1980 – The Elephant Man

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The Elephant Man – 1980

This was a strange movie, but what did I expect from David Lynch.  He has always seemed to have a love for the grotesqueries of life.  He likes telling strange stories by being surrealistic and confusingly symbolic.  But in this case, I think he lucked into a story in which he could indulge his love for disturbing imagery while telling a compelling story at the same time.  It is no wonder that this is his only film that was ever nominated for Best Picture, though 5 of his films have been nominated for Oscars in other categories.

The Elephant Man was actually nominated for 7 other Academy Awards, including a Best Actor nod for John Hurt, playing the title role of John Merrick, the Elephant Man, Best Art Direction – Set Decoration, Best Costume Design, Best Director, Best Film Editing, Best Music: Original Score, and Best Writing: Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium.  Unfortunately, it didn’t win a single award.

So what was it about the movie that made it such an engaging film?  I think it was the picture it painted of the human spirit, both in its cruelties and its kindnesses.  If you look at the plot a little metaphorically, you might say that we are all the Elephant Man.  We all have our ugly side.  But the challenge is to forgive the ugliness in ourselves and see past it in others.  It makes the point that ugliness, like beauty, is only skin deep.  True loveliness and true deformity really do come from within.  In this movie, the message was told with tact, power, and respect.

The Elephant man was a poor and unfortunate soul who was born with horrible physical deformity.  In medical terms, he had a severe case of neurofibromatosis.  This caused skin and bone growths which resulted in a horribly deformed head and face, severe curvature of the spine, and a bloated right arm and hand that could not be used, as well as neurological, pulmonary, and respiratory difficulties.

As the film begins, Frederick Treves, a prominent London surgeon, played by Anthony Hopkins, is investigating a freak show in hopes of finding a specimen to show off to his colleagues.  He ends up renting the Elephant Man for a day for his lecture.  The Elephant Man’s owner, a slimy individual named Mr. Bytes, wonderfully played by Freddie Jones, is a drunk who regularly beats the poor man.  When Treves returns him, Mr. Bytes beats him so severely, that he is forced to implore the help of Treves to keep him alive.  The doctor takes pity on the deformed creature and invites him to stay at the hospital as a resident.

Over the course of the movie, Treves gets the Elephant Man to open up, only to discover that his name is John Merrick, and that he is kind, gentle, and intelligent.  Treves befriends him, as does the hospital’s head nurse, Mrs. Mothershed, wonderfully played by Wendy Hiller.  Merrick’s case becomes a matter of public curiosity and he is visited by several kinds of people, both kind and cruel.  In the end, after enduring public humiliation and scorn, he achieves a kind of respect, and is finally recognized as a man, not a monster.

He is portrayed as the picture of innocence with a child-like wonder at the new experiences of acceptance and friendship.  He is even visited and looked upon without horror by the likes of Madge Kendall, played by Anne Bancroft, a beautiful stage actress who goes out of her way to treat him as a friend and not as a freak.  This just makes the cruelties of a terrible night porter at the hospital, Jim, played by Michael Elphick, even worse.  He charges people money to come see Merrick.  They break into his room and degrade him for their own amusement.  The scene where Mrs. Mothershed knocks him out and fires him from his job is very satisfying.

But while Hopkins, Hiller, Jones, and even Elphick did a great job, it was really Hurt who gave the movie its heart and its life.  He made me really feel for the poor Elephant Man, made me like him, despite his horrifying deformity.  I read that Hurt had to sit in the make-up chair for 5 hours every day before filming, and another 2 afterword to have the makeup removed.  The innocence of the character was beautifully portrayed and yet the emotion of self-pity and the unexpected tears when a woman first treated him as a man were all too believable.  Part of it was in the way that the character was written, but part of it was John Hurt’s wonderful portrayal.

2 thoughts on “1980 – The Elephant Man”

  1. I remember seeing the film when it first came out in 1980. I had heard of the story of Joseph Merrick as I came from east London and knew the London hospital. I think that the film brought the plight of Joseph Merrick in the Victorian era when people paid to stare at unfortunate people with disabilities like merrick in so called freak shows. John Hurt I think brought to his characterization of Merrick aspects of pathos and human dignity as the film unfolded. Yes, it was a dark somewhat depressing film I agree, but Merrick’s life would have been an intolerableness one in many instance’s. The safe haven Merrick found under the auspices of Doctor Treves at the London hospital towards the end of his young life, I am sure he felt secure in. Such a tragic story of human dignity in an age of intolerance in many ways.

  2. Good comment Carole Heath. So apt for the subject matter. I liked the film myself. Great acting from John Hurt as the Elephant Man, and the supporting cast was also good. Sad John Hurt has now died. Wonderful actor. I remember him as Quentin Crisp on TV. And in the I Claudius series as Caligula. I think John Hurt liked playing so called oddities parts which he could excel at.

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