Confession: I’m hooked on the 1957 classic A Face in the Crowd, starring Andy Griffith as Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes, a humble folk singer from the country who quickly becomes corrupted by the fourth estate of the media, in this case, radio and television.
One thing Elia Kazan’s masterpiece taught me when I first watched it was that influence is indeed power, –– of the individual and the crowd. Most importantly, it reminded me that “there ain’t nothing in this world you can’t do when you let the best side of you take over.”
But A Face in the Crowd also demonstrates how one’s own influence can corrupt oneself; how the ego, even when expelled from within, leaves a lingering trace of itself like a cancer waiting for an opportunity to rise again.
How there’s nothing in this world you can’t do when you let the dark side of you take over, too.
Those of you who know me well enough know that I love movies that dive deep into the duality of their protagonists. Films like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hide, Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend, and of course the original Star Wars trilogy (and those pesky prequels, too) are a few of my favorites.
My second time watching A Face in the Crowd was partly as research for a talk I’m giving this March, but it got me thinking, for some reason, about Christopher Nolan’s 2008 The Dark Knight. A single phrase kept knocking at my mind, which is repeated throughout the film, though the writers borrowed it from Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s classic graphic novel Batman: The Long Halloween:
Harvey Dent, former Gotham City District Attorney turned two-headed kingpin when he’s not behind the gates of Arkham Asylum. From the original Batman and Detective Comics to Batman: The Animated Series, Two-Face has fascinated me as a conflicted character, and Nolan’s Bat-film brought him to life in ways that make Joel Schumacher’s purple-faced fool in Batman Forever all the more laughable.
But let’s backtrack for a moment to A Face in the Crowd. At the beginning of the film, we find Lonesome Rhodes fast asleep in a small town jail cell and abruptly awoken by Marcia Jeffries, who hosts a little radio show called “A Face in the Crowd,” in which she discovers talent from the people of her own town. After hearing Rhodes rock the jailhouse, she invites him to host his own morning show. Immediately he’s a hit, charming listeners and viewers alike with his folky jams, fun anecdotes and stories of his days in his hometown, which may or may not exist. Soon after, he starts to realize the power he wields over the people of this small town.
Eventually, Rhodes becomes the host of a TV show, and his ratings soar. Soon enough he’s partying with industry players, hobnobbing with political influencers, and even teaches an unpopular Senator what it takes to connect with a younger voting audience. Drunk with his newfound power, Rhodes becomes filled with hubris, which does him in by the end, brought down by the same forces that set him atop the pedestal –– the crowd.
In The Dark Knight, Harvey Dent is frequently referred to as “Gotham’s white knight” –– the counterpart to its Dark Knight –– the stereotypical “good cop” who can’t be bribed or brought down, and who will do whatever it takes to ensure justice is upheld.
Well, he’ll do almost anything.
But when Dent fails to uphold justice, and his failure costs him the life of the woman he loves, Two-Face takes over, and “the white knight” formerly known as Harvey Dent crashes and burns away by the very system he fought so ardently to defend.
Dent serves as a visual representation of the duality that all memorable protagonists have struggling within them, which makes for dynamic, three-dimensional characters, in which we invest more of our attention and ourselves. Instead of seeing the shades of gray, Two-Face makes life and every decision about light and dark, black or white, clean side or scarred side on the flip of his custom coin.
The interesting thing is this: with Lonesome Rhodes, as with Harvey Dent, as we watch their rise and fall, we never lose sight of their good sides –– the man with the laugh that encompasses his whole self and the white knight we want to believe still believes in justice, not murder on the edge of a coin toss.
By contrast, no matter how “dark” the Dark Knight becomes, he’ll never fall to the depths of darkness that envelope Harvey Dent. And similarly, no matter how much Lonesome Rhodes blights the color from Marcia Jeffries’ cheeks and dress, she still sees the shades between right and wrong, which ultimately gives her the strength to destroy the cancer that once humble folk singer has become.
That’s these two films teach us –– the test of true power: the ability to do right, so long as it doesn’t cost us our own selves in the process.