07 January 2022

52 for '22: The Elephant Man

Movie: The Elephant Man (1980)
Method: Netflix DVD

His genitals are normal tho

Why did I watch this?

I suppose I've wanted to see this for a long time. I knew it was produced by Mel Brooks but assuredly NOT a comedy. It's a significant film that was nominated for quite a few Academy Awards (but apparently not winning any! BUT also creating the impetus for the Academy to start recognizing achievements in make-up). I had gone through quite a few lesser known Mel Brooks films a few years ago, but my sights turned to David Lynch, which I've always thought I was fan of, but after looking at his filmography, I realized I hadn't actually seen all that many of his films. So, I had David Lynch in my head, probably since DUNE (2021) came out and I was thinking about his 1984 attempt. And then I was watching a Mel Brooks special on HBOMax and just thinking more about his serious works like Life Stinks (1991) which I also saw this year. So, as you can tell, there was a lot swirling around that drove me towards wanting to check this out.

What did I know ahead of time?

Again, I knew that Mel Brooks produced it but kept his name off so folks would treat it seriously. I knew it starred John Hurt and I knew about the "I am not an animal!" line because it's famous and in Seinfeld. And I knew a bit about Merrick himself, mostly just that he was an elephant man.

How was it?

This is an exceptional film. It feels strangely out of time. There are many films that seek to recreate movies from earlier time periods, but few pull it off like this one. It is not merely in black and white. The longer shots, acting styles, even set design and aspect ratio recall a film made in the 1930s or 1940s. Maybe this was a holdover from Mel Brooks' love of replicating older styles in Young Frankenstein (1974) and Silent Movie (1976), but it is so easy to forget that you're watching a movie made in 1980. Especially because young Anthony Hopkins is such a rare sight. The only other film I can really think of that so authentically replicates a time period is The Love Witch (2016), which is the most 1970s 2016 movie of all time.

At the same time, the film is remarkably progressive and accepting. The general message is that John Merrick should be treated as a human being - I know, crazy. Reviews at the time, including Roger Ebert said it was too sentimental and didn't have a coherent theme. There is a lot of nuance here. Anthony Hopkins doubts if he himself has progressed from sympathy to pity and exhibition. There is schmaltz certainly when Anne Bancroft gives him a standing ovation at the theater, and you think, is this deserved, is this more pity, is this rich people feeling good about themselves and patting themselves on the back, or is this genuine acceptance. The fact that after this scene (SPOILER), Merrick lies on the bed and dies, either because his life hit the apex, he believed he could be normal, or praise just exacerbated his feelings of being different certainly makes me think this film had a colder message than its contemporaries would suggest.

This is all that makes for fun viewing of this film in 2022. Under a greater range of mental health and body awareness and acceptance this film takes on a dramatically different context. I might doubt Lynch thought the way I did in 1980, although knowing his cynicism, maybe. It's a movie made in 1980 that looks like it's from 1940 that plays great in 2020. It's truly a feat.

The movie also came out during a weird Elephant Man craze, where there was also a popular Broadway production, which apparently lead to some petty copyright issues. Whatever. It seems clear that this was based on Merrick's life, not a play, although it also seems like a decent amount of liberties were taken with that basis.

I had no idea Anthony Hopkins was in this and he gives an incredibly measured and steady performance as Freddie Treves, the doctor who tries to treat John Merrick as an actual human. John Hurt appears like he has less to do, since he mostly sits around reacting and has little lines in the beginning of the film. But we need to remember how much acting he's doing under ridiculous prosthetics as well as a tremendous physical performance.

This was a great start to this year's film escapades. I feel really pumped up. We'll see how long this lasts because many films on my 52 for '22 list are NOT this good.

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