The Elephant Man (1980)

Article 3346 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 8-27-2010
Posting Date: 10-12-2010
Directed by David Lynch
Featuring Anthony Hopkins, John Hurt, Anne Bancroft
Country: USA
What it is: Biography of a deformed man

A noted doctor rescues a hideously deformed man from a freak show. But can this man ever hope to have a normal life in his new environment?

This is one of those movies that always brings tears to my eyes when I watch it. Granted, that’s one of the intentions of the movie, and occasionally it tries a little too hard to jerk the tears; there’s a number of lines and moments that would benefit from a bit of rewriting and careful pruning. Yet these moments don’t damage the movie as a whole because there’s something so compelling in the way that the movie tries to get us to understand and empathize with John Merrick and what his life must be like having been born with such extreme deformities. It makes sense that he might himself weep when the doctor’s wife treats him with courtesy; the idea that a pretty woman might treat him this way after all the others have run away screaming may be unthinkable to him. No, the movie doesn’t turn away from the darkness or difficulties; we have moments where the doctor ponders his own morality in his use of John Merrick, and even when the actress visits Merrick, there is a real awkwardness to the meeting that makes one wonder whether the she herself is questioning her own motives. And the lower class exploiters (Bytes and the night porter) are never very far away. Mel Brooks of all people was an executive producer, albeit uncredited, and this would be the second full-length movie made by cult director David Lynch; it would prove to be one of the real anomalies in his oeuvre.

As a final note, I always found it interesting that the stage production Merrick attends near the end of the movie seemed more like a compendium of special effects than a real-life stage production. It was only watching it this time that I realized that we were seeing it through Merrick’s eyes, and it made me wonder what it would have been like had I never seen a movie in my life but was then allowed to see one and only one; I wonder how my memory would have recorded that experience.

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