Welcome to Debate Week: Best Picture Losers, a series in which we’ll be looking at some of the best movies that were nominated, but ultimately lost the Oscar race for Best Picture. In this entry, Aurora Amidon discusses David Lynch’s 8-time nominated 1980 film, The Elephant Man.
Tucked away at the heart of the feel-good movie category is a subgenre that celebrates the inner beauty of the physically grotesque. This trope was popularized by classic French literature like Beauty and the Beast and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Since then, it has seen countless cinematic variations, such as Mask (1985), Penelope (2007), and Beastly (2011).
Part of what unifies these films is that their arcs tend to follow the same trajectory. The unattractive subject is cast out from the world until they meet someone who sees them for who they really are. Ultimately, this compassion changes the lives of everyone involved for the better. In The Elephant Man, however, the expected cathartic resolution is a bit more complicated.
Based on a true story, David Lynch‘s 1980 drama follows the life of John Merrick (John Hurt), a severely deformed man who is being dehumanized and humiliated as he’s put on display by a cruel circus manager like an animal at a zoo. But when the compassionate surgeon Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins) comes to John’s rescue and houses him at the London Hospital for observation, he quickly sees the humanity and complexity in his patient, and the two form an unlikely friendship.
At first, The Elephant Man adheres sufficiently to the blueprint of the aforementioned inspirational trope. Before he meets Frederick, John lives in complete isolation. This situation is largely physical: he is held in a dank, solitary cave when he’s not on display, and when he is being shown, he is alone in a cubicle. But the most detrimental part is, perhaps, the emotional element. Every day, he is actively rejected by society; people walk away from him weeping in fear or laughing mockingly, not even caring if he sees their response.
Lynch emphasizes how society dehumanizes John by taking the time to introduce him to the audience. At first, the film only shows other people’s reactions. John doesn’t have a say in any of it. Inadvertently, the viewer is forced to become a voyeur, waiting for the film to pull back the curtain and reveal some horrific beast.
John’s proprietor, in particular, does not recognize his humanity. He is adamant that John does not know how to speak. But later, John recites Shakespeare. His humanity is ultimately revealed through the eyes of Frederick, who is like Belle in Beauty and the Beast, the character who sees beyond the flesh and through whom the viewer can learn to love the beast. Frederick breaks through the superficial barriers and asks John if he can speak or hear. Once John reveals that he can, Frederick peels away layer upon layer of his patient’s personhood until he is a high-society British man.
And, as goes the trope, the emotional catharsis does arrive at the end of The Elephant Man. John is invited to a play starring his actress crush, the beautiful Mrs. Kendal (Anne Bancroft), who dedicates the show to him. John seems content. He even says as much to Frederick after the fact. This, he claims, was the greatest day of his life. So why, then, does he end it?
Despite John’s joyous arc, The Elephant Man ends in tragedy. Due to the abnormal proportions of his skull, if John lies flat on his back, he will die. After the show, he removes the pillows from his bed, and he goes to sleep. The credits roll, and it’s clear that John has died.
Given the otherwise upbeat nature of the third act of the film, it might come as a surprise that the ending is so … grim. But in juxtaposing the kindness of those surrounding John and his somewhat jarring suicide, Lynch suggests that the “compassion conquers all” attitude put forth in Beauty and the Beast spinoffs isn’t exactly a realistic perspective on the story. For John, at least, compassion on its own wasn’t enough.
In the end, what ultimately fails John isn’t a lack of compassion, but rather a lack of empathy. Once he is integrated into society, people open up to him and include him in social events and gatherings. But none of them understand what it is like to be him — nor do they particularly care to try. It is as if he has simply moved from one sideshow to another.
So who does understand John? Through his subtle, almost crude filmmaking style, Lynch evokes a sense of empathy. From the outset, John is afforded a large number of POV shots, which humanize him in a way the other characters cannot. This technique is employed even before the viewer realizes that John has a complex mind.
One moment, in particular, conjures empathy in a significant manner. Near the end of The Elephant Man, John travels alone in a train station and is harassed by a gaggle of people for his appearance. During the scene, the camera initiates a kind of understanding for the viewer by not interjecting any biases or impressions; it merely exists alongside John. The camera remains on his level for the majority of the scene, which affords him a sense of equality that he is not otherwise or elsewhere given.
When people start chasing John, the camera moves in front of him. This gives the viewer the effect that they, too, are being chased, which, again, is something only a camera could do. Additionally, the shots are mostly long and unflinching, which forces the viewer to put themself in John’s shoes and forbids them to look away. Once he is cornered by the crowd, he shouts out, “I am a human being!” Essentially, he seems to break the fourth wall and speak directly to the viewer.
Filmmaking is an intensely empathetic practice. In order to make a film about someone, one must first deeply understand them. This translates to the viewing experience, too, and a film like The Elephant Man can help its audience consider the right and wrong ways to interact with one another. For John Merrick, being invited to fancy dinners and plays isn’t enough to save his life. Perhaps he would have felt differently had he seen David Lynch roll the camera and put himself in his shoes.