Oscar Profile #515: John Hurt

Born January 2, 1940 in Derbyshire, England, John (Vincent) Hurt was the son of a Church of England clergyman and his wife. Determined to become an actor, he withstood the taunts of his preparatory school headmaster who told him that although he may be good in school plays, he didn’t have what it takes to have a major career.

Although he made his film debut in a small role in 1962’s Young and Willing, his early roles were mostly on TV. Married to actress Annette Robertson in 1962, they were divorced in 1964. He came to prominence as Richard Rich in his memorable support of Paul Scofield the 1966 Oscar winner, A Man for All Seasons. Nominated for a BAFTA for his supporting turn 1971’s Ten Rillington Place, he won for the 1975 TV movie, The Naked Civil Servant in which he played Quentin Crisp. He was also notable in the 1976 TV mini-series, I, Claudius in which he played the title role.

Hurt earned a second BAFTA award for his supporting role in 1978’s Midnight Express for which he received his first Oscar nomination. The classic 1979 sci-fi horror film, Alien earned him a fourth BAFTA nomination, and 1980’s The Elephant Man a third BAFTA on his fifth nomination as well as his second Oscar nomination in the title role.

In a 17-year relationship with French model Maire-Lise Volpeliere-Pierrot from 1967, she was thrown from a horse and died just before their planned wedding in 1983. He married second wife, long-time friend Donna Peacock, in 1984, the year he received strong notices for his starring roles in the films, Champions, The Hit, and 1984. He was also memorable late in decade in 1987’s White Mischief and 1989’s Scandal. He received his sixth BAFTA nomination for his supporting turn in 1990’s The Field the year he was divorced from Peacock and married to third wife Jo Dalton.

Much on TV in the 1990s, Hurt had a resurgence in film roles in the early days of the 21st century in such films as 2001’s Captain Corelli’s Mandolin and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Divorced from Dalton in 1996, he married fourth wife Anwen Rees-Myers in 2005.

Quite busy now, Hurt gave memorable performances in 2005’s Beyond the Gates, The Proposition, andV for Vendetta, 2008’s The Oxford Murders and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, 2009’s An Englishman in New York, 2010’s Brighton Rock and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows: Part 1, and 2011’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

Made a knight in 2015, Sir John Hurt continued to work until the end. One of his last roles was as the priest in 2016’s Jackie opposite Natalie Portman as Jackie Kennedy in tet title role. The film was still in theatres when he died of pancreatic cancer on January 5, 2017, three days after his 77th birthday.

ESSENTIAL FILMS

MIDNIGHT EXPRESS (1978), directed by Alan Parker

Hurt received his first Oscar nomination and a BAFTA award for his portrayal of Brad Davis’ cell mate in this harrowing film about an American in a Turkish prison based on the real-life experience of protagonist Billy Hayes. It was the only role Hurt ever played without first reading the script. To get into character, he stopped bathing for most of the 53-day shoot, and reeked so badly at time, most of the cast and crew avoided being close to him. Nominated for a total of six Oscars including Best Picture and Director, it won two for Oliver Stone’s screenplay and Giorgio Moroder’s Original Score.

ALIEN (1979), directed by Michael Powell and Ridley Scott

An Oscar winner for Best Visual Effects, Hurt’s performance is subject to the most vivid of those effects. As the first crew member of the merchant spaceship to be attacked, it is out of his chest that the alien burst forth. It had to be filmed twice, as on the first take the chestburster did not make it through Hurt’s shirt. The failed attempt was left in the film because Ridley Scott thought it made the scene look more violent with the creature struggling to get out. The hugely successful film gave way to several sequels, most notably James Cameron 1986 film, Aliens for which Sigourney Weaver was nominated for an Oscar.

THE ELEPHANT MAN (1980), directed by David Lynch

Based on the true story of a heavily disfigured Victorian man is revealed to be a person of kindness, intelligence, and sophistication, Lynch’s film was one of two properties about the subject, the other being produced on the Broadway stage in the previous year. It was nominated for eight Oscars including Best Picture, Director and Actor, Hurt in the title role. The actor’s makeup took seven hours to apply and two to remove. The burden was such that Hurt was allowed to work alternate days in order to catch his breath. The makeup was designed from casts taken of the real-life John Merrick’s head, arm and foot.

1984 (1984), directed by Michael Radford

Tis was second film version of George Orwell’s 1948 masterpiece. Generally considered superior to the 1956 version, it was filmed and released in the year in which the dismal future presented in the film was to occur. May of the scenes were shot on days noted in the diary of Hurt’s character. For example, the scene where Smith enters his apartment and writes the date of April 4, 1984, was filmed on that day. Richard Burton, who played Hurt’s handler, had great difficulty remembering his lines. His scenes had to be filmed over and over until he got them right. Burton died in August of 1984.

TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY (2011), directed by Tomas Alfredson

Nominated for three Oscars, this acclaimed film version of John le Carré’s novel was a condensed version of the same material of the 1980 TV miniseries starring Alec Guinness as master spy George Smiley with Alexander Knox as Control, the role played by Hurt in this go-around. Hurt was billed fifth out seven of the film’s principal actors – Oldman, Benedict Cumberbatch, Colin Firth, and Tim Hardy preceding him, and Toby Jones and Mark Strong following him. The novel was the first in a trilogy about the uncovering of the Cambridge Five traitors. The second and third novels were not filmed.

JOHN HURT AND OSCAR

  • Midnight Express (1978) – nominated – Best Supporting Actor
  • The Elephant Man (1980) – nominated – Best Actor

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