I honestly have no way to judge this film without immediately contradicting myself on what artistic merit this may contain, if any. True, it’s a different way of exploring what goes on behind the scenes of a performance. The story does go a step further by using actual people with physical and/or mental deformities and disabilities rather than an actor in make-up, like in The Elephant Man. At the same time though, it seems like the actors are being exploited for their appearance, regardless of how they feel in what they’re doing.
The story at it’s core is about an affair between a rich dwarf, a strong man, and a trapeze artist. For most of the picture, we see an assortment of sideshow characters and their interactions when the circus isn’t on. This includes a bearded lady, Siamese twins, an armless girl, a male torso, a limbless man, and some others. The ending of the film, without spoiling it, does surprise me as malice and hate fill the hearts of these characters.
As I mentioned in my Rain Man review, I have an autistic brother. To my knowledge, any time a mental disability is portrayed on film, it’s by an actor who mimics the traits found in said disability. It would be difficult to get someone with the real deal and have them be themselves for the purpose of the film. There’s no real way to predict their behavior and trying to work around it is almost impossible at times.
Early on in the film, there’s a scene where some of the performers are playing in a park. Two “normal” people watch with horror as we see some of the performers are shown with mental disabilities. Now, the way their reactions are filmed was considered the norm back in the day. Today, I would like to think that people are a bit more civilized when they interact with others different from them but I know that’s not the case.
“But Thomas,” you may ask, “how do you know that they’re not having the time of their life by being given a chance to be in a movie or something?” Truth is I do not know for sure. I know from past experience is that they do express happiness. I was on a three day shoot last summer for a professional service that helps those with mental disabilities. We used some people who benefit from the services as actors of sorts, going about their business as our spokesperson said his lines. When blocking the shots, I talked with the talent and they were more than happy to help. They were not “freaks”, they were people like us. Their part of the shoot was not for exploitation purposes but for positive demonstration purposes.
I suppose if the movie had any moral attached to it, it’s mostly “love one another.” That said, it’s not exactly true as it’s abandoned toward the horrific end. It wasn’t my cup of tea, even if it was only an hour long.
1001 MYMSBYD selection
400 Nominations list for AFI Top 100 for both years