Elephant Man, The (1980): David Lynch’s Oscar Nominated Film

After his brilliant and audacious feature debut, Eraserhead, in 1977, David 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 he couldn’t get any producer interested in his project.

Producer-director Mel Brooks, who saw “Eraserhead,” came to the rescue with an offer for Lynch to direct a film about John Merrick (played by the great British actor, 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-life 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,.

However, the movie’s 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, “The Elephant Man” held the powerful imagery of a silent film, assisted by 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 one of the artistic highlights 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).

Distributed by Paramount on October 10, 1980, The Elephant Man received critical acclaim and became a box-office hit.  It is one of Lynch’s most commercial films, perhaps because of its more conventional structure, straight plot, and noble message. Made on a modest budget of $5 million, the picture earned $26 million at the domestic box-office.

Black-and-white

Release date: October 10, 1980

Running time: 124 minutes.

Main cast

John Hurt as John Merrick

Anthony Hopkins as Frederick Treves

Anne Bancroft as Madge Kendal

John Gielgud as Francis Carr-Gomm

Wendy Hiller as Mrs. Mothershead

Freddie Jones as Mr. Bytes, The Ringmaster 

Dexter Fletcher as Bytes’ Boy

Michael Elphick as Jim, Night Porter

Hannah Gordon as Ann Treves

Helen Ryan as Alexandra, Princess of Wales

 

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 directing debut, the family melodrama “Ordinary People,” swept the most important Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director.

“Ordinary People” 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: Best Actor for Robert DeNiro and Best Editor for Thelma Schoonmaker.

The other two Best Picture nominees were Michael Apted’ biopic “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” for which Sissy Spacek deservedly won the Best Actress (still her only Oscar), and Roman Polanski’s literary adaptation “Tess,” which won three technical Oscars out of its six nominations.