using down-home wiles, only this time to mask megalomania. Rhodes is an empty vessel, braying about whatever's expedient; who knows what he believes, other than that life owes him, big time.
It's about what Rhodes brings out in his fans--what fellow Southerner James Agee described, in reviewing another movie, as American "nasty-nationalistic self-pitying self-congratulation." Again, that's a common Southern stereotype, but the character didn't have to be Southern. We don't produce more demagogues than other parts of the country; it just seems that way, maybe because the accent gives ours that certain je ne sais quoi. Whatever it is, wow, did Griffith have it. Griffith's so committed to the part that even his sweat looks poisonous. It's such a physical performance, pure animal cunning and predatory movement, coiled to spring one moment, stalking his territory from boundary to boundary the next. That laugh, Jesus--is there a more repulsive laugh in American cinema? Griffith's mouth swings open as though he's going to eat his enablers in one gulp.
From Griffith's final years, the Siren chiefly knows Matlock. And the Siren likes Matlock, if not as much as she loves Murder, She Wrote. For the Lansbury the Siren has impeccable company, for Matlock who knows, but the Siren got real tired, real fast of people mocking her about both shows. Listen, if you hate the basic formula and find the production values lacking or the scripts rote, fair enough. But if your disdain is based on the fact that Griffith was old and the guest stars were old and the audience was old--what's up with that? We're all gonna be old, insh'allah, as they always used to say back home in Birmingham. Many of the old people the Siren has known were and are awesomer than she will ever become. Matlock's the oldest and the smartest guy in the room. How is this not way cool? And like every TV crime fighter the Siren has ever loved, from Columbo on, Matlock banks on people underestimating him, lulled by his folksy Southern ability to seem much, much less threatening than he actually is.
The Siren, along with most cinephiles, reveres A Face in the Crowd, but for the larger public the apotheosis is The Andy Griffith Show. Reruns were the Siren's after-school routine. Cookies, milk, Andy, Barney, Opie and Aunt Bea. She didn't identify with the milieu all that much; she had relatives in small-town Alabama, but to say that Mayberry is idealized is like saying not all town drunks are as lovable as Otis. But she thought it was glorious then, and still does. She has a few favorites--like the one where Opie kills a mother bird and Andy makes him nurse the fledglings, which stays with you for the same reason The Yearling stays, because it shatters your heart to powder. The Siren can also crack up those in the know by drawling, "Not that one, Pa, that one always makes me cry."
But here the Siren is going to describe the episode she loves best, without relying on anything more than her memory. Aunt Bea's birthday is coming up, and she yearns for a lace-trimmed bed-jacket she saw in a store window. Andy, however, has decided that what Aunt Bea really needs is a big set of preserve jars. He has them gift-wrapped and presents them to Aunt Bea, who's convinced she's getting the bed-jacket. She rips off the paper, already exclaiming in anticipation, "Oh it's beautiful, it's the most..." And she sees the jars, and stammers, "beautiful preserve jars I've ever..." She dissolves into tears, and hastens from the room.
Here's what the Siren remembers most: Not Frances Bavier's face, but Griffith's, watching her, dumbfounded. He loves this old woman so dearly, and he can't believe how badly he's hurt her. But then, in the Siren's memory, she sees his expression start to alter, as he already ponders how to set it right. Andy Griffith could make you believe that Southerners were bumpkins, that they were corrupt, that they were deadly and wily and brilliant, and he could make you believe that the primary quality of being Southern was loving kindness.
(Above photo from the indispensable If Charlie Parker Was a Gunslinger.)