Oscar nominated John Hurt set for starring role at Keswick Film Festival
Last updated at 14:30, Friday, 17 February 2012
The Naked Civil Servant. I, Claudius. The Elephant Man. Midnight Express. Alien. These are the films and TV programmes John Hurt thinks will be nearest the top of the page when his obituary is written.
Anyone faced with that regrettable duty will have more than half a century of memorable performances to sift.
Just those five roles give a flavour of Hurt’s range: Quentin Crisp. Caligula. John Merrick. An inmate of a brutal Turkish prison. An astronaut with a terminal case of indigestion.
There have been many other high-profile productions, latterly including Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and three Harry Potter films.
But Hurt does not see a link between size of budget and quality of finished product. He continues to appear in low-budget British films as well as Hollywood blockbusters.
Just five days ago he received the Outstanding British Contribution to Cinema Award at the Baftas.
“I was very moved,” he says. “It was completely unexpected.”
His speech was a heartfelt thanks to all who have deemed him worthy of employment. It’s fair to say that his performances have returned the favour.
Since graduating from RADA in 1961, Hurt has won three Best Actor Baftas. His roles in Midnight Express and The Elephant Man earned him Academy Award nominations.
The next starring role is in Keswick. At the town’s film festival next weekend Hurt will introduce several of his performances and answer questions about his career.
Dissecting his work is more commonly the preserve of Hurt’s fans. The man himself is not inclined to peer through his past.
“I tend to look forward rather than back. Although you can’t help having a squint back now and then. I don’t think anybody ever does anything in life without looking at it and thinking ‘How could I have done it better?’ Otherwise you’d be in a puddle of contentment.”
Many of Hurt’s finest performances – Quentin Crisp and John Merrick among them – portrayed outsiders struggling for acceptance.
A suggestion that he is attracted to certain types of role is politely rejected as an overly romantic view of the acting world.
“I’m attracted to the people that other people see me as. I am the result of other people’s decisions. I don’t choose the parts, they do. And I’m grateful that they do.”
Now 72, Hurt has been paying the bills through acting since the age of 21. Ask if his style has changed with the times and he replies: “I hope so. A great deal. Otherwise I would have been left behind. Film acting has changed vastly. It’s very much more sophisticated in terms of reality.
“I was watching a film with my son last night, The Ides of March. There was staggering acting in it. You wouldn’t have found that in Twelve Angry Men, a great film though that was.
“Watching films is part of keeping up with what’s happening. It’s the same in any job if you don’t want to be left behind. How do you keep up with life?”
Hurt’s presence in Cumbria is thanks to Keswick Film Festival director Ann Martin. She met the actor and his wife, producer Anwen Rees-Myers, at a film festival in France last year.
“She [Ann] asked me, she said she was doing a little retrospective. I said that I’d be delighted.
“The word ‘festival’. It’s not a bad word, is it? And when it’s a festival about film... film is my joy. I’m pleased to see other people enjoying it.
“I go to a few festivals and I seem to have people now from Harry Potter age right up to A Man For All Seasons [his first high-profile film from 1966].”
As a child in the 1950s Hurt and his family were regular visitors to the Lake District, staying near Patterdale.
“I haven’t been back since, although I’ve been through. It’s not like where I live [Norfolk]. You’re either going there or you’re not.”
Hurt grew up in Derbyshire, where his father was a vicar. The vicarage was opposite a cinema but the young Hurt was not allowed to join the Saturday morning queues. Theatre was fine. Cinema was considered common.
But Hurt followed the path he felt compelled to take. Becoming someone else felt at least as comfortable as being himself. He describes acting as “my life. It’s the very raison d’etre.”
The journey has been made with a tuneful, rounded voice which can snap with authority when the role demands it, or when the actor is asked a question he regards as rather lame.
Has his voice been much of an asset?
“You’re asking me questions you already know the answer to.”
Whatever Hurt has learned about improving as an actor, at least one question remains at the heart of his profession. How successful will any production be? He has given great performances in films which bombed and he has seen turkeys fly.
“You can tell if they are going to be good films or not but you can never tell how they are going to do. If you could tell before it was released, we’d all be very rich. Things can go wrong at every stage. And things can go better.
“Quite often we lose an audience to the computer or the game. But if the integrity of the film is there, if it puts on a light, if it fires electricity to an audience, then it will be successful.
“Attracting an audience gets tougher and tougher. I’m not sure at all that the studios are going in the right direction. I think they’re making formulaic films. Fortunately there are many other ways to make films, without a big studio.”
Perhaps so. But money remains the driving force of film. And Hurt worries for young actors setting out on the road.
“I think it’s probably more difficult now. The competition is fierce. There are more outlets [for actors] but not many of them are particularly good.
“Getting a good dramatic education is incredibly difficult, and difficult to pay for. I think an education in a society like ours should not have to be paid for. You look at the tax we pay and you wonder where it goes. But that’s getting political and I don’t really want to do that here.”
See Hurt immersed in a role and you wonder if the performance is a tribute to his training, or whether the ability to act is simply either there or not.
“You’re asking me that as if I’m some sort of prophet who knows the answers. If you have a talent, you can improve it. If you have a blade with an edge on it, you can sharpen it. I’m not sure you can make an edge if there isn’t one.”
Back to the list of performances at the top of the page. Hurt has long known that for all his great roles, one defining scene sees him upstaged by a puppet.
His character’s final scene in Alien, when a creature bursts from his chest, is consistently named one of the most memorable moments in cinema.
“I got a shock when I first saw it,” admits Hurt, “even though I did the scene. I think they had to scrape the audience off the ceiling.”
If he was writing the list of his favourite performances, what would come first?
“I have lots and lots of favourites. Not necessarily from the best-known films. Here’s one for you: Bird O’Donnell in The Field [a 1990 production with Richard Harris]. I think it was a very interesting film. And a very interesting character.”
Turn the page for your guide to Keswick Film Festival, which runs from next Thursday to Sunday, February 26.
First published at 14:08, Friday, 17 February 2012
Published by http://www.cumberlandnews.co.uk
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