In 1980, David Lynch's film The Elephant Man was released to great acclaim, eventually scoring eight Oscar nominations (even prompting the Academy to create a new award for makeup and hairstyling). It was based on the memoirs of Frederick Teves, a British surgeon who studied and worked on Joseph Merrick, the "real" Elephant Man. Although Lynch's film grabbed most of the spotlight, the year before it was released, Teves' memoirs were also adapted into a Broadway play by Bernard Pomerance, which was directed by Jack Hofsiss, who would go on to become the youngest Tony Award winner for his work. In 1982, ITV filmed a version of the play, with Hofsiss again at the helm, and Broadway stars Philip Anglim and Kevin Conway playing Merrick and Teves, respectively.
The story follows the relationship between Merrick and Teves. Teves is a new employee of the London Hospital when he wanders past a merchant, Carr Gomm (Richard Clarke), offering folks a chance to see "The Elephant Man." Teves insists that whatever afflicts Gomm's star is a common medical issue that could be explained away by science, but after a peek at Merrick, Teves pays Gomm to keep Merrick for an entire day of study. Soon after, Merrick is booed off the stage and abandoned by Gomm, allowing Teves the chance to take Merrick on as a full-time patient. Through a great deal of therapy, Teves is able to help Merrick become a relatively functional member of society, enough that Merrick can become friends with Mrs. Kendal (Penny Fuller), an actress who shares Merrick's interest in Romeo and Juliet. Before long, Merrick has transformed from sideshow freak to the toast of high society, but a sense of incompleteness and loneliness continues to eat at Merrick's soul.
One of the first things the viewer will notice (and perhaps not entirely understand) about Hofsiss' version of The Elephant Man is that his Merrick is makeup-free. On the stage, this probably seemed more self-explanatory, and Hofsiss tries to assist in the understanding of this concept by having Teves show slides of a completely deformed Merrick alongside his unaltered appearance. Nonetheless, for modern viewers, it will take some getting used to, especially those who are already familiar with the Lynch film. Whether or not it's an entirely effective decision is hard to say (as the TV camera can get far closer to Anglim than the stage audience can), but it certainly allows the viewer to appreciate all the other physical and vocal effort that Anglim is putting into his performance. The twitchy movement and strangled voice stand out as an impressive effort that would likely be overlooked in the face (no pun intended) of an elaborate prosthetic job.
On the other hand, the decisions regarding Anglim's appearance are symptomatic of the entire production, and with many of the 1980s TV broadcasts of plays that I've seen. When the plays are directorially simple and the performances are great, it's easy to overlook the simplicity of these programs, but The Elephant Man is a production that simultaneously seems like it was on the lavish side for 1982, yet also fairly threadbare when seen in 2014. Those who saw the original ABC telecast will probably just be happy to have the film on DVD, but the freedom of modern television to go lavish and extravagant with a production serves as a reminder that televised plays were sort of a compromise for those who couldn't see it live. It's hard not to look at something like The Elephant Man and feel like it's a reduced version of something that was probably more compelling and engaging seen live, or that if it were being adapted for TV today, it could've made a more complete transition from one medium to another.
The reduction in question is most strongly felt in the relationship between the characters of Teves and Merrick, who hardly have time for a relationship in a 90-minute version of the play. Steve Lawson keeps what he can when it comes to their conversations about God and faith, but most of it is truncated for what amounts to more exposition-heavy scenes of Teves rescuing Merrick from the streets, or scenes with Mrs. Kendal. These scenes are the heart of the Broadway Elephant Man, and for stretches, the film settles into a groove (it's no surprise that Fuller won an Emmy for her performance). When she departs, however, it highlights the unusual absence of Teves, a character that would appear to be a counterpoint or foil to Merrick. Hofsiss also does his best to stage a nightmarish sequence with Teves surrounded by Merrick's former co-performers, but it, like most of the film, feels a bit small, constrained by the difference between the size of the stage and the size of the TV screen.
The art that graces the front of this new Scorpion Releasing DVD is a bit weird, depicting a fairly unremarkable moment from the film, with distinctly modern font work laid on top. The single-disc release comes in an eco-friendly DVD case (less plastic, no holes), and there is no insert.
The Video and Audio
This feature, pulled from the ITV archives, is presented in 1.33:1 full frame and with Dolby Digital 2.0 audio. It is clearly an unremastered artifact from the analog era (the credits even mention a videotape supervisor), with very soft, smeary details. Interlacing is apparent, colors are flat yet still bleed, and discoloration and vertical bands are visible when the camera pans. The sound is clear enough to understand, but contains a fair amount of white noise and is a bit fuzzy. All things considered, the movie is watchable, but it certainly looks and sounds like a TV-quality tape from 1982. No subtitles or captions are included on the disc.
Of the three Scorpion releases I've received recently, The Elephant Man is the one that offers some new extras. Brand new interviews with Kevin Conway (23:25) and Jack Hofsiss (13:26) are included. Both talk not just about the TV adaptation of the play, but extensively about the original Broadway show and their involvement with it, and Conway additionally talks about some of his film work, including The Funhouse. A very nice set of retrospective chats.
Trailers for Saint Jack, Wombling Free (please tell me if I actually just hallucinated this), Blood Feud, Space Raiders (hmmm...), and The Last Days of Chez Nous are also included.
It's not so much that I disliked The Elephant Man, more that TV in the 1980s was not necessarily an optimal way to see something that was originated on Broadway. Those who have fond memories of seeing the original telecast or even the play itself will probably enjoy revisiting it, and they will almost certainly appreciate the two new interviews that Scorpion has created. For others, it might seem a bit outdated -- through no fault of the filmmakers, the format has evolved. Rent it.
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