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The Lynch Ledger-Entry Two: The Elephant Man (1980)

Say what you will about Mel Brooks, but he can certainly recognize a great artist. Why Brooks, you might ask? Well, as a producer, it was the production company Brooksfilms that gave two of the last quarter of the 20th century’s finest directors some creative breathing room, by supporting them with an iconic 1980s’ film each. In the mid-80’s, after a decade of mostly low-budget shockers opened a lot of eyes and put Canada’s David Cronenberg on the map, it was Brooksfilms that brought David his greatest financial success. 1986’s “The Fly” had a solid budget, a summer release slot (not long after James Cameron’s “Aliens” hit the screen), and even went on the win an Academy Award for its incredible make-up effects. Mr. Cronenberg would follow “The Fly” with his masterpiece( “Dead Ringers”) in 1988. But it was another director named David that was called upon to launch the artistic side of Brooksfilms (after two goofy comedies) with a feature that would be released in the fall of 1980. Mel Brooks was so impressed with the midnight movie smash “Eraserhead”, that he personally selected its director to helm the new company’s first “serious” project. That filmmaker was David Lynch, and his assignment was “The Elephant Man”.

And if you want to talk about iconic, the line “I am not an animal!” is still oft-quoted (usually in a comic way) to this day–34 years later! This sophomore effort from Mr. Lynch shot his credibility into the stratosphere. It was a financial and critical hit that received 8 Oscar nominations (fair to note, winning none), including Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actor (John Hurt), and Best Director for Lynch. Unlike, 1986’s “The Fly”, however, “The Elephant Man” would not garner a nom for its astonishing make-up. Of course, the award for that category had not been put into use yet. But there was such an outrage that Christopher Tucker’s work wasn’t given some sort of special achievement recognition, that the category was put into existence the very next year! And the horrible appearance of “Elephant Man” John Merrick (as portrayed by Mr. Hurt) is still a shocking sight to behold. It was kept tightly under wraps in 1980, and you’ll notice that the Merrick character does not appear in the film’s trailer.

The story of Joseph Merrick (called “John” in the film) was not a familiar one to most audiences 35 years ago. Mr. Merrick died in his sleep in 1890 at the age of 27 after becoming a notable London curiosity during the preceding decade, while under the care of one Dr. Frederick Treves. It’s safe to say, however, that nine decades later, his story was mostly forgotten. But then a new play called “The Elephant Man” made its way to Broadway in 1979, and managed to win a number of Tony Awards–including Best Play of the year. The theater version of the Merrick story did not employ any elaborate make-up effects, but instead called upon the audience to imagine how Merrick appeared. The 1980 film adaptation of the Joseph Merrick saga twice makes clear in an onscreen scroll that it is not based on the award-winning Bernard Pomerance play of the same name. In fairness, both versions have been taken to task for playing “fast and loose” with the historical record of the case. But only the movie attempts to provide you with how horrible the appearance of Mr. Merrick must have been.

To briefly summarize “The Elephant Man”‘s plot. Dr. Frederick Treves (nuanced work from Anthony Hopkins) discovers the pitiful John Merrick at a London “freak show” and eventually interviews and houses him at London Hospital. Thought to be an “imbecile”, at first, by Treves and his colleagues, it is soon discovered that Merrick is actually highly intelligent and somewhat well-read. Controversy arises when it’s determined that Mr. Merrick’s deformed, tumour-ravaged body is incurable, and whether or not a hospital is actually a proper place to keep someone with no hope of recovery. The next issue arrives when Merrick becomes enough of a “celebrity” to garner newspaper attention. It brings the man a certain amount of fame and attention, and soon quite a few members of England’s “high society” begins visiting him at his “home”. This begs the question as to whether the “Elephant Man” is somehow becoming part of a sideshow attraction, all over again.

There must have been a great deal of concern during production of “The Elephant Man” that the actor portraying Merrick would simply “get lost” in the heavy prosthetic “make-up” effects. Indeed it must have been a great endurance, and extremely physical, trial to bring the whole thing off. So, it’s wonderful to report, after recently re-watching the motion picture for the first time in decades, that the performance of John Hurt never fails to shine through. What Hurt accomplishes is simply breath-taking and remarkable. He’s playing a man who is so hideously deformed and ugly that nurses scream and cry and the sight of him, and yet Hurt makes him sensitive, artistic, and–dare I say–attractive at times, in equal measure, throughout the film’s 124-minute running time. It’s an absolutely amazing performance. Pity that Hurt would create such magic, in a role where no one would recognize him, during the same year as Robert De Niro’s legendary interpretation of boxing champion Jake LaMotta in 1980’s “Raging Bull” (De Niro won his Best Actor prize that season). Of course, Best Picture and Director both went to Robert Redford’s “Ordinary People” that year, a fine film, but a mostly forgotten one. I wonder often if the Academy would change its mind when looking back on these types of choices. “Citizen Kane”, for instance, lost the Best Picture race of 1941. A kewpie doll to those in my presence that can quickly tell me what won (it was John Ford’s “How Green Was My Valley”).

For his initial foray into “legitimate” healthy-budget filmmaking, David Lynch was more than up to the task. He made contributions to the screenplay by Christopher DeVore and Eric Bergen, and he even attempted to design the “Elephant Man” make-up cast himself (it was later determined unusable). Lynch once again called into service sound designer Alan Splet, who graced David with such creepy and memorable auditory delights with his time dedicated to the low-budget, “Eraserhead”. “The Elephant Man”, like most of Mr. Lynch’s resume, makes one uncomfortable and fearful (I find just about all of Lynch’s movies downright scary) in often mostly silent, disquieting ways. The beautiful black-and-white cinematography from the renowned Freddie Francis was a wise choice–how garish “The Elephant Man” would’ve looked on the big screen in color. Oh, I guess it could be accused of some sentimentality and occasional script contrivances (the unlikely “dressing down” of a hospital board member seems the most egregious), but the phenomenal cast is top of the line. With exceptional work from Anthony Hopkins as Treves and Sir John Gielgud as Francis Carr-Gomm–even the marvelous Anne Bancroft shows up (of course, being Mrs. Mel Brooks may have played a hand in this) for a two-scene cameo as real-life Victorian Era stage actress, Madge Kendal. If not a “great” film, “The Elephant Man” is at least a very good one, and we owe a large debt of gratitude to it for giving David Lynch his “street cred”. It wasn’t all uphill from here, but the masterpieces were not all that far away either.

Grade:  A-

next month’s Lynch Ledger Entry: 1984’s “Dune”

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2 comments on “The Lynch Ledger-Entry Two: The Elephant Man (1980)

  1. Probably Lynch’s most normal movie, which also makes it his most humane as well. Shame he hasn’t quite gone back to this type of story-telling since. Good review Mark.

  2. Thanks so much, Dan. I will agree with you that this can be regarded as one of Lynch’s more accessible and so-called “normal” movies. This and something like “The Straight Story” fall into that category. However, I take issue with it being a “shame” he doesn’t do more like these. It is his brilliant work on his more unconventional films that made me a fervent Lynch supporter. For instance, the only Lynch films I do not personally own a copy of are “The Straight Story” AND “The Elephant Man”. Plenty more to come regarding The Lynch Ledger, where we’ll be able to discuss his style in more detail. ML

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