Nationality: British. Born: Chesterfield, Derbyshire, 22 January 1940. Education: Attended Lincoln School; St. Martin's School of Art, London; Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, London. Family: Married 1) the actress Annette Robertson (divorced 1964); 2) Marie-Lise Volpelière-Pierrot (died 1983); 3) Donna Peacock, 1984 (divorced 1990); 4) Jo Dalton, 1990, one son: Alexander John Vincent.Career: 1962—stage debut in Infanticide in the House of Fred Ginger; film debut in The Wild and the Willing; 1966–67—in repertory with the Royal Shakespeare Company; from 1970s—in TV plays, including The Naked Civil Servant, 1975, and I, Claudius, 1976; 1979—in TV mini-series Crime and Punishment, and Red Fox, 1991. Awards: Best Supporting Actor Award, British Academy, for Midnight Express, 1978; Best Actor Award, British Academy, for The Elephant Man, 1980.
Films as Actor:
The Wild and the Willing (Young and Willing) (Thomas) (as Phil)
This Is My Street (Hayers) (as Charlie)
A Man for All Seasons (Zinnemann) (as Richard Rich)
The Sailor from Gibraltar (Richardson) (as John)
Before Winter Comes (J. Lee Thompson) (as Lt. Francis Pilkington)
Sinful Davey (Huston) (as Davey Haggart)
In Search of Gregory (Wood) (as Daniel)
10 Rillington Place (Fleischer) (as Timothy John Evans); Mr. Forbush and the Penguins (Cry of the Penguins) (Viola) (title role); The Pied Piper (Demy) (as Franz, Baron's son)
Little Malcolm and His Struggle against the Eunuchs (Cooper) (as Malcolm Scrawdyke)
Do Yourself Some Good (Marquand—short) (as narrator); The Ghoul (Francis) (as Tom)
East of Elephant Rock (Boyd); La linea del fiume (Stream Line) (Scavarda); Shadows of Doubt (Bolt); The Island (Fuest—for TV)
The Disappearance (Cooper) (as Atkinson); Spectre (Clive Donner—for TV)
Watership Down (Rosen—animation) (as voice of Hazel); Midnight Express (Alan Parker) (as Max); The Shout (Skolimowski) (as Anthony); The Lord of the Rings (Bakshi—animation) (as voice of Aragorn)
Alien (Ridley Scott) (as Kane)
The Elephant Man (Lynch) (as John Merrick); Heaven's Gate (Cimino) (as Billy Irvine)
History of the World, Part I (Mel Brooks) (as Jesus)
Partners (Burrows) (as Kerwin); Night Crossing (Delbert Mann) (as Peter Strelzyk); The Plague Dogs (Rosen—animation) (as voice of Snitter)
King Lear (Elliott—for TV) (as the Fool); The Osterman Weekend (Peckinpah) (as Lawrence Fassett); Champions (Irvin) (as Bob Champion)
1984 (Radford) (as Winston Smith); The Hit (Frears) (as Braddock); Success Is the Best Revenge (Skolimowski) (as Dino Montecurva)
The Black Cauldron (Berman and Rich—animation) (as voice of horned king); After Darkness (Othenin-Gerard) (as Peter Huninger); Free at Last (Lewis) (as narrator)
Jake Speed (Lane) (as Sid); Rocinante (Guedes) (as Bill)
"Segment X" of Aria (Bryden) (as Garuso); From the Hip (Clark) (as Douglas Benoit); Macheath (Higgs); Vincent—The Life and Death of Vincent van Gogh (Vincent) (Cox—doc) (as voice of Vincent); Spaceballs (Mel Brooks) (as himself)
White Mischief (Radford) (as Gilbert Colvile); Nuit Bengali (Bengali Night) (Klotz) (as Lucien Metz); Deadline (Stroud); Little Sweetheart (Poison Candy) (Simmons—for TV)
Scandal (Caton-Jones) (as Stephen Ward); Windprints (Wicht) (as Charles Rutherford)
Romeo-Juliet (Acosta); Frankenstein Unbound (Corman) (as Dr. Joseph Buchanan); The Field (Sheridan) (as "Bird" O'Donnell); Who Bombed Birmingham? (The Investigation: Inside a Terrorist Bombing) (Beckham—for TV) (as Chris Mullin)
King Ralph (Ward) (as Lord Percival Graves); I Dreamt I Woke Up (Boorman) (as Boorman's Alter Ego); Resident Alien (Nossiter—doc)
