I was extremely sad to learn that legendary actor John Hurt died last week. The announcement came on Friday, but he actually died Wednesday, 25 January 2017. I assume it was due to pancreatic cancer, which he was diagnosed with a year and a half ago. But none of the reporting I’ve read has indicated a cause of death. I’m not linking to anything because even the best coverage gives what I think of as a skewed view of his career.
For most Americans, John Hurt is known for one part: Kane in Alien. Admittedly, he is central to the most memorable scene: Kane is with a crew eating a meal when he goes into convulsions, ending in the immature alien bursting out of his stomach. Incredibly cool, but hardly a star part. To me, the only important thing about the part was that Hurt played a huge diversity of roles in a great many different kinds of films. The Internet Movie Database lists 204 films that he was in. And he wasn’t a character actor. He was the star of many of those films.
Discovering John Hurt
I first noticed him in 1979, while I was in high school. He played Raskolnikov in a PBS miniseries of Crime and Punishment. Shortly after that, I saw him play Caligula in I, Claudius. I was blown away, “This is the same actor?!” At that point, I would watch anything that he was in. And it wasn’t always pleasant. Neither Night Crossing nor Partners (both in 1982) were compelling films. But he was great in both.
But he was in a lot of films that were deserving of his talent. An obvious one that comes to mind in The Elephant Man, where he played John Merrick (Joseph was the real Merrick’s first name). At the time and to this day, I think he was robbed of the Academy Award. It was given to Robert De Niro for Raging Bull, proving yet again that Hollywood can’t appreciate subtlety in acting (not that I thought De Niro was bad).
The other parts that come easily to mind are Quentin Crisp in The Naked Civil Servant (1975), Max in Midnight Express (1978), Braddock in The Hit (1984), Stephen Ward in Scandal (1989), and, of course, his outstanding performance in Krapp’s Last Tape (2001). There are many more — roles both small and large. I don’t believe a movie ever failed to be better because of his participation.
But to me, John Hurt will always be Winston Smith in Nineteen Eighty-Four. (1984). I had just read the book for the first time when I first saw it. It’s incredibly rare that a film so perfectly captures the feel of a book. But even more, John Hurt wasn’t so much playing Smith as being him. I wanted to find a nice scene with Hurt and Suzanna Hamilton, but the pleasant ones from earlier in the film were too short. This one from the very end is brilliant with both of them completely defeated:
I didn’t know John Hurt. But I’m still sad that he’s gone, even with all the fine work that he left us. I didn’t particularly care when Michael Jackson died or Prince. Nor Carrie Fisher and Mary Tyler Moore, who died on the same day. But John Hurt was something special — at least to me.