I was saddened to hear today about the death of Sir John Hurt. I don’t usually write about individual actors on this site, but his impact was such that I couldn’t let his passing go unnoticed. He was one of those rare actors who, to me, seemed both recognisable and unrecognisable at the exact same time. His face (and voice) was immediately familiar and yet he completely inhabited the roles he played to such an extent that any familiarity quickly disappeared. When I see Tom Cruise or Tom Hanks or Johnny Depp on screen (something I try my best to avoid doing), I know I’m watching Tom Cruise or Tom Hanks or Johnny Depp, albeit in a different setting and with a different haircut. With John Hurt, however, I was only ever watching the character he was portraying. Does that make sense?
There are three particular roles he played I wanted to mention. When I was nine and was rapidly discovering my love for all things horror, ALIEN was released. I’m assuming anyone reading this will know that his character, Kane, has one of the most famous death scenes in movie history. Of course, as a bloodthirsty kid, all I was initially interested in was the chest-burst and the gore. It was only when I later learned more about how the scene was filmed – how he knew what was going to happen but the rest of the cast didn’t – and when I watched the film again (and again and again) did I realise how smart and clever Sir John’s performance was.
A couple of years later he starred as the titular ELEPHANT MAN in David Lynch’s adaptation of the life of the hideously deformed John Merrick. I rewatched the film recently and was again spellbound by his performance. Despite being unrecognisable and with limited movement under Christopher Tucker’s ground-breaking makeup, he succeeded in playing Merrick in such a way that the character’s pain and suffering was abundantly clear.
But my favourite John Hurt performance is as Winston Smith in Michael Radford’s film adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984. I’ve already written about the film here so I won’t go into much more detail, other than to say that the physical and mental transformation of Smith is remarkable. It’s a superb adaptation of a book which in these days of ‘alternate facts’ and the like, continues to feel increasingly relevant.
So goodbye Sir John, and thanks for the many magnificent performances. I’ve barely scratched the surface: V FOR VENDETTA, HELLBOY, HARRY POTTER, DOCTOR WHO, SNOWPIERCER… I could go on and on. Instead, I thought I’d post this compilation clip instead: