On Sunday, August 5, 2012, Bradley Cooper (The Hangover; Limitless) completed a 12-day run as John Merrick in Bernard Pomerance‘s touching 1977 play, The Elephant Man, at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. I took a little trip from New York City to Williamstown, Massachusetts to see the production, which also starred Patricia Clarkson (Good Night, and Good Luck) and Alessandro Nivola (Janie Jones, Jurassic Park III, and the upcoming Devil’s Knot).
I was familiar with the play because I was lucky enough to see the original London and Broadway productions in the early 1980’s. Did Williamstown’s staging measure up? Yes, it was glorious in every way. This is why it chaps my you-know-what to see so many media outlets joking about the irony of a good looking actor playing the elephant man, questioning whether someone dubbed the “Sexiest Man Alive” could pull off the role, and focusing on his shirtless appearance in one scene (a device used for good reason in all stagings of this play).
Unlike David Lynch‘s 1980 film starring John Hurt in which Hurt wears prosthetics to look like the real John Merrick (aka Joseph Merrick), Pomerance specifically mandated that the actor in his largely fictional play wear no prosthetics or makeup. The idea was to eliminate the visual barrier between the man and the audience so that they could focus on his inner life. Attractive men have been purposely cast in the role, from David Schofield in London to Philip Anglim (an adaptation of this version is available on Amazon.com) and Billy Crudup on Broadway, to name a few.
So, the greater irony is that so many have fixated on Cooper’s appearance, turning him, in essence, into an elephant man in reverse. One of the themes of the play is superficiality and objectification. In Merrick’s case, he was objectified as an oddity in sideshows. Celebrities like Cooper also have to deal with staring eyes wherever they go.
Merrick purportedly ended his letters with an excerpt of the poem, “False Greatness,” by Isaac Watts (1674-1748):
Tis true my form is something odd,
But blaming me is blaming God;
Could I create myself anew
I would not fail in pleasing you.
If I could reach from pole to pole
Or grasp the ocean with a span,
I would be measured by the soul;
The mind’s the standard of the man.
The last four lines could apply to anyone whose looks give people pause, positively or negatively. Jane attended a Q&A recently with Kristen Bell, who stars with Cooper in Hit and Run, a new movie in which he plays a crook with blonde dreadlocks. Bell said the studios fought the look that downplays his handsomeness. I guess you cant blame them, but kudos to Cooper and filmmakers Dax Shepard and David Palmer for waiting until they found a studio that let them make the movie they wanted.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I hardly think Bradley Cooper is in need of our sympathy. But the lesson about objectification in Pomerance’s play certainly applies in both directions.
Clearly, Cooper is a serious actor and not just a “pretty face.” In his Inside the Actors Studio appearance, Cooper said this about his career: “I know that money or the fact that more people know who I am doesn’t do anything, doesn’t give you anything, zero. If anything, it’s something you have to sort of grapple with and come to terms with. But the only thing that really matters is the joy of picking up a cup in a scene and doing it authentically.”
What he’s talking about is losing himself in the character’s circumstances, which is a high that only actors understand. Contrary to what people think about acting, this process is actually a loss of ego – a giving up of the self for the service of the character and the story – and when you achieve it (which is difficult), it’s exhilarating and addictive.
Cooper stars in a few movies coming out soon (The Words; The Silver Linings Playbook; The Place Beyond the Pines; Serena) that may bring him more respect – like Brad Pitt and George Clooney have managed “in spite of” their looks. Meanwhile, the reviews of The Elephant Man (only local critics were allowed to review it) have been unanimously positive.
The play made a huge impression on me in the early 1980’s, and both of the actors I saw portray Merrick moved me deeply. This time, though, despite trying not to cry (sniffling in a small theater can make you self-conscious), I remained teary throughout the entire play. Details of the originals are, admittedly, hazy after 30+ years, but I know I didn’t cry from beginning to end during those productions.
Philip Anglim, for example, didn’t contort his face in the role, but Cooper did. This makes facial expressions difficult, which was true for the real Merrick, as well. It also makes it necessary for the actor to convey his emotions primarily through his eyes, voice, and inner life. No mean feat.
Despite this challenge, the vulnerability that Cooper brought to the role was endearing and immensely heartbreaking. Toward the beginning of the play in a scene in which Merrick is beaten, he wailed, and the sound pierced the heart. His voice was unrecognizable; besides the English accent, his pitch was higher. I spoke to him for a moment after the play, and I was struck by the difference between his voice in character and his normal speaking voice.
Patricia Clarkson as Mrs. Kendal, an actress who befriends Merrick, evoked the loudest laughs of the evening, and she made her hard work on the character look effortless. I have noticed this about her before, and I think it’s the reason she’s largely underrated. She simply makes it look too easy and natural, which is the mark of a true artist.
In the scene in which Mrs. Kendal first meets Merrick, he tells her of his unique interpretation of Romeo and Juliet. The look on Clarkson’s face was unforgettable as she registered that the disfigured man in front of her was such an intelligent, sensitive soul. She made me want to be an actress again.
If you aren’t familiar with Alessandro Nivola’s work, pay attention. As Frederick Treves, the doctor who cares for Merrick, Nivola brought impressive depth and nuance to a role that requires quite an emotional journey. Treves questions much in his life as a result of Merrick’s presence in it.
The very intimate theater at Williamstown served the play so well that I hate to ever see it in a larger venue again. The set by Timothy R. Mackabee was perfectly spare, the lighting design by Philip S. Rosenberg helped create the “elephant man” illusion, and the music in between scenes by Tom Kochan set just the right mood. The costumes by Clint Ramos were gorgeous and detailed. The talented director, Scott Ellis (who also directed Jim Parsons in the current Broadway production of Harvey), is to be commended, as is the entire cast.
I’d be remiss, though, if I didn’t specifically acknowledge Shuler Hensley, who played two pivotal roles seamlessly – a fact I didn’t realize until I checked my program. He was particularly effective as Ross, the man who is brutal to Merrick early on, yet manages to evoke pathos in a later scene.
Cooper performed a 30-minute version of the play while a student at the Actors Studio, so he has apparently wanted to portray Merrick professionally for a long time. In the program, the last line of his bio reads “Dedicated to JM.” His empathy for Merrick was palpable in his performance.
Forgive me for being preachy, but… While I don’t think there’s anything wrong with celebrating someone’s beauty or even feeling a healthy helping of lust, I do think it’s a problem when we do so to the exclusion of their other, less temporal qualities. Just as Victorian England assumed Merrick was an “imbecile” due to his appearance and difficulty with speech, don’t we often assume (or perhaps hope) that someone who is beautiful can’t also be smart or talented?
When I was in my 20’s, one of my dearest friends was probably the handsomest man I’ve ever seen. A girl learned one day that he had graduated from a prestigious university, and she said, “Oh, you’re smart.” He innocently asked me what that was about. “She meant, too, sweetie,” I told him. “She meant, ‘Oh, you’re smart, too.'”
Besides our difficulty – still – in dealing maturely with physical abnormalities, our culture has an adolescent love/hate relationship with physical beauty, and our behavior as a result can bring out what is ugliest inside us. For this reason alone, Pomerance’s The Elephant Man remains relevant 35 years after it was written and 150 years after John Merrick was born.
POSTCRIPT: After this article was published, Bradley Cooper went on the record as saying that there are talks about bringing this production to Broadway in 2013 or 2014. Another publication also reported that it was playwright Bernard Pomerance who requested that only local critics be allowed to review the Williamstown production.