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The Good, The Bad & The Badass: John Hurt

02.06.2017

John Hurt

I was at Sundance when I heard that John Hurt had passed on. Being a long-time fan of one of Britain’s truly great actors, I was surprised that I’d never written him up for this column. Maybe it’s that I never associated Hurt with being “bad-ass”, but even a cursory look at his work reveals that he was all that and much more.

One of those character actors who worked constantly, Hurt’s only problem was that he acted so often people took him for granted. He always classed-up whatever he showed-up in, although one wishes he got more leads in his latter years. From his debut in A MAN OF ALL SEASONS, to his late-seventies/eighties heyday that went from MIDNIGHT EXPRESS through THE ELEPHANT MAN, SCANDAL and more, Hurt was the best.

What’s especially interesting about Hurt is how two of his best roles have suddenly returned to prominence. With Ridley Scott’s ALIEN: COVENANT coming out, expect to see a lot of Hurt’s iconic chestburster moment show up in tributes. The other one is more unpredictable, with George Orwell’s seminal 1984 once again shooting up the bestseller charts (due in no small part to the current political situation), something which may lead some to rediscover his excellent portrayal of Winston Smith in the big-screen version of 1984, a performance that holds up really well and should earn him new fans - not that he needs them. Hurt’s place in the zeitgeist is assured.

His Best Work

While ALIEN remains Hurt’s most iconic performance, thanks mainly due to the unforgettable image of a baby xenomorph ripping out of his chest, his all-around best role is probably the titular character in David Lynch’s THE ELEPHANT MAN. Based on a real guy, John Merrick, Hurt is unrecognizable under the academy award winning makeup, with only his eyes really giving him away - and then only just. It’s a heartbreaking role, with the kind, intelligent Merrick trying desperately to live like a human being in a world that ostracizes him due to his shocking deformity. Exploited by all around him, his climatic “I am not an animal” speech is unforgettable, with Hurt getting a much-deserved Oscar nomination. He probably would have won too, had he not had the misfortune to go up opposite Robert De Niro in RAGING BULL.

His Most Overrated Work

It’s hard to really call any of John Hurt’s work overrated. He typically gave great performances, no matter the film - even if it was arguably beneath him. His body of work is sterling, but there’s one black mark on his CV I’m sure he wouldn’t have minded removing - although it’s not what anyone would call overrated. The film in question is PARTNERS, the only feature film directed by sitcom master James Burrows. Hurt plays a gay cop partnered with a straight one (Ryan O’Neal), who goes undercover in the “gay world” to find a serial killer - kind of like a spoof of CRUSING. On paper, this probably seemed like a good bet, with writer Francis Veber having written LE CAGE AUX FOLLES. Something must have gotten lost in the translation, and while having a gay lead in ‘82 was rare, I’m sure the audience wasn’t thrilled at the stereotypical portrait, with Hurt mincing around in lilac track-suits and lusting after O’Neal. Yikes! There’s a reason why this one is totally obscure.

His Most Underrated Film

Hurt always had a rather delicate look, so he typically didn’t play heavies unless he was playing a boss who didn’t have to get his hands dirty. One exception is THE HIT, by Stephen Frears. Here, he plays a white-suited hit man who, with his protege (Tim Roth in one of his first roles) travels to Spain to bring back a snitch, Terrence Stamp, for execution. Things go awry, and it’s a phenomenal little thriller with a cool main theme by Eric Clapton and Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters.

His Best Scene

Well, what else can it be but ALIEN, although I’ll admit I briefly considered throwing in the spoof of this scene from SPACEBALLS, or his cameo as Jesus Christ in HISTORY OF THE WORLD PART 1 (him and Brooks were pals after THE ELEPHANT MAN). This bit is still a shocker, and goes down as one of the all-time horror movie moments.

His Five Best Roles

5. A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS
4. THE HIT
3. 1984
2. THE ELEPHANT MAN
1. ALIEN

Up Next

While his health wasn’t great in the last few years, Hurt wasn’t one to rest on his laurels, and he’s got several movies in post-production, meaning that even if Hurt has passed on, we can expect a few more great roles, such as a part as Neville Chamberlain in Joe Wright’s Winston Churchill biopic (with Gary Oldman) DARKEST HOUR

Source: JoBlo.com

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