After his brilliant and audacious feature debut, "Eraserhead," Lynch wrote the screenplay for "Bonnie Rocket," a film about the adventures of a "Candide"-like scientist who may be an alien from outer space, but couldn't get a producer interested.
Producer-director Mel Brooks, who saw "Eraserhead," came to the rescue with an offer for Lynch to direct a film about John Merrick (John Hurt), a man whose exterior was as hideous as his interior was beautiful.
An elegy to freakishness, "The Elephant Man" was disguised as a Victorian morality play. Exhibited as a carnival freak, Merrick had an abnormally large, disfigured head, a twisted spine, and an otiose right arm, but his physical repulsiveness belied a gentle soul.
Before dying in his sleep (of self-strangulation), he was lionized by the high society. The actress Mrs. Kendal (played by Anne Bancrooft, Brooks' real wife) became his patron.
The movie was made just a few years after Bernard Pomerance's play, "The Elephant Man," enjoyed a successful run Off and then On Broadway, but the screenplay, by Christopher DeVore, Eric Bergren, and Lynch, was not based on the stage production.
Revisiting a terrain similar to that of "Eraserhead," Lynch exposed undercurrents of metaphysical anguish and absurdist fear, along with an accessible tale of Merrick's nobility.
Freddie Francis' forceful black-and-white cinematography accentuated a lyrical evocation of the sensitive soul of a physical monstrosity with another unflinching depiction of a grim industrial landscape.
For the New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael, "Elephant Man" had the power of a silent film, with wrenching, pulsating sounds (the hissing of steam suggesting the pounding of the new industrial age).
Highly praised by both mainstream and offbeat film critics, "Elephant Man" went on to become an artistic highlight of the year. Academy voters were impressed, too, and nominated the period saga for eight Oscars, including Best Picture, Director, and Actor. The big winner that year, however, was Redford's family melodrama "Ordinary People" (See below).
Oscar Nominations: 8
Picture, produced by Jonathan Sanger Director: David Lynch Screenplay (Adapted): Christopher DeVore, Eric Bergren, and David Lynch Actor: John Hurt Art Direction-Set Decoration: Stuart Craig and Bob Cartwright; Hugh Scaife Original Score: John Morris Film Editing: Anne V. Coates Costume Design: Patricia Norris
Oscar Awards: None Oscar Context
In 1980, Robert Redford's feature debut "Ordinary People," which swept the most important Oscars, competed with two superlative films (both in black-and-white): David Lynch's "The Elephant Man," which received 8 nominations but lost in each one of them, and Scorsese's masterpiece "Raging Bull," which also received 8 nods, winning two: For Actor Robert DeNiro and for Thelma Schoonmaker's editing.
The other two nominees were Michael Apted' biopic "Coal Miner's Daughter," and Roman Polanski's literary adaptation "Tess," which won three technical Oscars out of six nominations.