Remembering John Hurt (1940-2017)
This past weekend, cinema lost one of its most dependable performers. John Hurt, the English actor with an instantly recognizable presence, passed away at the age of 77 of pancreatic cancer. He had over 200 acting credits to his name, having been prolific for most of his career, from major blockbusters such as the Harry Potter films to smaller, lesser seen productions. John Hurt was an actor that you could always look forward to elevating the material he was given; no matter the picture, he was usually the most memorable part of it.
John Hurt was an actor where you couldn't just pinpoint one performance as his best. This was a man that was constantly full of surprises, so we here at Talk Film Society have gotten together to share some of our favorites.
The Hit (1984)
There’s a strange hypnotic power to Stephen Frears' The Hit, I think some of it is Eric Clapton’s sleazy, bluesy guitar riffs and Frears’ moody direction, but it’s the no-nonsense performance from its leading actor John Hurt that leaves the biggest impression. Terrence Stamp may be a treat as the bewilderingly smiley Willie Parker and Tim Roth certainly exercises some energy as the eager to please Myron, while Hurt barely utters a word. However the first time seeing The Hit I spent the bulk of my runtime staring at the gaunt, craggy face of Hurt's Mr. Braddock thinking “what is this man doing that is so damn enthralling?”. He has precious few lines of dialogue, and he’s a mean, rugged number. I realized more about the character and the film with each passing minute. The most dynamic presence on screen is a worn and tired gangster and Braddock is one of those enigmatic characters that build in your head with every passing minute. He makes you ask questions about his character and his state of mind; "what’s he doing, thinking, why’s he with this upstart (Roth), is he an understudy or a successor to Braddock? Is he annoyed or pleased by his overeager violent thuggery?
And then it all came to me, and it’s simple; he was acting, and doing a damn fine job at that. All of these uncertainties and layers aren’t a coincidence, but the machinations of an assured and smart actor who is in tune with the ebb and flow with the art of acting and filmmaking. Dreamy, scary, tough and unpredictable is how to describe The Hit and Hurt's performance.
- Alex Miller
Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984)
English director Michael Radford brought author George Orwell’s timeless classic to the big screen in the year of its setting, going as far to shoot particular sequences on the same date as written in the novel itself. In the role of Winston Smith, the everyman who rebels against the totalitarian state by engaging in a forbidden love affair, Hurt brings a nuanced sense of pathos to the part that mirrors the bleakness of the story’s oppressive regime, and stands to be arguably the best part of the entire film. It’s Hurt’s performance that makes this version of Nineteen Eighty-Four stand out so much from other adaptations, and once you’ve seen it, it's hard to not mentally imagine him upon re-reading Orwell’s prose. While the film itself is only somewhat remembered, it remains one of Hurt’s sole leading roles across his entire career, and certainly worth seeking out the film for.
- Rob Trench
Director Ridley Scott revolutionized the sci-fi/horror genre with his 1979 masterpiece, Alien. Sure, Alien introduced us to Sigourney Weaver in a career making role, but it's John Hurt who audiences first see. Executive Officer Kane, who's inquisitive nature leads to the Alien actually getting on board, is one of Hurt's most memorable characters, and not just because of the legendary chestburster scene. Since Kane is the first Nostromo crew member we see, he's the one we initally latch onto. It's a grounded performance depicting a man just trying to do his job, no matter how bizarre that job might be. John Hurt may have the shortest amount of screen time in Alien, but his impact on the franchise cannot be underestimated.
- Matt Curione
I, Claudius (1976)
The first time I remember seeing John Hurt at work was when I was about 11 years old. My mum was watching Masterpiece Theatre on PBS. They were reshowing the BBCs 1976 production of I, Claudius. You might be asking yourself ‘Why is an 11 year old watching that?’ or ‘What kind of mother lets her child watch that?’ Well, I was very precocious and my mum never believed in censorship. The entire cast of that production was amazing but John Hurt was the stand out for me. His portrayal of Caligula was nothing short of brilliant. Even at that young age, I knew I was watching something special. As an adult, I rewatched I, Claudius and my 11 year old self knew what was up. Hurt played Caligula with such a deliciousness, it truly is a sight to see. Yes, the character is repellant but you can’t help but like him a little bit because of Hurt’s portrayal. Do yourself a favor, and make time to watch this series. You won’t regret it. John Hurt was a giant among his peers and will be greatly missed. Sleep well, sir.
- Sarah Jane
Snowpiercer/The Day of the Doctor (2013)
The astonishing quirk of the British Isles actor compared to the Hollywood actor is the ability to perform across mediums and genres. 2013 was one of those great years of cross platform performances for John Hurt, with appearances in Bong Joon-Ho's Snowpiercer, and taking on the role of an undiscovered Doctor in The Day Of The Doctor, the Doctor Who 50th anniversary special. Hurt got to be the elder statesmen of sci-fi that year, a role he'd often engage in over the last decade. Both roles require the vulnerability of age and the humility of lives experience, and despite their silly nature, Hurt showed gravitas most actors his age would just phone in. Hurt was never shy, no matter what the role, it's an admirable trait a lot of younger actors can learn from.
- Nick Issacs
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011)
The first person you see in Tomas Alfredson’s 2011 spy thriller is John Hurt, as he opens his door to a fellow spy and asks, “You weren’t followed?” Hurt plays Control, the head of British intelligence, known as “The Circus”, the figure who, beyond death, gives Gary Oldman’s George Smiley his latest assignment — find a mole within The Circus. Hurt is only in the film for a few precious scenes, primarily in flashback, but his presence is felt throughout. As Smiley unravels the mystery and gets closer and closer to the mole, we’re reminded of Control’s influence on The Circus and Smiley himself. Hurt has a tremendous moment, in a flashback scene at British Intelligence headquarters, with Oldman, David Dencik, Colin Firth, Ciarán Hinds, and Toby Jones, where he wipes the floor clean with each and everyone one of them. Hurt, as Control, demands and earns the respect of everyone in the room, and as an actor, Hurt most definitely earned it without having to ask.
