The Elephant Man (1980)
And that, kiddies, is why you don’t judge a book by its cover.
The Elephant Man is about one John Merrick who spent most of his life as a London carnival attraction during the late 19th Century due to a severe birth deformity that engulfed nearly his entire body and outcasted him from normal society. Then one day he finds himself rescued from the keep of his abusive ringmaster of sorts and taken under the wing of a highly-regarded surgeon who initially regards him as a research subject but eventually comes to see him as a human.
There are a lot of things I dig about director David Lynch, things that I should probably save for a review more fitting of his ability to eff with the mind on a mass scale, but it always kind of amazes me that this of all things was his follow-up to Eraserhead. As a guy who tends to get pigeonholed for making the biggest cinematic headfucks in town, this leap to the bizarrely mainstream doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense, nor does following up Lost Highway with Disney’s The Straight Story. But as great as he is in his niche, he’s just as good on the other end of the spectrum, and that kind of range is hard to find.
With that being said, this was my first introduction to Lynch and this really is as good a place to start as any. I think I was a freshman in college, I went in completely blind with no knowledge of the movie or Merrick beforehand aside from that rumor about Michael Jackson buying his bones (I’d believe it), and then I pressed PLAY and proceeded to cry by my lonesome for the next two hours. For a movie that can be so freakin’ sad, I’m somewhat surprised that I’ve seen it a handful of times since, and even though it doesn’t have the impact it once did way back when, it really is one of the great powerhouse tear-jerkers I’ve ever had the pleasure to find and completely transcends the pop culture stigma surrounding it.
So it’s well-directed and we’re even treated to some of Lynch’s signature weird-ass shit within the first five minutes, but the heart of this movie really is Merrick’s story and what it stands for.
On the one hand, there’s what he stands for. Merrick is tough to look at and it never really gets any easier thanks to an incredibly spot-on makeup job, his life seemed to amount to one big tragic existence before someone finally saw him as more than a simple-minded freak, and his deformity is a challenge for anyone to initially overcome. But he’s not one to pity himself, ask pity from others or be mistaken as brave, he’s just an iron will with a thirst for life who’d rather spend his time appreciating the gift horse in front of him rather than dwell on the hardships he’s had to endure. It’s a rare mindset to find from anyone, but the challenge with Merrick is being able to see it.
And on the other hand is the surgeon that saves him from a life in a cage, Frederick Treves, as the personification of our preconceived notions. At the start, he’s actually not all that different from Merrick’s paying customers, parading him around to his colleagues as a groundbreaking find in the field of science and seemingly convinced that the man’s lack of intelligence is only matched by the horror of his appearance. Eventually, Treves finds his foot in his mouth when Merrick is forced to muster up the confidence to reveal that he is in fact somewhat brilliant, but even that opens up a whole new can of worms for the surgeon in regards to how he can go about providing his patient with an otherwise “normal” life without taking on the role of ringmaster for new audience.
Although it’s not a religious adaptation of Merrick’s life (after all, his name is actually Joseph Merrick), the heart is all there and it ultimately brings up some profound insights about what it means to be human and what it means to be treated as such. Just so many memorable scenes here of cruelty and compassion that’ll break you down and lift you up without being melodramatic or cheap.
And while Treves is a great character and a catalyst for many of the ethical questions this movie brings up, I’ve never been a huge fan of Hopkins in this role since he insists on rocking the same emotionally frozen look on his face from beginning to end. It’s a fine look, a look he seems to have grown quite fond of over the years, but he really doesn’t have another expression to work with here. But a completely unrecognizable John Hurt is great as Merrick. Can’t even imagine what a bitch it must have been to have all that makeup applied and taken off every day let alone try to act with it on, but it ends up being a fantastic role by a fantastic actor who still hasn’t really gotten his due after all these years.
Also nice to see Anne Bancroft as an admiring actress; John Gielgud is, not surprisingly, the man as the hospital’s Governor (I guess that’s what they’re called); Freddie Jones is one warped sonofabitch as Merrick’s “owner” during his days as an indentured carnie; and a young Dexter Fletcher (aka: Soap from Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels) has a neat little turn as Jones’ assistant. Good job on everyone’s behalf is what I’m trying to say.
If you’ve never seen it, chances are the only thing you’ve heard is the whole “I AM NOT AN ANIMAL! I AM A HUMAN BEING!” line which doesn’t quite carry the same weight on I Love the ’80s as it does here. Out of context, it might sound a bit silly, but make no mistake, that effing line will shake you to the core and make you feel like the biggest asshole in the world for ever writing off someone because they were “different”. You’re gonna be disappointed as hell if you go into this with the expectation of a black-and-white prequel to Mulholland Dr., but as an entirely affecting drama about the importance of looking past first impressions and judging someone based on who they are rather than who you think they are, it doesn’t get much better than The Elephant Man. Like I said, super sad but super important on a very universal level.