As an actor, John Hurt excels at suffering. He has the same battered suitcase sort of a face that Morgan Freeman has, which gives his work the edge of authenticity.
Three of John’s Bafta awards, his Golden Globe Award and his two Oscar nominations are for his roles as Max, the young drug trafficker brutalised in a Turkish prison in Midnight Express; Kane, literally gutted in Alien, and Joseph Merrick, the malformed freak of nature in The Elephant Man.
He said: “I feel enormous empathy for people who are misunderstood, Joseph Merrick being the pre-eminent example of that; not victims, but people who aren’t reckoned, not counted, not movers and shakers. Within the limitations of human existence they are the ones that get trodden on.”
His portrayal of Timothy Evans, the gullible, illiterate, volatile lodger wrongfully hanged for murder, in 10 Rillington Place, is a notable example.
In Scandal, screened at the National Media Museum next Saturday, John plays London society osteopath Dr Stephen Ward, a man who thought he was a mover and shaker. But caught up in a web of deceit, he was blamed for sex scandals that brought down Harold Macmillan’s Government.
As Winston Smith in 1984, deceived and humiliated by Big Brother, all human suffering is there in John’s seamed and pitted face, that ‘why me?’ pleading gaze.
Next Saturday evening, John will receive a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 16th Bradford International Film Festival, in recognition of his versatility, and a career that has already been acknowledged with a CBE.
He said: “Bradford is a natural place to have a film festival, especially as it has got more cosmopolitan. A great many of the pioneers of film were in Yorkshire. It was vibrant, but cut short by the First World War, as it was in France.
“We took a smack in the guts from America because it was powerful in that period and it stole a huge lead on the English-speaking world. I think we suffered from it and benefited from it,” he added.
John was born in wartime Derbyshire in 1940. Religion and theatre were features of a strict upbringing. His father was a mathematician-turned-priest, his mother an engineer and amateur actress. His brother Michael is a monk – Brother Anselm – in Ireland.
John defied a headmaster’s jeering forecast that he had no hope of making it as an actor. His on-screen career started in 1962 with The Wild And The Willing. Over the next 48 years, he has acted with the best.
Film festival director Tony Earnshaw says in the BIFF brochure that John has been the “actor of choice” for directors as diverse as Ridley Scott, Sam Peckinpah, Fred Zinnemann and Jim Sheridan.
More recently, he was the actor of choice for Bradford’s Paper Zoo Theatre Company to play the silent on-screen role of Big Brother in their stage production of 1984. He has not yet seen the production.
A huge video image of John’s face gazes inquisitorially at the audience with a mixture of curiosity and suspicion.
You’d think that with this track record across six decades, John would exude a measured assurance. Not so.
“When you look back, you say ‘My God, it looks planned’. I have never planned anything in my life at all. I was never clear about the direction my life was to go. It’s not a matter of good or bad, it’s just that’s the case.
“To plan something would imply the kind of confidence that W H Auden had when he told his headmaster that he was going to be a poet – a great poet. It’s that sort of confidence which has always eluded me.
“My favourite thing is to have something thrown at me by somebody who believes I have the ability to do it.
“I certainly can’t say I haven’t been successful, but I squirm at the word. I don’t feel successful. I am still asking questions, still amused, still saddened and upset.”
John Hurt will be in conversation with Tony Earnshaw at the National Media Museum, next Saturday, starting at 7pm. For tickets, ring 0870 7010200.
- See Wednesday’s T&A for a free City Of Film supplement.