HOLLYWOOD—I had heard of this movie, but I hadn’t actually seen it until this past week. I am referring to the 1980 Best Picture nominee “The Elephant Man” starring John Hurt and Anthony Hopkins. The movie, I had no idea it was inspired by a real story behind the life of John Merrick, a British man who is believed to have suffered from Proteus syndrome, a rare disorder that causes tissue overgrowth and can lead to the risk of an embryonic tumor.
I was even more fascinated by the film after discovering this movie was inspired by an actual person, but at the same time that reveal was so haunting to me. I mean I’m a cinema buff, I studied it heavily in college and somehow this movie never entered my orbit. I’m stunned America, just stunned I missed this piece of cinema. With that said, John Hurt is incredible in this role. Docile, patient, emotional, it is just a masterful piece of work from the actor, who I’m shocked did not take home the Academy Award for Best Actor.
That prize ultimately went to Robert De Niro for “Raging Bull” and De Niro he’s a masterclass actor, but I don’t think “Raging Bull” is his best work. That tends to happen time and time again with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. They award the accolade after realizing it’s long overdue, not necessarily delivering it to the best performance or best work of the year, but then again who are we to judge art, as everyone has a different perception.
I found this movie so haunting because I started to watch, and I could not turn my head away from the screen. I mean witnessing this disfigured man be treated with such malice, hate, disgust and just lack of empathy and he just takes it. I mean he is utilized as a sideshow for a greedy, merciless businessman Mr. Bytes (Freddie Jones). He is rescued by surgeon Frederick Treves (Hopkins), who spots him at a Victorian freak show (I really hate that term) and wants to learn more about him. The script by David Lynch, Eric Bergren and Christopher De Vore presents an interesting dichotomy.
Upon first glance, Merrick is viewed as a horrifying individual, so much so he is treated as such. Once rescued by Treves, it still feels the same to a degree. People are fascinated by him, they want to ‘study’ him; they want to examine him. So it poses that question about how we treat people in general, with a glance of wanting to ‘know’ why certain people look a certain way, behave a certain way and how those perceptions from society ultimately shape the individual as we know it. I mean “The Elephant Man” even though it dates more than 150 years ago (based on the actual Joseph Merrick), the world we live in today is just as cruel and unkind. I mean watching that scene where he is treated just horribly by a group of ignorant residents led by the night porter, Jim, just got under my skin so much.
However, you have a touching scene with Treves and his wife, Ann, who have tea with John that brings him to tears as well as Ann. The acting in that scene alone sent utter chills down my spine. Hopkins performance is smaller in scope, but powerful as hell, Anne Bancroft is a treat, so is Hannah Gordon as Ann and Wendy Hiller as Mrs. Mothershead. It is difficult to find a movie where you have an eclectic cast that shines on all levels.
Another potent moment in the film is when John returns back to London, only to be harassed by some annoying children, and in an attempt to get away he knocks down a little White girl and all hell breaks loose that is troubling to say the least, but that is for another time and story people. After being cornered, John ushered the frustration the audience has been building up as well as himself, stating “I am not an animal. I am a human being. I am a man.” It is a classic, iconic quote in cinematic history, but so powerful and haunting at the same time.
Why do we treat people who don’t ‘look’ like us with such disgust, hate and disrespect? It is not all about deformities, but in general society. We are judgmental as a society. We see things, we don’t understand and we automatically start to make preconceived notions based on what we think we know. I mean this man was forced to wear a mask out in public, out of fear of scaring people and being harassed as a result of a medical condition out of his control. There are a lot of people in real life who suffer from such issues and instead of us attempting to learn more about them and their perils we push them to the waste side as if they don’t exist.
Our society is a disturbing one to say the least, and “The Elephant Man” just highlighted that even more for me. This is not to say there aren’t gems out there who do the good work to ingratiate and make those who feel ‘unwanted’ feel wanted. There is a level of compassion in “The Elephant Man” that made me cry and I don’t cry often at movies, but this one pierced at the soul. It is even more brilliant that Lynch shot the movie in black and white. I wonder if it would have had the same effect if the film was shot in color. I don’t think so, so that technique proves the cinematic genius of someone like Lynch behind the camera.
I am so happy that channel surfing for once opened my eyes to a piece of cinema (one that I should have been exposed to a lot sooner) to a level of brilliance in art. How telling the story of a man shunned by society and feeling as if he deserved to not be loved, to understand what it feels like to have people treat him with compassion. There is a lot of ugly in our society, but there is also some good. “The Elephant Man” reminded me of that.