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Based upon the life of John Merrick, David Lynch's The Elephant Man (1980) is a moving portrait of one misshapen man's struggle to find and maintain his dignity amidst the horrors and hardships of 19th-century London.
John Hurt stars as Merrick, a man whose body is so grossly deformed by disease that he lives as a carnival attraction, "The Elephant Man," in the slums of London. A renowned and affluent doctor, Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins), endeavors to study Merrick's condition, and convinces the London Hospital to take him in as a resident patient. A friendship between the two men blossoms and Treves, as well as the hospital staff, discover that Merrick is not the mindless victim they thought him to be, but a man of remarkable intelligence and sensitivity.
Prior to making The Elephant Man, Lynch had made only one feature, the stylized and narratively oblique Eraserhead (1976), the tale of a forlorn man's lonely existence in a nightmarish industrial wasteland. It was not exactly the kind of film that launches Hollywood careers, but it caught the attention of producer Stuart Cornfeld, who was working for the newly formed production company Brooksfilms. Responsible for such ambitious and diverse films as Frances (1982) and David Cronenberg's The Fly (1986), Brooksfilms was headed by screen satirist Mel Brooks, who proved himself to be a visionary producer as well as an accomplished comedian.
With The Elephant Man, Brooks defied studio convention by hiring an avant-garde director to helm a major production, shooting the film in black and white, and refusing to allow studio brass to tamper with Lynch's vision. When shown a cut of the film, Paramount executives recommended that the surreal opening and closing sequences be removed from the film. According to Cornfeld, Brooks tersely responded, "We are involved in a business venture. We screened the film for you to bring you up to date as to the status of that venture. Do not misconstrue this as our soliciting the input of raging primitives." Brooks's stubbornness was rewarded, as the film garnered eight Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, Director and Actor.
The production faced a number of challenges, including a rival version of Merrick's story, with the exact same title, that had won the Tony Award for Best Play in 1979. The stage play (by Bernard Pomerance) opted not to recreate Merrick's physical deformity but to have the leading actor play the role barefaced, so that Merrick's humanity, not monstrosity, would be emphasized. Actors who appeared as Merrick in this production include Mark Hamill (Star Wars, 1977) and David Bowie. Because Brooksfilms' The Elephant Man was striving for historical accuracy, the no-makeup approach was entirely unsuitable, so they faced the daunting challenge of reproducing Merrick's physical abnormalities.
Initially, Lynch conceived an unorthodox approach to Merrick's disfigurement, devising an elaborate full-body suit to be worn by Hurt. But when the actor was first fitted with the costume--just as the film was going into production - it proved too unwieldy and was immediately deemed unusable. Fortunately the shooting schedule was reorganized to allow for the eleventh hour summoning of a makeup specialist, Chris Tucker. Tucker was given access to actual plaster casts of John Merrick's head and limbs, held by the London Hospital, and from them was able to create makeup applications that were exact in every detail.
In order to recreate 1884 London, the film was shot on location in England. Production designer Stuart Craig faithfully recreated the slums of England, to be filmed through a sooty fog by cinematographer Freddie Francis (best known for having directed several gothic horror films for the British Hammer Studios). But as the film neared production, Lynch felt as though he still did not have a firm grasp of the period and the cinematic "look" it should have. While touring London he was allowed to visit an abandoned hospital, dripping with grime and littered with decaying equipment. Lynch remembered, "suddenly a little wind-like thing came and entered me, and I was in that time--not only in that time in the room - but I knew that time. It filled me with a knowing and therefore a confidence that couldn't be taken away from me. I knew what it was like then, and it came out of that hospital. But it was more than the hospital. Maybe it was the photos, maybe it was a bunch of things coming together, but from then on I had my take on what I thought it was. More than anything, it gave me a confidence."
The Elephant Man is also flavored by the spirit of Charles Dickens, particularly David Lean's masterful adaptation of Oliver Twist (1948), to which Lynch's film bears a number of narrative, visual and thematic similarities. One of Lynch's contributions to the screenplay (penned with Christopher de Vore and Eric Bergren) was the character of the hospital night porter (Michael Elphick) who torments Merrick and continually treats him as a circus freak. This character, along with Bytes, the Elephant Man's "manager" (Freddie Jones), are reminiscent of Dickens's Sykes, who kidnaps Oliver from his affluent home and returns him to the horrors of the London underworld.
The American film's utter Englishness was sealed with a cast of esteemed British actors, including Sir John Gielgud and Wendy Hiller, in addition to Hopkins and Hurt. One of the few Americans in the cast is Anne Bancroft (The Graduate, 1967), who played a crucial role in the film's production. De Vore and Bergren sent their script to Bancroft in hopes that she would be interested in the part of Madge Kendal, the graceful actress who befriends Merrick. Bancroft in turn gave the script to her husband (Brooks), who made it one of Brooksfilms' highest priorities. The Elephant Man enabled Bancroft to deliver one of the most moving performances of her esteemed career. Kendal fills Merrick's dim, shadowy world with a radiant glow of beauty and grace, and helps bring to the surface the tenderhearted gentleman within the body of a beast.
Producer: Jonathan Sanger
Director: David Lynch
Screenplay: Christopher de Vore, Eric Bergren, David Lynch, based on The Elephant Man: A Study in Human Dignity by Ashley Montagu and The Elephant Man by Sir Frederick Treves
Director of Photography: Freddie Francis
Production Design: Stuart Craig
Music: John Morris
Principal Cast: Anthony Hopkins (Frederick Treves), John Hurt (John Merrick), Anne Bancroft (Madge Kendal), John Gielgud (Carr Gomm), Wendy Hiller (Mothershead), Freddie Jones (Bytes), Michael Elphick (Night Porter), Hannah Gordon (Mrs. Anne Treves), Helen Ryan (Princess Alex), John Standing (Dr. Fox).
BW-124m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Bret Wood