Last year, I watched David Lynch’s The Elephant Man. By the time I’d finished it (and wept about as hard as I’ve ever wept for anything), there was no doubt in my mind that I’d just seen one of the most heartbreaking, devastatingly beautiful pieces of film in cinematic history. If you can handle it, it is well worth watching. Though it takes some liberties with historical details, it is based on the true story of Joseph (“John”) Merrick, an Englishman born with severe physical deformities that made him a circus sideshow for much of his life. He found compassion through a doctor who took him under his wing, and by the time he died in 1890 at age 27, he had become a respected member of British society.
The film has many powerful moments, but I think one of the most beautiful scenes comes when Doctor Treves is attempting to keep Merrick from being moved out of the hospital. The chairman of the committee expresses a desire to meet Merrick, and Treves teaches him to say a few polite words to make a good impression. Along the way, he also coaches him in the beginning portion of Psalm 23. Merrick is then presented to the chairman, but is so overcome with humiliation that he all but freezes up, leading the chairman to conclude that he is simply parroting words and cannot think for himself. Merrick is then left alone in his room.
What follows at that point can hardly be described in words. I can only allow it to speak for itself. It’s like seeing one of God’s great faces. Embedding has unfortunately been disabled for the video with this scene, but click to watch it on Youtube here.
I loved something John Hurt (the British actor who played Merrick) said in a making-of featurette. He told a story about running into somebody at the Academy Awards who said, “Well John, it’s great that you’re here… just a shame you’re not gonna get it [the Oscar for Best Actor].” Hurt was mildly surprised, but graciously said, “Well, I think you’re quite right, it’s probably so-and-so’s year instead. But just out of curiosity, why do you think I’m not gonna get it?” The guy said, as if it were obvious, “Well… noone can see who you are!” Here Hurt chuckles and says, “To which I replied, rather naively, ‘I thought that was the point?'”