A Victorian surgeon rescues a heavily disfigured man who is mistreated while scraping a living as a side-show freak. Behind his monstrous facade, there is revealed a person of intelligence and sensitivity.
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The Elephant Man was nominated for 8 OSCARS
I don‘t usually speak as “myself” in my reviews. Actually, it was pretty awkward to just start that sentence with “I.” But I‘m having a hard time stepping back from this one.
I first watched “The Elephant Man” when I was eleven years old, and I’m not exaggerating when I say it changed my life. When I saw it, it consumed me for months afterward. Even now, it still ranks as one of my favourite movies of all time. It has influenced the way I write and the topics about which I write. I’ve read up on the incredible man who inspired the story, and I truly wish I could have spoken to him. Aside from all that, I just think this movie is a flawless work of art. I might seem overly protective of it, but it really holds a special place in my heart.
All right, that’s all from “I.” On to David Lynch‘s 1980 masterpiece “The Elephant Man.”
This film tells the story of Joseph Carey Merrick, a young Victorian man whose extreme deformity condemned him to a bleak life as a sideshow attraction. He was eventually admitted to the London Hospital under the care of surgeon Frederick Treves. Protected by Treves and other concerned authorities, Merrick lived with dignity until his unexpected death at age twenty-eight. In the final years of his life, Merrick captivated the public not only with his physical appearance but with his surprising intelligence and friendly personality. Perhaps the only thing more unbelievable than Merrick’s deformity was the fact that despite being so mistreated by society, he harboured no ill will toward his fellow man.
Joseph Merrick’s incredible story was adapted into a play in 1979 by Bernard Pomerance, which is still revived from time to time. The film version, released the following year, was not based on the play, but on various biographical sources. It was produced by Mel Brooks, who tried to keep his involvement as low-key as possible for fear the project would be misconstrued as a satire.
Director David Lynch, known for his surreal style, is at his most accessible here. Lynch lets the film unfold in a straightforward manner without throwing in much of his trademark weirdness. He only strays into the bizarre for a dream sequence and during the opening scene, which serves as a disturbing fantasy version of why Merrick looks the way he does. But as these scenes are intended to be nightmarish, their strange quality is appropriate. For the rest of the film, Lynch wisely sticks to just telling a moving story.
The script, written by Lynch, Christopher De Vore and Eric Bergren, is based on Joseph Merrick’s biography. These details were taken from various sources, such as Frederick Treves’ account and Merrick’s own brief autobiography. Certain details have been altered to make the story work better as a movie. For example, Merrick is still referred to incorrectly as “John,“ but as this is an inaccuracy perpetuated in Frederick Treves’ own account of the story, it isn’t an error on the part of the writers. Other elements are true to life. Merrick did love his mother, he did wear a cloak and hood to travel, and he did complete a cardboard model of a cathedral. The final scene is hypothetical, as nobody was with Merrick when he died, but as he was discovered the next morning lying peacefully in bed, it has always been supposed that he lay down of his own accord. Even if the plot is not perfectly accurate, the screenwriters stay true to Merrick‘s endurance and spirit.
In the lead role, John Hurt delivers one of the most astonishing performances ever captured on film. The craniofacial makeup is so extensive that it leaves Hurt only his eyes to work with, but the actor takes that limitation and uses it brilliantly. It’s a testament to his talent that he can convey such palpable anguish, fear and joy all without being able to move his face. The real Merrick’s left arm and hand were strangely unaffected by his disorder, so Hurt is able to use his own hand to get across some of the character’s personality traits. From the gentle, almost reverent way Merrick reaches out to touch a photograph or pillow, we can see how important and wondrous his surroundings are to him.
Another challenge is Merrick’s speech, which was severely hampered by the deformity of his jaw. Even after corrective surgery, he could barely move his mouth at all, making his words difficult to understand. For the sake of the film, Merrick is a bit more intelligible, but it still takes a while to get used to the way he speaks. Hurt uses the impairment to his advantage, giving the character a somewhat high-pitched, muffled voice that suggests both youth and vulnerability.
Through his voice, posture and body language, Hurt transcends the challenges the makeup in much the same way the real Merrick overcame his deformities, letting the humanity shine through.