L'Oeil qui ment (Dark at Noon, or Eyes and Lies) (Raul Ruiz) (as Anthony/the Marquis); Mémoire tranquee (Lapse of Memory) (DeWolf) (as Conrad Farmer)
Monolith (Eyres) (as Villano); Great Moments in Aviation (Kidron) (as Rex Goodyear)
Foerraederi (Betrayal) (Von Krasenstjerna—doc) (as narrator); Hans Christian Andersen's Thumbelina (Bluth and Goldman—animation) (as voice of Mr. Mole); Second Best (Menges) (as Uncle Turpin); Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (Van Sant) (as the Countess)
Two Nudes Bathing (Boorman) (as Marquis de Prey); Rob Roy (Caton-Jones) (as Marquis of Montrose); Saigon Baby (Attwood—for TV) (as Jack Lee); Dead Man (Jarmusch) (as John Scholfield); Wild Bill (Hill) (as Charley Prince)
Privateer 2: The Darkening (Hilliker, Robert) (as Joe the Bartender)
Tender Loving Care (Wheeler) (as Dr. Turner); Love and Death on Long Island (Kwietniowski) (as Giles De'Ath); The Climb (Swaim) (as Chuck Langer); Bandyta (Dejczer) (as Babits); Contact (Zemeckis) (as S.R. Hadden)
You're Dead (Hurst) (as Maitland); Night Train (Lynch) (as Michael Poole); Magic (Garfein) (as Magician); The Commissioner (Sluizer) (as James Morton); All the Little Animals (Thomas) (as Mr. Summers)
New Blood (Hurst) (as Alan White); If. . . Dog. . . Rabbit (Modine) (as Sean Cooper); Watership Down (Sullivan—for TV) (as General Woundwort—voice)
Lost Souls (Kaminski) (role); The Tigger Movie (Falkenstein) (as Narrator)
By HURT: articles—
Interview with D. Toyeux, in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), November 1984.
"The Outsider," interview with Gavin Smith, in Film Comment (New York), March/April 1989.
Interview with J. Smith, in Skoop (Amsterdam), July/August 1989.
Interview with Derek Winnert, in Radio Times (London), 13 October 1990.
Interview with Brian Case, in Time Out (London), 20 February 1991.
Fuller, G., "But 'Hotpants College'?" (interview), in Interview (New York), March 1998.
On HURT: book—
Nathan, David, John Hurt: An Actor's Progress, London, 1986.
On HURT: articles—
Current Biography 1982, New York 1982.
Buckley, Michael, "John Hurt," in Films in Review (New York), May 1989.
Matousek, Mark, "English Accents," in Harper's Bazaar (New York), April 1990.
Winnert, D., "Great Outsider," in Radio Times (London), 13 October 1990.
Norman, Michael, "John Hurt: Always in Character," in New York Times Magazine, 2 December 1990.
Radio Times (London), 19 September 1992.
Ciapara, E., "Mr. Wonderful," in Filmowy Serwis Prasowy (Warsaw), vol. 39, no. 12, 1993.
* * *
John Hurt is the least macho of any serious (as opposed to comic) actor who has ever risen to a kind of stardom, however sporadic and precarious. The basis of John Hurt's image has always been weakness (physical, but most frequently also psychological) and unhealth (that thin, anxious, pasty face, and that frail body). It is not surprising that the cinema has consistently associated him with affliction. The first film in which he made a really strong impression (playing, typically, a very weak man) was 10 Rillington Place. His unforgettable Timothy Evans—hapless, nervous, unstable, marginally retarded, eventually executed for a murder he did not commit and constitutionally unable effectively to defend himself—stole the movie from a distinguished cast that included Richard Attenborough as the actual guilty party, notorious British mass murderer John Reginald Christie. Interestingly, Hurt almost did not get the part. He was the last of dozens of British actors to be considered and got the role only when he arrived for his audition and the producers, who had previously dismissed him as a possibility, were stunned by his remarkable resemblance to the real Evans.
