On John Hurt
By Jeffrey Fiene
The first film I saw with John Hurt in it was Ridley Scott’s terrifying Alien. He played the poor sap who gets the egg laid in his chest. The scene everyone knows from the movie. The chestburster scene. It terrified people for decades. Because he sold it. His talent was so massive that the audience, any audience, believed that an alien parasite was burrowing its way through his body. He did such a good job that when Mel Brooks made Spaceballs he repeated the action of dying for a gag. That was who John Hurt was. He took his work seriously in every way one can. He never saw himself so importantly that he couldn’t joke. He was truly multifaceted.
The next film I saw him in was Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. He played Olivander and gave Harry his first wand. He would later reprise this role as well, after a decade of being absent from the franchise, and flawlessly ease back into a minor part as if he had been playing it every day for every year since his first lines.
He could play contradictions as well. Winston Smith in 1984 was the direct antithesis of his character in V for Vendetta. He lent his voice to Watership Down and the incomparable Aragorn in Ralph Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings animated feature.
The role that cemented him as my idol though wasn’t Elephant Man or Caligula or, my own personal guilty pleasure, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. He played the War Doctor in Doctor Who. For the fiftieth anniversary, they created an incarnation of the main character that was so complex and dark that he was locked away in the Doctor’s psyche. A character that had no full backstory aside from the occasional cryptic mentions of the Last Great Time War. A version of the Doctor that did the most terrible thing the Doctor ever did. The character was created to give the anniversary special, Day of the Doctor, an inside look at the Doctor’s secret shame. John Hurt, in the span of seventy some odd minutes, the shortest amount of time an actor has ever been given to have a begging an end to his time as the Doctor, established a full-fledged and entirely believable answer to the question of what the Doctor’s secret shame is.
The War Doctor was given the chance to see what would become of him. The War Doctor saw atrocity after atrocity, even some committed by him. The War Doctor could bounce from utter despondency to joy in such subtle ways. This is due to John Hurt. He incredibly gave this performance far more than any other actor coming into that role could. A man who acted for the sake of acting. A man who stood with giants and could have any role he wanted. He gave it his all. He gave every role his all.
If I can have a quarter of the body of work he had when I die, then I will pass satisfied.
Thank you for everything.