Anthony Hopkins is excellent as Professor Treves, the surgeon who takes an interest in Merrick’s case. At first mainly interested in presenting the young man’s condition to the medical community, he eventually comes to see him as a friend rather than a ticket to fame. Interestingly, later in the film, Treves wonders aloud if he took his patient in out of kindness or as a way to garner attention from his peers. The audience can tell his love for Merrick is genuine, but it’s wise to show Treves doubting his own intentions. Other characters accuse him of exploiting his patient, and to some extent, the audience might also see that as the case. Hopkins handles the part wonderfully, playing a subdued, thoughtful man who learns to care deeply for a human being he initially sees as a “discovery.”
The supporting cast is marvellous across the board. Sir John Guilgud brings a quiet strength to the role of Mr. Carr Gomm, the hospital director, while a formidable Wendy Hillard plays head nurse Mrs. Mothershead. As Merrick’s “proprietor,“ Freddie Jones is equal parts menace and desperation, playing a man who delights in controlling a person even weaker than himself. Michael Elphick is spot-on as a loathsome night porter who orchestrates an excruciating scene of humiliation in Merrick’s hospital room. Anne Bancroft and Hannah Gordon - as a famous stage actress and Treves’ wife, respectively - each give Merrick a priceless gift: after so many beautiful women have screamed at the sight of him, these two ladies smile and show him kindness.
This film would not have worked without convincing makeup, and Chris Tucker and his team deliver breathtaking work. The extensive prosthetic makeup so accurately mirrors the real Merrick’s terrible deformities that production photos of a made-up John Hurt are referred to as “the only colour photographs of The Elephant Man.” The makeup itself was highly uncomfortable and restrictive, so much so that Hurt had to rest sitting up, like the real Merrick, because of the added weight on his head. Still, the accuracy of the makeup is essential to conveying the true tragedy of Merrick’s life story. While we typically only see the character’s craniofacial deformities, when he is stripped for display, Tucker’s team recreates the sagging growths on Merrick’s back that helped earn him the nickname “Elephant Man.“ Tucker’s work holds up today as some of the best makeup in cinematic history, and it’s heartbreaking to note that as extreme as it looks, it is actually a reflection of real life.
The movie itself is beautifully atmospheric, the darkness of Victorian London echoing the darkness of our hero’s life. Filmed on black and white stock and overseen by cinematographer Freddie Francis, the imagery is ominously stark and shadowy. There are also frequent shots of smoke stacks and clanking gears, emphasizing the ugly industrialization of the era.
Adding to the visual atmosphere is John Morris’ incredibly haunting score. Depending on the situation, it either mimics the jangling false brightness of the carnival or gives way to warm, serene violins, flutes and oboes. The last piece used is Samuel Barber’s “Adagio For Strings,” a heart-wrenching composition that perfectly complements the peaceful end of Merrick’s struggle.
Today, “The Elephant Man” remains one of the most moving and highly-acclaimed films of all time. It’s expertly directed, written, and performed, with gorgeous cinematography and music. Despite the seemingly relentless misery of Merrick’s life, it shows that the human spirit can survive the worst conditions to turn aside cruelty with patience and kindness. As for the emotional resonance of the film, lead actor John Hurt probably said it best: “If you can manage to get to the end ’The Elephant Man’ without being moved, I don’t think you’d be someone I’d want to know.”
NOTE: Talk about a movie that completely deserved all the Academy Awards…it did not receive. “The Elephant Man” was nominated for Best Art Direction, Costume Design, Editing, Music, Adaptation, Actor (John Hurt), Director, and Picture. It is, of course, purely a matter of opinion as to whether or not this movie deserved all those awards. But it‘s strange that such a highly acclaimed film didn‘t get any of the several Oscars for which it was nominated, particularly when it comes to Best Actor. The film didn’t even receive an Oscar for Best Makeup, because the category didn’t exist. However, in recognition of Chris Tucker’s stunning work, the Academy established the Best Makeup Oscar, which went into effect the following year. If that award had existed when “The Elephant Man” was made, there’s no doubt it would’ve taken the prize. On the other hand, it’s even more remarkable that a category was actually created because of a single film’s achievement. The movie did receive British Academy Awards for Best Production Design, Best Actor (John Hurt), and Best Film, deservedly so.