News broke late last week of the passing of John Hurt, an actor who I respected very much whose career spanned over six decades. He was 77 years old and had been suffering with pancreatic cancer. In my opinion, I don’t think he ever put a foot wrong and although he sometimes played in some films that weren’t particularly great, his performance was always fully committed in them and was always able to elevate sub-par material.
Hurt first found mainstream fame with his performances in ‘Midnight Express’ as Max, a heroin addict in 1978 which he won a BAFTA and Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor and was Oscar-nominated in the same category but didn’t win. Hurt subsequently followed this marvellous performance up the very next year in 1979 in Ridley Scott’s ‘Alien’ as Kane who unfortunately hosts the alien which bursts out of his chest, a revolutionary moment in sci-fi cinema. For this role, he was nominated for a BAFTA and then the next year, he received a Best Actor nomination for his performance in David Lynch’s, ‘The Elephant Man’ where he played the severely deformed but kind-hearted man alongside Anthony Hopkins’ doctor. In the space of three years, Hurt had undoubtedly become a household name and crafting his impressive legacy.
Throughout the rest of the 1980’s and 1990’s, Hurt appeared in many films but for me, I first vividly remember him as a child in ‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone’ as Ollivander who prescribes Harry his first wand, a role that he reprised in the last two parts of this lucrative franchise. He appeared in further popular franchises such as Guillermo Del Toro’s ‘Hellboy’ and was one of the best parts of ‘Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull’. One of my favourite performances (although more like a cameo) by Hurt was in John Hillcoat‘s debut feature ‘The Proposition’, a gritty Australian Western film as Jellon Lamb, a bounty hunter who has some of the best scenes in the film.
In the 2010’s, Hurt had many small roles in a number of films and although this would be far from most people’s first choice, he really managed to elevate Brett Ratner’s 2014 film, ‘Hercules’ which I was really pleasantly surprised by as it had looked extremely silly, which it was but it was also extremely entertaining which was no doubt elevated by John Hurt’s villain. He also had small roles in ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’, ‘Only Lovers Left Alive’ and ‘Snowpiercer’, which the latter still has never seen the light of day in the form of a release date in the UK.
I am yet to review the film (expect it soon) but I recently saw ‘Jackie’, Pablo Larraín’s biopic on Jacqueline Kennedy starring Natalie Portman who has been Oscar-nominated for her performance. Hurt has a small role in the film as a Priest and his final scenes in the film are particularly touching following his death as he talks to Portman’s Jackie about this subject and Hurt manages to bring a lot of emotional heft and really resonated with me in this role. No matter how big or small the role, John Hurt’s presence was always felt in a film.
Luckily, we’ve got a few posthumous releases to look forward which I would envisage will be some more great performances, the most interesting of which looks to be a film called ‘Darkest Hour’ directed by Joe Wright and he will play Neville Chamberlain opposite Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill and Ben Mendelsohn as King George VI.
It is such a shame that we have lost another one of the greats, particularly after a rough year of celebrity deaths but this one’s really hit hard as he really had a commanding and distinctive screen presence that always managed to elevate the film he was in.
Rest in peace.