The problem with primarily being known for genre work is that it doesn’t get a lot of recognition of the kind you might want. One assumes that the knighthood was nice, but I can’t help wondering if an Oscar would be better than never being able to have a meal in public without people hoping something would burst out of your chest. Though he did say he didn’t believe films should be competitive with one another, so I guess he would have disagreed with me at that.
Still, John Hurt did a fine job in all those genre performances. He was Ollivander, Control, Quentin Crisp, Professors Oxley and Broom, Adam Sutler and Winston Smith. He was Jesus and John Merrick. And, yes, Kane. And a whole mess of narrators. Even if you didn’t know know his name, you knew his face and a whole bunch of his roles.
Basically, if you want a slightly mad Englishman, or even a really mad Englishman, John Hurt tended to be your go-to guy. He had a distinctive face and voice, at once dignified and slightly lunatic. And goodness, didn’t he use it; not many people would manage Caligula and the Doctor in the same career. (The oldest Doctor, in fact.) And this is the thing, I could keep listing roles, and no matter which one I named, it would make a different person say, “Oh, that guy!” And yet I don’t put him in the ranks of Hey It’s That Guys, because far too many people knew him by name.
As a child, he wasn’t even allowed to see movies. He wasn’t allowed to play with other children, as his parents labeled them as “too common.” The son of a vicar, Hurt had one of those awfully strict British upbringings. He was abused in school. He was laughed at when he revealed his ambition to be an actor. And, of course, his parents didn’t want him to act because again with the common. But he had a calling, and so much the better for the history of film that he did. And the history of television.
Honestly, I’m not even sure who will take over the John Hurt role in years to come. There’s a reason he did so many of them, after all; no one did them quite like he did. In some ways, he’s the British equivalent of Christopher Walken, to whom he lost the Oscar one of the only two times he was nominated. You knew him instantly and knew you’d get a good performance from him, even if you weren’t always sure about the quality of the movie around him.