Director: David Lynch
Stars: Anthony Hopkins, John Hurt, Anne Bancroft
Plot: A Victorian surgeon rescues a heavily disfigured man who is mistreated while scraping a living as a side-show freak. Behind his monstrous facade, there is revealed a person of intelligence and sensitivity.
A scientist in 2001 speculated that Merrick may have suffered from a combination of neurofibromatosis type I and Proteus syndrome. In 2003, researchers used surviving DNA samples from Merrick in an attempt to determine his unique condition. However these tests were inconclusive and the cause of Joseph Merrick's medical condition remains unknown.
Many of the events shown in the film never happened. Merrick was generally not ill-treated by his managers, and he certainly was never abducted from the hospital, as depicted in the film. The despicable night watchman (portrayed by the late Michael Elphick) never existed either. Merrick had a peaceful and generally uneventful, if short, life at the hospital.
The Elephant Man makeup took seven to eight hours to apply each day and two hours to remove. John Hurt would arrive on set at 5.00am and shoot from noon until 10.00pm. Because of the strain on the actor, he worked alternate days.
This film was executive produced by Mel Brooks. He deliberately left his name off the credits, as he knew that people would get the wrong idea about the movie if they saw his name on the film, given his fame as a satirist.
Following the death of the real Joseph "John" Merrick, parts of his body were preserved for medical science to study. Some internal organs were kept in jars, and plaster casts were taken of his head, an arm, and a foot. Although the organs were destroyed by German air raids during the Second World War, the casts survived and are kept at the London Hospital. The makeup for John Hurt, who played Merrick in the film, was designed directly from those casts.
When the nominees for the 53rd Annual Academy Awards were announced in February 1981, many in the industry were appalled that this movie was not going to be honored for its make-up effects. At the time there was not a regular make-up category and winners for make-up were cited with a special award. Feeling that the make-up technicians deserved to be rewarded for the film, a letter of protest was sent to the Academy's Board of Governors to ask them to change their minds and give the film a special award. The Academy refused, but in response to the outcry, they decided a year later to reward make-up artists with their own annual category, and thus the best make-up award was born.
After the first day of shooting, when actor John Hurt was exposed for the first time to the inconveniences of having his make-up applied and walking around in it, he called his wife, saying, "I think they finally managed to make me hate acting."
Due to the constrictive deformity of his mouth, Merrick never spoke as clearly in real life as he does in the film. Doctor Frederick Treves often had to act as Merrick's interpretor for visitors. Those who knew him well, such as hospital staff and friends, grew used to his impeded speech but it remained indistinct and worsened as Merrick's condition deteriorated.
The opening scene of Merrick's mother being attacked by an elephant is not factual; his deformities were the result of disease, and he was called "The Elephant Man" because of his lumpy skin. However, the idea of an elephant attack comes from the melodramatic speech originally delivered by Tom Norman to those who paid to see Merrick exhibited.
In the film Anne Bancroft plays actress Madge Kendall and John Gielgud plays Mr. Carr-Gomm the hospital governor. As a young man Gielgud once performed on stage with the real Madge Kendall.
The real Merrick's London showman, Tom Norman, was not a brutal drunk like the fictional "Bytes." Norman was a well-respected showman and founder of a temperance society. He and Joseph Merrick were friends and business partners. Norman paid all of Merrick's expenses and split their earnings fifty-fifty. In a few weeks, Joseph saved up fifty pounds, as much as a typical working family made in a whole year. Ever since Treves wrote his memoirs with the character of the cruel showman, the Norman family has been appalled and embarked on a campaign to clear Tom Norman's good name.
Mel Brooks hired David Lynch to direct the film because he admired Lynch's work in Eraserhead (1977).
Joseph Merrick was a very intelligent and well-read gentleman. He loved to read and act out scenes from pantomimes that he was taken to see. He also composed a short, but very touching poem... "Tis true my form is something odd, But blaming me is blaming God. If I could create myself anew, I would not fail in pleasing you." -Joseph Carey Merrick (1862 - 1890)
oseph Merrick's beautiful cathedral can still be seen at the Royal London Museum Archives.
The great-nephew of Doctor Frederick Treves, appears in the opening scene as an Alderman trying to close down the freak show.