The following is my contribution to the “Love Hurt” Blogathon, Sister Celluloid’s sterling tribute to actor Sir John Hurt who, sadly, has recently been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. This blogathon will run all through the summer of 2015. Bookmark the link on the above banner, and keep checking back to read numerous blog entries that continually prove why (as that ’80s song says) Hurt’s so good!
If some (few) would argue that John Hurt has not suffered a lot for his art, he has certainly suffered a lot in his art. Perhaps that is why Hurt took a couple of small but memorable roles in Mel Brooks comedies — to cleanse the palate, as it were.
When most people think of Mel Brooks, they think of broad, broad humor, but in Brooks’ History of the World Part I (1981), Hurt managed to contribute some big laughs by playing as small as possible. The joke was in Hurt’s offering a station of collective calm in the storm of Brooks’ burlesque shtick. And you can’t get any more calm and collected than Jesus Christ.
Just the set-up is enough to make you smile. Brooks is a waiter taking orders at the Last Supper. He yells out Judas’ name at an inopportune moment and inevitably curses, “Jesus!”, prompting Christ to do an Abbott-and-Costello-like routine with a waiter.
Hurt’s other moment of comedic glory is in Spaceballs (1987), Brooks’ painfully labored take-off on Star Wars. For my money, Hurt’s cameo provides the one genuine belly laugh of an otherwise pitiful low in Brooks’ movie career. In one fell swoop, Brooks manages to parody both Hurt’s role in Aliens (1979) and Brooks’ love for the screwball humor of Warner Bros. cartoons — more genuine satire/tribute than the movie manages in its remaining 95 minutes. And, as in History, Hurt proves to be delightfully in on the joke.
“Mel called and said, ‘Look, John, I’m doing this little movie and there’s a bit in there that has to do with Alien, so come on over.’ He made it sound like a bit of a picnic. He also did that to me on History of the World Part I. He always does that. ‘Come on, I’ll give you a couple grand, we’ll put you up in a nice hotel, you’ll have a good time, and then you can go back again.’ And when you get there, you suddenly realize, it’s a $3 million scene — God knows how much the animatronic singing and dancing alien cost — and they couldn’t possibly have done it if it hadn’t been for you. What I’m saying is, I think he got me rather cheap. [Laughs.]” – John Hurt, in a 2011 interview with A.V. Club