David Bowie and The Elephant Man

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In Chicago,1980, I saw David Bowie on stage as John Merrick in The Elephant Man. Without using prosthetic or make up, he contorted his torso and twisted his arm to imitate the Victorian freak show attraction. In Merrick, the head covered with fungal abnormalities held the bountiful dreams of the inner man. During the performance, I was in the third row pinching myself, because a short distance away from was the pop-icon. I held my breath; I was part of an audience that was silent, listening to words instead of the music. My admiration for Bowie as an actor superseded my appreciation for him as a musician. After multiple albums including The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, Heroes, and Let’s Dance, I enjoyed seeing Bowie in a different light. As an actor, I was impressed.

Discovered in a freak show, John Merrick was rescued by a doctor who transferred the side-show attraction from the dark alleys of the Whitechapel District in London to the chandelier-parlors of the elite. John Merrick was a physical abomination. In the telling of the story, he shared an emotional connection with Mrs. Kendal, a famous actress and their link was obvious. Their personae was the only dimension anyone cared to see. I can see why David Bowie wanted to play this role. I have wondered about icons in general. They are larger than life and defined by their exteriors. What about the vulnerable, human inside? That love-hate relationship with the paparazzi? Did their dreams of fame become a curse?

el

Do you like David Lynch’s 1980 film?

In the notorious Whitechapel district in London, John (Joseph) Merrick appeared briefly in the Jack the Ripper story which starred Johnny Depp in From Hell (2001). 

How did Merrick inherit the name The Elephant Man? In Victorian days, “maternal impression” was a belief that the mother’s emotional/psychological perceptions transferred to the child. Supposedly, an elephant startled Merrick’s mother at a circus while she carried him. By the age of five, his skin and bone abnormalities presented themselves. The weight of his malformed head caused Merrick’s death. It’s a sad story.

David Bowie’s performance has stayed with me over the decades later. While Mark Hamill and Bradley Cooper have played The Elephant Man on stage, and I don’t know how well they did, I find it hard to imagine them outdoing Bowie’s performance. He understood the duplicity of appearance and reality. The facade of the freak show marvel vs. the private, gentle man who dreamed and possessed ideas like the rest of us.

David Bowie and The Elephant Man

4fccc3cea704aadab1d5fe90bffef85d

In Chicago,1980, I saw David Bowie on stage as John Merrick in The Elephant Man. Without using prosthetic or make up, he contorted his torso and twisted his arm to imitate the Victorian freak show attraction. In Merrick, the head covered with fungal abnormalities held the bountiful dreams of the inner man. During the performance, I was in the third row pinching myself, because a short distance away from was the pop-icon. I held my breath; I was part of an audience that was silent, listening to words instead of the music. My admiration for Bowie as an actor superseded my appreciation for him as a musician. After multiple albums including The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, Heroes, and Let’s Dance, I enjoyed seeing Bowie in a different light. As an actor, I was impressed.

Discovered in a freak show, John Merrick was rescued by a doctor who transferred the side-show attraction from the dark alleys of the Whitechapel District in London to the chandelier-parlors of the elite. John Merrick was a physical abomination. In the telling of the story, he shared an emotional connection with Mrs. Kendal, a famous actress and their link was obvious. Their personae was the only dimension anyone cared to see. I can see why David Bowie wanted to play this role. I have wondered about icons in general. They are larger than life and defined by their exteriors. What about the vulnerable, human inside? That love-hate relationship with the paparazzi? Did their dreams of fame become a curse?

el

Do you like David Lynch’s 1980 film?

In the notorious Whitechapel district in London, John (Joseph) Merrick appeared briefly in the Jack the Ripper story which starred Johnny Depp in From Hell (2001). 

 

How did Merrick inherit the name The Elephant Man? In Victorian days, “maternal impression” was a belief that the mother’s emotional/psychological perceptions transferred to the child. Supposedly, an elephant startled Merrick’s mother at a circus while she carried him. By the age of five, his skin and bone abnormalities presented themselves. The weight of his malformed head caused Merrick’s death. It’s a sad story.

David Bowie’s performance has stayed with me over the decades later. While Mark Hamill and Bradley Cooper have played The Elephant Man on stage, and I don’t know how well they did, I find it hard to imagine them outdoing Bowie’s performance. He understood the duplicity of appearance and reality. The facade of the freak show marvel vs. the private, gentle man who dreamed and possessed ideas like the rest of us.

Makeup Effects in Film

When I was a kid, occasionally you’d catch a showing on TV of Tony Randall and Barbara Eden in the 1964 film,  The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao. It was a treat for me. I loved the premise behind the mysterious 7,000 year old sage who entered an Arizona town and put on a circus that featured himself (selves) and gave life lessons via mythological creatures. Surely influenced by the 1962 Science Fiction story by Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Come? Perhaps it’s too corny for today’s viewers used to CGI, but emotionally, I hold a soft-spot for the film. William Tuttle won an honorary Oscar for his make up contributions.

Time moves forward and special effects in film evolve and what a fun process to experience. Makeup effects are artistic creations and still preferable to me than CGI. Another special effects master was John Chambers called upon by Hollywood/television to create various parts for various stars–those Leonard Nimoy ears? Made by Chambers. That Lee Marvin nose in Cat Ballou? Chambers. However, it’s the work Chambers did in the original Planet of the Apes series that earned him the other honorary Oscar for Makeup Effects. By the time The Elephant Man released in 1980, enough people felt makeup/hair effects deserved its own category at the Oscars.

Terrence Mallick was offered to direct the film, but declined The Elephant Man. David Lynch accepted and created a mesmerizing black and white Victorian masterpiece. Is it a biopic of the poor deformed John Merrick? I don’t think so. David Lynch took many liberties with the real story behind John Merrick and I would categorize it as a film “inspired by true events”. Anthony Hopkins, John Hurt, Anne Bancroft, and John Gielgud never acted better. Nominated for 8 Oscars including Best Picture, the make-up job was a major factor.  Christopher Tucker designed the makeup while Wally Schneiderman applied and supervised.

 

Rick Baker won the first award in 1982 with my personal favorite dark comedy/horror film, An American Werewolf in London. Here’s a fun video showing how Rick’s team and David Naughton created the monster. It’s a pivotal film in special effects with makeup. When I saw this in the cinema, I was awestruck. It’s hard to pull off a love story, a comedy (the score adds to the humor), and a horror story effectively. I watch it every Halloween and it still holds up 30 years later. If you have 3.5 minutes, take a look:

Since 1982, Rick Baker has won more awards than any other with 11 nominations and 8 total wins: An American Werewolf in London(1982), Harry and the Hendersons (1988), Ed Wood (1995), The Nutty Professor (1997), Men in Black (1998), How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2001), and The Wolfman (2011).

Making a film is an ensemble effort. Yet, one rarely hears about the artisan who does the grudge work and gets little of the limelight. Isn’t it interesting how a “bad film” has radiant elements? A toast to the underrated makeup artists who supply key ingredients to the overall magic of the film. Here are some earlier Oscar winners. Which ones are your favorites?

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