In 1992’s Batman Returns, The Penguin, played by Danny DeVito, has his campaign to be the mayor of Gotham foiled when Bruce Wayne, played by Michael Keaton, plays a secret audio clip of Penguin saying, “You gotta admit, I played this stinkin’ city like a harp from hell.” The people of Gotham, who, before this audio clip played, seemed to really admire Penguin and were ready to vote for him, all immediately turn on Penguin and pummel him with readily available produce. At the time, and until recently, this seemed like a reasonable response. No one likes putting their faith into someone or something, then being betrayed. But over the course of the last few years, this scenario has played out a few times in real life and the result has been, well, not quite that. To the point it has made one of the few “realistic” parts of Batman Returns into one of the most unrealistic parts.
And now, like Penguin, I have maybe tried to fool you. (Please do not throw produce at me.) To fool you into thinking this piece is about Batman Returns, when in fact it’s mostly about the movie that had to be an inspiration for that Penguin scene, Elia Kazan’s 1957 film, A Face in the Crowd. Now, I am far from the first person to recommend this movie based on current events. I am not even the first to recommend it this week. (Honestly, I’ve been putting it off for years until I read Jake Tapper’s essay about it earlier this week. As much as he admires this movie, he almost undersells how good it is.) Yes, I understood the movie is eerily comparable to Donald Trump’s rise through media and into the White House, but what I didn’t expect was this movie to open up an almost complete understanding of how that happened. Watching this movie was like having an awakening. After it was over I felt like Tony Soprano yelling at the sun, “I get it!”
A Face in the Crowd follows a man named Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes, played by Andy Griffth. (We’ll come back to the fact Griffith plays this role in a bit. It’s very important.) He’s discovered in a small-town Arkansas jail to be part of a local radio show about small-town folk. But Lonesome’s homespun and folksy humor is a big hit and he eventually gets his own show. Then a Memphis television show. Then a national television show out of New York City, eventually getting to the point where his endorsement can make or break presidential candidates. The other thing about Lonesome is that, on the air, he’s charming and his fans love him to an unhealthy degree. If he tells his fans to go wreak havoc somewhere, they will. But, also, Lonesome is a raging asshole.
Kind of famously, A Face in the Crowd wasn’t a hit at the time. And watching it today, this makes complete sense. And it all has to do with Andy Griffith.
You know, Andy Griffith, the actor best known for his role as Sherriff Andy Taylor of Mayberry from his self-titled show. Or, you know, Andy Griffith, the erstwhile star of Matlock. You know, American treasure Andy Griffith. But the thing is, when A Face in the Crowd came out, Griffith was a relative unknown. He certainly wasn’t a household name. It’s only now, in retrospect, that this film truly works because as a viewer we are pre-programmed to love Andy Griffith. So as a viewer, no matter how loathsome Lonesome gets, we see what Lonesome’s fans see. We can’t help but want to like the guy because he’s Andy Griffith. The whole movie, my brain is doing mental gymnastics trying to defend him. Oh, well, he’s just playing to the crowd. Or, oh, well, that controversy was in his past, he’s a different person now! This movie is quite an experiment to run on yourself. It truly puts a viewer in the mindset of someone who defends their hero at all costs. Or, at least, defends the “funny guy on TV I used to watch all the time.”
Okay, now let’s talk about the ending, which I alluded to when we were still talking about Batman Returns. (If you haven’t seen A Face in the Crowd and you actually want to watch this movie without knowing what happens to Lonesome, well, here’s where you should stop.) Near the end of the film, Lonesome is caught on a hot mic mocking his fans and calling them idiots. Just like what happened to Penguin, Lonesome’s fans turn on him immediately as we watch a montage of his viewers showing disgust. Lonesome then shows up for a dinner party he’s hosting for a senator running for president and no one shows up. He’s abandoned immediately. The game is up and Lonesome becomes desperate and basically has a mental breakdown.
Real life doesn’t work like this. But I’m not so sure we won’t get that ending, at least with just enough people for it to matter. We will see. But something did strike me while watching this ending take place. Both A Face in the Crowd and Batman Returns assume everyone would be offended by a reveal like this. In my life, I have lived in both Eldon, Missouri (population around 4,000) and New York City (population around 8.3 million) so I like to think I have a little bit of insight on how people in small towns think. People who would listen to someone like Lonesome Rhodes. Yes, members of the media (note: I am well aware I am part of the media) who grew up on the coasts have a tendency to portray middle Americas as “dumb.” (A bit after I worked at HuffPost, they announced a “bus tour of America” to fully understand why Trump won. I found this pretty insulting. Like it was some sort of zoo tour. I’d hear stories from former coworkers explaining what it was like to see “real America,” and my only response was, “Yeah … anyway I grew up there.”) People in “real America” are not usually “dumb.” But they do have the tendency to feel ignored. And I think some people have a tendency to think they are in on “the joke” with someone like Lonesome. That when Lonesome calls his viewers idiots, the reaction wouldn’t be, “How dare he!,” as opposed to, “Well, he certainly doesn’t mean me.” When Donald Trump said that maybe the coronavirus was a good thing because he wouldn’t have to shake hands with these “disgusting” people anymore, the average person isn’t going to think of themselves as disgusting. They are going to think, “Yeah, a lot of these people are disgusting, but he has to do what he has to do. He certainly isn’t talking about me.” Even though of course Lonesome is talking about them. Lonesome is a bad person and doesn’t care about anyone. But no one ever wants to admit they’ve been tricked. Hence why people don’t immediately start throwing produce.
Anyway, this was a long way of saying, “You really should watch A Face in the Crowd. Everyone who has been screaming about this movie for the last four years has been correct. But I think the movie only really works because of the circumstances. Because Andy Griffith, later, forged a career on being caring and wholesome. This movie, now, forces our brains somewhere that’s pretty hard to reach. This movie is kind of a miracle. Or you can watch Batman Returns again instead. But with all due respect to Mr. DeVito, only Andy Griffith can truly play us all like a harp from hell.
You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.