The Actor’s Actor: Sir John Hurt, 1940-2017
Sir John Hurt, one of the greatest actors of his generation, has passed on following a battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 77.
In a career that spanned nearly six decades, Hurt assayed every type of role across every type of genre and was brilliant in all of them. It staggers me to consider the sheer breadth of his work. Hero or villain, sympathetic or scoundrel, fantastical and all-too real; John Hurt could do anything. For one so talented, he never seemed to think any part was beneath him. Those parts range from the sublime (‘The Elephant Man’, ‘Midnight Express’, ‘Scandal’) to the ridiculous (‘Indiana Jones & The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull’) yet Hurt is equally excellent in all of them.
Hurt could swing from a dour, serious period-piece to an exploitative B-movie and never miss a step. He was one of those actors who genuinely raised the quality of any scene he appeared in. His performance as Mr. Ollivander in the Harry Potter movies runs a total of maybe 10 minutes across 3 films, but those 10 minutes have stuck in my head ever since I saw them. Hurt also possessed a sense of humor; he happily parodied his unforgettable death scene from ‘Alien’ for Mel Brooks’ ‘Spaceballs’. I submit that the line ‘Not again’ has never been delivered with such panache.
Born in 1940 into a strict religious home, Hurt was determined to become an actor from an early age. In spite of his parent’s efforts to steer him towards the academic life, Hurt won a scholarship to London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in 1960. His first big-screen role was 1962’s ‘The Wild & The Willing’. This rather melodramatic tale of romantic entanglements at a university also featured the screen debut of Ian “Lovejoy” McShane. From there on out, Hurt never stopped working.
Obviously, Hurt will be remembered for his work in ‘Midnight Express’, ‘The Elephant Man’, and that ‘Alien’ movie. Not to mention his fine work on television in ‘The Naked Civil Servant’ and ‘I, Claudius’. It would be foolish to single out any one role as the ‘definitive’ John Hurt performance, so I’ll allow myself three. These films illustrate, for me, just how remarkable his range truly was.
‘Watership Down’ (1978)
This was my first John Hurt movie. I had no idea of that fact when I watched it, of course. This is an animated adaptation of Richard Adams’ novel about battling warrens of rabbits. Because it was a “cartoon”, parents of the 1970s blithely assumed it was fine for their preschool-aged children. Not to put too fine a point on it, this movie is fucking terrifying. I was one of countless children scarred forever by this movie, and John Hurt’s voice is all over it as Hazel, the nominal hero of the story. Hurt had a voice like cracked leather seasoned with a peaty scotch. He could pitch it towards menace or comfort as need be, but here Hurt plays Hazel as an average person caught up in awful events.
‘The Hit’ (1984)
Director Stephen Frears’ strange mix of gangster film, road movie and philosophical pondering gives Hurt one of his most unusual roles. He plays Braddock, a veteran hitman tasked with bringing in an informer who betrayed the crime boss he works for. Unlike many of Hurt’s roles, Braddock has not one trace of sensitivity or compassion. He’s a blunt instrument, utterly cynical and dead to the world. As the film progresses, Braddock’s resolve is constantly tested by the carelessness of a rookie partner (Tim Roth’s onscreen debut), unexpected twists, and most of all by the seemingly unconcerned demeanor of his captive – wonderfully played by the iconic Terence Stamp. Stamp claims that he is “prepared to face death” which causes Hurt’s killer no end of confusion. Most of Hurt’s characters are as layered as an onion, but Braddock is all surface.
It’s a marvelously understated performance; one that ends up completely dominating the entire film. So much of it is achieved by Hurt using body language. By the end, Braddock has been reduced to the level of a hunted animal, his fate sealed by the very lack of self-regard that made him such an effective killer.
‘Love & Death On Long Island’ (1997)
This might be my all-time favorite John Hurt performance. Hurt plays a tweedy British writer named, unreasonably, Giles De’Ath. De’Ath is at first glance an archetypal English Eccentric. He is disengaged from the modern world, refusing even to own a television set. Purely by happenstance, he wanders into an American teen sex comedy (he thinks he’s going to see an E.M. Forester adaptation) where he is confronted by the vision of Ronnie Bostock (played by heart throb Jason Priestly). And quite unexpectedly Mr. De’Ath finds himself obsessed with this young actor. He buys a TV and VCR so he can watch and rewatch every one of Ronnie’s movies. He purchases teen idol magazines and lovingly cuts out pictures of Ronnie, placing them in a handsome volume he titles “Bostockania”. In other words, probably for the first time in his life, Giles De’Ath develops a full-on crush.
Hurt plays this infatuation so perfectly that we as an audience are there every awkward step of the way with him. It’s not so much about an older man suddenly realizing that he’s been gay all this time; it’s more about a person realizing that they have the capacity to fall in love for the first time in their life. Of course the crush is hopeless. Of course Giles is heading for an embarrassing fall. But Giles learns from his embarrassment. By the movie’s end, Hurt has shown a person become something more than they were at the beginning. It’s a quiet, unshowy performance that manages to be utterly gripping.
And those are just three out of over a hundred film appearances. I almost want to keep going. His remarkable few minutes in 2012’s ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’ as Control – head of the British spy ring known as the circus. His brilliant performance in 1989’s ‘Scandal’ as Stephen Ward – real-life center of the Profumo sex scandal that rocked 60s Britain. He gave what may be the definitive version of Winston Smith in the 1984 adaptation of George Orwell’s ‘1984’.
Of course, I can’t forget to mention Sir John’s appearance in my all-time favorite TV show Doctor Who. Hurt’s appearance as a “lost” incarnation of the Time Lord from Gallifrey elevated the series’ 50th anniversary celebration to something truly epic. And he did it with a performance of quiet gravitas and deep sadness. Remarkably, after only 70 minutes it felt as if he’d been playing the part for years. When he stepped into his TARDIS at episode’s end, never to be seen as The Doctor again, I felt the pang of regret I always feel when the Doctor regenerates into a new face. That’s just how good John Hurt was.
Sir John Vincent Hurt, actor. Born 22nd of January 1940, died 27th of January 2017.