Today! Because people are frightened by what they don’t understand –
The Elephant Man (1980)
Directed by David Lynch
Starring John Hurt, Anthony Hopkins (x2), Anne Bancroft, John Gielgud (x2), Wendy Hiller (x2), Freddie Jones, Michael Elphick, Hannah Gordon, John Standing (x2), Helen Ryan, Kenny Baker (x2)
An absolutely riveting, heart-wrenching biopic of severely deformed 19th century Londoner Joseph Merrick, brought to life by the disparate talents of director David Lynch, actor John Hurt, and producer Mel Brooks. Lynch was hot off his very Lynchian glorified student film Eraserhead – as bonkers a movie as has ever been made – and Mel had recently wrapped his Hitchcock parody High Anxiety, so naturally these two Americans had to get together for a black-and-white period British freakshow drama. Really though, both have a strong streak of outsider characters populating their films and shows, and treating them sympathetically, so it may not be as far-fetched as I’m supposing.
Besides the tremendous performances – Hurt and Hopkins as Merrick’s doctor, primarily – and those gorgeous b&w visuals, the movie is a towering triumph of film make-up. Merrick’s deformities were so massive that it required near full-body coverage for Hurt – a process that allegedly took seven to eight hours a day. Burying your lead actor under massive prosthetics poses an obvious challenge – how does an effective performance emerge when you can barely see the actor – but Hurt is riveting throughout – even if completely unrecognizable. Another good actor example of physical immersion into roles, good and bad, is Gary Oldman – terrifically effective as the massively scarred Mason Verger in Hannibal, and (in my opinion) somewhat less so in his Oscar-winning pile of make-up work as Churchill in The Darkest Hour. Come on, is there one minute of that movie where you’re not just saying to yourself “Oh hey! Look at how much make-up Gary Oldman is wearing!” Maybe it’s just me.
The movie was sued by the producers of the Broadway play of the same name (which the film is not based on) for using the same title, leading people seemingly forever to assume the two productions are related. Sure, they feature the same characters at the same point in their lives, based on basically the same source materials, and were made within three years of each other, but the play decided to change Merrick’s first name to John, so that’s something. Also, on stage, Merrick is performed without extensive make-up, which, while far more interesting, is a pretty decided departure from the realism the film chases.
(The play is actually the basis for another filmed version, made not two years later by ABC, which hews to the stage show and eschews make-up – with mixed results, from what I can gather. I admit I’ve never tracked down a copy of this film.)
Awards season was kind to The Elephant Man – winner of Best Picture and Actor at the BAFTAs, nominated for Picture, Director, Actor, and Screenplay Oscars and Globes, plus another four technical awards from the Academy, so where would my piddling accolades find space? Congrats, Lynch, Brooks, and company!
We add five to the Two-Timers club today – #350 Bram Stoker’s Dracula’s Van Helsing Anthony Hopkins, #328 The Man Who Knew Too Little‘s John Standing, #332 Star Wars Phantom Menace R2D2 Kenny Baker, and #374 Murder on the Orient Express co-stars Wendy Hiller and John Gielgud! Big group!