Since then, the array of afflictions from which Hurt has suffered on-screen has been formidable indeed, and the enormous weight of makeup under which he played the incomparably afflicted eponymous protagonist of the grim David Lynch film The Elephant Man—produced by, of all people, Mel Brooks! And for which Hurt received his first Oscar nomination—might be taken as symbolic. Hunted by the law (Sinful Davey); homosexuality (The Naked Civil Servant, Partners, Love and Death on Long Island); alcoholism (Heaven's Gate); cancer (Champions), slimy space creatures erupting out of his chest (Alien); transvestism (Even Cowgirls Get the Blues); official persecution (Scandal); religious persecution (Jesus); time warps (Frankenstein Unbound); brutal treatment in a foreign land Midnight Express) and even more protracted torture (1984) are among the many other crosses he has had to bear on film.
Through all these ordeals Hurt has maintained a remarkable dignity and integrity. If the image constructed by the totality of the roles has become something of a joke (what will they find for him to suffer from next?), the actor has never given a bad performance, and can hardly be blamed for the fact that, in the commercial cinema, if you do not look like Sylvester Stallone you do not get to play Rambo (one assumes in any case that Hurt would not wish to). Nevertheless, this has not stopped Hurt from getting high-profile roles in a number of action-genre films such as Sam Peckinpah's The Osterman Weekend, and Stephen Frears' The Hit. The latter cast Hurt very much against type by assigning him the role of one of the cold-blooded killers hired to pull off the title rub-out (the execution of a stool pigeon) rather than, as one might expect, the suffering target of assassination.
Hurt's performances in gay roles, while the persona falls well within a certain cultural stereotyping, go some way in fact towards challenging the conventional view of homosexuality as an affliction; his much-maligned Billy Irvine in the much-maligned Heaven's Gate, the extravagantly excessive Cimino film which sank United Artists, actually constitutes a brilliantly realized component in that film's extraordinary total architecture.
Hurt's recent roles have offered him contrasting opportunities: a rare chance to play a conventional "leading man" (one might even say a "romantic" lead as he gets to sleep with Mary Shelley) as the time-traveling scientist in cult director Roger Corman's return to the megaphone after a twenty-year absence, Frankenstein Unbound, and a particularly colorful and excessive character-role in the Irish drama The Field. There is no question of Hurt's ability to "carry" a film as its star, but only when his character is anything but a conventional lead and has the advantage of eccentric makeup (The Naked Civil Servant, The Elephant Man). It is not his fault that he makes very little impression in Frankenstein Unbound, as the character (in a highly unconventional situation, but very conventionally conceived) could have been played by almost anyone, and the film, although apparently an instant "cult classic," is really quite bad.
The Field is another matter. Mistaken by some for a quasi-neorealist "slice of life," it is in fact an all-stops-out melodrama with many of the strengths of that genre: vividly realized characters built upon the solid foundation of strong and enduring stereotypes, a relishing of "excess" in performance and direction, and the dramatization of impossible tensions and contradictions within the society. In this context, Hurt's grotesque portrayal of a grotesque character, combining near-imbecility with a disturbingly malicious craftiness, is something of a tour de force, demonstrating once again his versatility and formidable technical control.
His performance as an effete, difficult-to-like (but ultimately sympathetic, largely due to Hurt), European writer past his prime becomes fixated on a younger man in Love and Death On Long Island demonstrated these qualities yet again. The performance earned him critical accolades—in fact, his best notices, particularly in America, since The Elephant Man—but, alas, not another Oscar nomination, despite the fact that many admirers of the low-profile film believed he'd be a shoo-in.
—updated by John McCarty