John Hurt stars as John Merrick, the hideously deformed 19th century Londoner known as “The Elephant Man”. Treated as a sideshow freak, Merrick is assumed to be retarded as well as misshapen because of his inability to speak coherently. In fact, he is highly intelligent and sensitive, a fact made public when one Dr. Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins) rescues Merrick from a carnival and brings him to a hospital for analysis. Alas, even after being recognized as a man of advanced intellect, Merrick is still treated like a freak; no matter his station in life, he will forever be a prisoner of his own malformed body. Unable to secure rights for the famous stage play The Elephant Man, producer Mel Brooks based his film on the memoirs of Frederick Treves and a much later account of Merrick’s life by Ashley Montagu. The film is lensed in black and white by British master cinematographer Freddie Francis. Though nominated for a dozen Academy Awards, the film was ultimately shut out in every category.
Prior to this breakout film, director David Lynch was a cult figure, whose only previous film was the bizarre cult favorite Eraserhead. Elephant Man was in many respects a longer, more accessible, better plotted version of Eraserhead, underlining Lynch’s fascination with physical freaks and sporting the same strange atmospherics, including the constant background noise of humming and hissing machinery. John Hurt sensitively plays the title role, based on a true story about a severely deformed man in late 19th century London who becomes the star of a freak show and the toast of society. Anthony Hopkins’s role firmly established his career, and the film did the same for Lynch, who became a cultural hot property. Stark and unforgiving, Elephant Man promotes Lynch’s vision of a society at odds with its members. The film received eight Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, though it won none of them.