- Marcelo Pico
Midnight Express (1978)
“The best thing to do is to get your ass out of here. Best way that you can,” says Max.
“Yeah, but how?” asks Billy.
“Catch the midnight express.”
“But what’s that?”
“Well, it's not a train,” Max explains, laughing. “It’s a prison word for...escape. But it doesn’t stop around here.”
In his first scene in the harrowing Midnight Express, John Hurt as Max, the English heroin addict/cat wrangler, offers a glimpse at just how bad life is behind the walls of a Turkish prison. The seven years he’s spent inside have not been kind to him, and as the film progresses, his physical and mental states continue to deteriorate, serving as a constant reminder of the future awaiting Billy Hayes, whose prison sentence keeps getting longer and longer. Like he would go on to do for much of his career, Hurt turned in an incredible (and heartbreaking) performance elevating a smaller supporting character to one that’s rich and complex, earning himself his first Oscar nomination in the process. Midnight Express may be Billy’s story, but it's Max that I'm left thinking about long after the credits have stopped rolling.
- Dan Colón
The Storyteller (1987)
There are frankly, too many roles John Hurt played that left an incredible impact on me. The one that left its greatest mark, however, is The Storyteller. He played the role like a kindly but wily grandparent who knew how to draw in his audience. He clearly relished in doing so in each episode. His narration lent the stories dramatic flair and weight like no one else could have managed.
Outside of Doc & Sprocket from Fraggle Rock, no Creature Shop dog and owner relationship rang as true. That's largely because Hurt's Storyteller and his canine companion bickered like a married couple. But Hurt's performance sold the Creature Shop's work.
- Sean Beattie
The Proposition (2005)
John Hurt was a magical actor. His ability to understand his characters and confidently wear their shoes was always synonymous with quality. In The Proposition he plays veteran bounty hunter Jellon Lamb who searches for a group of dangerous brothers guilty of murder, rape and other atrocities. When we first meet Jellon, he is very drunk. Yet in his drunken haze he is extremely articulate and very lyrical. He poetically voices his frustration about the Australian Outback, the film's setting, and how brutal and unforgiving the landscape is. Hunting his bounty has proven difficult, but he will stop at nothing to get his men. This is simply an alcohol fueled day off he desperately needed. Later in the film he returns sober, sharper than ever, wowing with his professor-like ramblings. John Hurt is barely in this film, maybe a total of ten minutes, but what he does with those ten minutes will make actors swoon and film fans appreciate the old adage, there are no small parts. He enters and leaves the film spectacularly basically stealing it from the main cast. John Hurt, by this time, was a highly respected and revered talent and The Proposition showed the world that his light would never, ever diminish. He simply got better and better especially in the latter half of his career. We'll miss you, Sir, but we shall always celebrate you.
- Rockie Juarez
The Skeleton Key (2005)
Criminally underseen, 2005's The Skeleton Key is one of the most inventive and entertaining paranormal horror films of the 00's. John Hurt provides a key performance for this haunted house picture, playing Ben Devereaux, a mute stroke victim who's the owner of a plantation in Louisiana. Even with his lack of dialogue, his scenes with his caretaker, played wonderfully by Kate Hudson, are a highlight for the film. With a simple glance or stare, Hurt is able to convey a world of emotions. They say that acting is all in the eyes and that couldn't be more true than it is here. You worry for Hurt's character and hope for his survival. It's a testament to his ability that he's able to do so without uttering a single world.
- Matt Curione
Heaven's Gate (1980)
Much has been said about the continuously divisive epic that nearly bankrupted United Artists and destroyed the career of director Michael Cimino. But there hasn’t been enough said about the performance of John Hurt. Like everything throughout the production of Heaven's Gate, casting was a debacle, producers fought with Cimino and Cimino with the producers; led by Kris Kristofferson, Isabelle Huppert, and Christopher Walken their love triangle is at the forefront of the story (along with the Johnson County War). What could have been a superfluous side character becomes one of the film's most memorable aspects as John Hurt plays the frequently tipsy wiseass, John Irving. A character that was not thoroughly realized in the screenplay and film (Hurt allegedly had enough time to leave the production and shoot the entirety of The Elephant Man) and yet Hurt imbues this supposedly secondary character with an immense degree of warmth and charm that rings all the more true with the film's themes of deviated freedom. It’s a testament to Hurt’s power to elaborate on the material he’s given; making the sardonic charisma of John Irving feel entirely natural and in tune with the material. Much has been said about the troubled production, but little has been said about the performances.
- Alex Miller
"Oh no, not again."
- Ian West
The Elephant Man (1980)
Hurt’s sole Oscar nomination for a leading performance came from the second film directed by David Lynch, one that is more accessible than his other more nightmarish features, but nonetheless a remarkable story based on real events. Hurt portrays John Merrick, a disfigured, albeit perceptive man rescued from a carnival freakshow by Anthony Hopkins’ surgeon Frederick Treves, who studies Merrick’s condition while also teaching him how to read as well as social skills. Hurt’s performance, despite being encased under layers of makeup and prosthetics (which took eight hours to apply per day), is truly remarkable as the physical boundaries meant the actor had to mostly rely on his eyes and his voice to get the character across. In the end, Hurt managed to produce a memorable, and certainly tragic character, that may be the actor’s greatest testament to film.