"People are frightened by what they don't understand."
John Merrick (John Hurt)
"The Elephant Man," which premiered on this date in 1980, was an extremely difficult movie to watch at times.
That does not mean it was a bad movie. Quite the contrary. Nearly everything about it was great. The acting was great. The directing was great. All the technical aspects of the movie were great.
The makeup was so impressive, in fact, that the Oscars were shamed into creating a new category for makeup and hairstyling the next year after Christopher Tucker's makeup work in "The Elephant Man" wasn't honored. Tucker wasn't overlooked deliberately by the Academy. There simply wasn't a category to recognize makeup artists.
Prior to that, two Special Achievement Oscars were awarded — to William Tuttle (in 1964 for "7 Faces of Dr. Lao") and John Chambers (in 1968 for "Planet of the Apes") — but there was no standing category for makeup artists (or, in Tucker's case, prosthetic work), and that was a mistake, considering the many great things that were done with makeup in the decades before "The Elephant Man."
The first recipient of the new Oscar — and, thus, the first beneficiary of the fallout from Tucker's snub — was Rick Baker for "An American Werewolf in London."
Tucker was recognized with an Oscar for Best Makeup a few years later.
In all, "The Elephant Man" received eight Oscar nominations, tying it with "Raging Bull" for the most nominations that year, but it took none home. That may have been the greatest shock of that year's Oscars.
John Hurt was brilliant in the role of John Merrick (in reality, Merrick's first name was Joseph; I have no idea why it was changed for the movie), the grossly disfigured hero of the story, and he was recognized for his work with an Oscar nomination for Best Actor. (He lost to Robert De Niro in "Raging Bull.")
None of the other performers — Anne Bancroft, Anthony Hopkins, John Gielgud, Wendy Hiller — were nominated, but the movie was nominated for Best Picture and David Lynch was nominated for Best Director. Both awards went to "Ordinary People."
It was also nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Film Editing, Best Original Score, Best Art Direction and Best Costume Design. How on earth did it fail to win a single Oscar?
It couldn't be because the subject matter was regarded as too rough. The winner of Best Picture that year was "Ordinary People," a story about a family coming apart at the seams, and it could be every bit as difficult to watch as "The Elephant Man."
I suppose more people could relate to "Ordinary People" than "The Elephant Man," though. You never have to look very far to find a dysfunctional family, but Merrick suffered from a rare disease, one that hasn't touched a fraction of the people that dysfunction has. Still, even if far fewer people could relate to his circumstances, his character was every bit as sympathetic.
He endured all kinds of abuse in Victorian England as a result of his affliction — and abuse, unfortunately, is not uncommon, even in today's politically correct climate. Hurt's performance deserved all the praise that film critics were eager to heap on the movie.
There were those in the movie who recognized what was happening. Merrick was a friendly and intelligent person, but he was hideous to behold, and that was what drove his treatment from others — and drove away those who might have been his friends.
"Can you imagine the kind of life he must have had?" pondered John Gielgud at one point.
"Yes, I think I can," replied Hopkins.
"I don't think so," Gielgud countered. "No one could possibly imagine it. I don't believe any of us can."
Merrick was regarded as a freak by many; in fact, the movie opened with him in a carnival, advertised as the "Elephant Man."
It was early in the movie that the viewers began to get a real taste for the grim reality of Merrick's existence. By the time Hurt was introduced to Hannah Gordon, who played Hopkins' wife, most viewers must surely have perceived the irony of their conversation.
"I'm very pleased to meet you, Mr. Merrick," she said.
"What is it, John?" Hopkins asked, concern creeping into his voice. "What's the matter?"
"It's just that I'm not used to being treated so well by a beautiful woman," Merrick replied.
The fact that being told "I'm very pleased to meet you" upon being introduced to someone could be regarded as being treated well speaks volumes and is heartbreaking testimony to the life he led.
"The Elephant Man" was blunt and uncompromising. Hurt's performance may have been the most sensitive I have ever seen.
I still can't believe the American Film Institute did not include "The Elephant Man" in its Top 100 movies of all time list.