The Elephant Man (1980) David Lynch
The David Lynch Project Project Part II
The Elephant Man no doubt holds fond and not-so-fond memories for David Lynch. It was his second feature film and his first to be backed by a large studio (Paramount). It was nominated for eight Oscars, yet won none of them. Had there been an Oscar category at the time for make-up, Christopher Tucker’s work on The Elephant Man would certainly have won it, yet the oversight was so great that the category was added to the list of Oscars the next year. (That first award went to Rick Baker for An American Werewolf in London.)
Although it was only Lynch’s second film, you can see some common elements that continue from Eraserhead. Obviously both films are in black-and-white, both contain exquisite cinematography (Freddie Francis in the case of The Elephant Man, Frederick Elmes and Herbert Cardwell in Eraserhead), and both contain an odd protagonist trying to find his way in the world. Yet The Elephant Man is more approachable, more traditional in its storytelling, and overall certainly more mainstream.
John Merrick (in a wonderful performance by John Hurt), however, is in many ways far less troubled than Henry Spencer (Jack Nance) in Eraserhead. Merrick is intelligent, kind, even rather cultured and suffers only (It’s a big only…) from being different, so much different that his appearance shocks nearly everyone he encounters. Yet Lynch makes Merrick a bit too much of a Christ figure throughout the film, especially near the end when Merrick proclaims “It is finished,” referring to a model of a cathedral he’d assembled.
What works with the character of Merrick is that Lynch shows us that there’s beauty within him, most of which – as with most people – doesn’t emerge until you’ve spent time with them. We get the feeling that London surgeon Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins) gets to know Merrick through working with him, but Lynch seems to distance that relationship somewhat. It’s a tough balance; developing that relationship too much can lead to sentimentality, while too little can distance the characters from one another. I felt that Lynch probably could’ve allowed us to see more of the personal side of Treves’s relationship with Merrick without sacrificing the film’s integrity.
Maybe this has to do with the first time Treves sees Merrick as part of an East End carnival freak show run by a sadistic man named Bytes (Freddie Jones). The tears in Treves’s eyes in that scene cut through the “stiff upper lip” Victorian manner to allow us to see the surgeon’s true emotions. Maybe after this initial meeting Treves fears allowing too much of his sentimentality to show. So maybe the way Treves’s character is written is correct; too much sentimentality and The Elephant Man would’ve sunk into a sappy mess. It comes dangerously close a couple of times, but never loses its balance.
Pity also could’ve overtaken the film. Over and over we see the mistreatment of Merrick from a wide variety of people, especially in a scene in Merrick’s apartment and in a train station. We expect this, and those scenes are difficult to watch, but necessary. It’s a fine balance between showing the cruelty of human beings without delving into extravagance.
Still, many may think The Elephant Man too sentimental, too manipulative. Others think Lynch’s use of a dream/nightmare sequence at the beginning of the film too over-the-top. Roger Ebert thought the opening was “inexcusable” and generally panned the film. Yet Ebert rightly questions whether Merrick was courageous for some tangible purpose or because he “is simply doing the best he can, under the circumstances.”
One of the problems with The Elephant Man is in determining what you’re supposed to come away with after it’s over. The Christ-figure implications are too overstated for me (and I don’t believe they work anyway) and while Merrick’s courage is unmistakable, as Ebert asks, what is it’s source?
Yet these are not insurmountable problems. The Elephant Man is a great story and a solid film that’s absolutely loaded with performances from an excellent cast including Sir John Gielgud, Wendy Hiller, Anne Bancroft, and the aforementioned Hurt, Hopkins and Jones.
This is my favorite shot in the entire film. Merrick has just proven that he can speak and think for himself and isn’t simply a stupid carnival freak. Notice how the hospital governor (John Gielgud) and Treves stand under the skylight in astonishment as if they have just been illuminated, yet keep a “safe” distance from Merrick, who looks (for him) calm and relaxed. Again, I don’t see this as a “heavenly” illumination as such; maybe Lynch was going for this and maybe he wasn’t, but regardless, it’s effective.
Next in the David Lynch Project will either be Dune (1984) or the first season of Twin Peaks (1990). I hope you’ll join us for the discussion.