On January 27th, film legend John Hurt had passed away after battling pancreatic cancer. An old guard-generation actor with a career spanning sixty years, Hurt had a legacy with a profound impact on pop culture.
The most iconic role without a doubt is that of Kane in Ridley’s Scott’s film, Alien. A milestone not just for cinema, but of genre cinema as well, the scene of the chestburster-stage of the titular Alien exploding from Hurt’s chest has been greatly revered. From the special effects used to realize the scene to introducing the world of the newest horror-creature (which would go on to appear in a multitude of other films, comics, crossovers, video games, and so on), the scene remains unblemished over the years, impactful and shocking now as it was back in 1979. The special effects and grotesqueness of the scene itself may perhaps overshadow the actor proper, so it certainly needs to be underscored the dimensions Hurt brought to his character of Kane.
Aliens infecting people had been a staple of sci-fi horror for many years, as is evident in films such as The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but in Alien it was an instance put on a personal level. From the small cast to the confining quarters of the Nostromo, the audience has an even more invested interest in the crew. Hurt’s portrayal of Kane from his alien infection, recovery, to his demise, tapped into this audience-cast configuration, and played it to the maximum. Never has a sci-fi death been so devastating, yet memorable.
While Hurt may have gone out in an explosion of viscera in Alien, he died with dignity with his turn as John Merrick in David Lynch’s The Elephant Man a year later. Another milestone in cinema, this was the film that not only gave widespread reconsideration and rediscovery of Merrick, but this was the film that solidified Lynch as a legitimate and visionary director. Eraserhead may have been his first film, but that was confined to a limited and cult-appreciative audience. With The Elephant Man, Lynch was able to bring his trademark surrealism and make it palpable to the average movie patron; without the success of The Elephant Man, works such as Twin Peaks and Mulholland Drive would not have been realized. But Lynch’s abstractness needed a human element to anchor itself to, and it was Hurt as Merrick that provided the foundation for this film. While the cast had its heavyweights with Anthony Hopkins and Anne Bancroft, it was Hurt’s sympathetic and humbling portrayal of Merrick that captivated and moved audiences.
An amusing aside, Mel Brooks, whose Brooksfilms company had produced The Elephant Man, would go on to give Hurt a cameo in his own Spaceballs. The spoof film recreated his iconic scene from Alien, albeit transposed to a space diner with his chestbuster singing the Tin Pan Alley song, “Hello! Ma Baby.” When one’s work has reached such magnitude that it becomes the subject to respectful and playful parody, it has officially become permanently solidified within culture as a whole.
While The Elephant Man and Alien were released decades ago, Hurt was able to seamlessly integrate into a new era of fans and associated fandom, truly becoming a revered actor across multiple generations. He appeared as Garrick Ollivander in the various Harry Potter films, a stab at playing a version of the titular and iconic Doctor in Doctor Who, and also starring in a number of film adaptations of comic books, such as V for Vendetta, B.P.R.D. (as in Hellboy II: The Golden Army), and Steve Moore’s Hercules: The Thracian Wars. With the current American political landscape, there’s been a renewed interest in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, in which Hurt starred as Winston Smith in the film adaptation, further solidifying the actor’s influence and importance. As with Merrick, Hurt has left the cinema world in a state of dignity and reverence.
*John Hurt image courtesy of Google Images.
Nicholas Diak is a popculture scholar of industrial and synthwave music, Italian genre films, and Lovecraft studies. He contributes essays to various anthologies, journals, and popculture websites. He is the editor of the forthcoming anthology, Ad Victoriam! Essays on Neo-peplum Cinema and Television. He can be found at nickdiak.com.