John Hurt, 1940 - 2017
"Few British actors of recent years have been held in as much affection."
"Few British actors of recent years have been held in as much affection as John Hurt," writes Michael Coveney in the Guardian. "That affection is not just because of his unruly lifestyle—he was a hell-raising chum of Oliver Reed, Peter O’Toole and Richard Harris, and was married four times—or even his string of performances as damaged, frail or vulnerable characters, though that was certainly a factor. There was something about his innocence, open-heartedness and his beautiful speaking voice that made him instantly attractive."
"He made his first official mark playing the Lord Chancellor Richard Rich in A Man for All Seasons (1966)," writes Variety's Owen Gleiberman, "but the performance that really put Hurt on the map—that defined him as a boundary-smashing new breed of audacious British actor—was his extraordinary channeling of Quentin Crisp in the 1975 British TV-movie The Naked Civil Servant. In English film, we’d seen a generation of 'angry young men,' but who, exactly, was this defiant (yet not so angry) androgynous cringing-wallflower fashion plate? Cloaked in white make-up, with a shock of orange hair and a bombs-away bitchery as unapologetic, in its way, as Johnny Rotten’s sneer, Hurt’s Quentin Crisp was an effete outcast, delicate and merciless at the same time."
"After The Naked Civil Servant," writes Andrew Pulver in the Guardian, "Hurt went on to appear in Jerzy Skolimowski’s The Shout (as a composer who is terrorized by a mysterious stranger, played by Alan Bates)." Then, "voicing the role of Hazel in an animated adaptation of Watership Down, and playing Caligula in the BBC’s celebrated TV adaptation of I, Claudius, Hurt took another step upwards with memorable supporting roles in major Hollywood productions—both by British directors. Alan Parker cast him as an English junkie in a Turkish jail in 1978’s Midnight Express (for which Hurt won a Bafta and a Golden Globe for best supporting actor, and was nominated for an Oscar). The following year saw him take the role with which he arguably made the most permanent impact on popular culture: Kane, the crew member of the Nostromo in the Ridley-Scott-directed Alien, out of whose chest an xenomorph gruesomely bursts."
Listing "10 key performances" on a separate page, Pulver singles out Winston Smith in Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984), "a role Hurt was, arguably, born to play and the Michael Radford version gave him his opportunity, opposite Richard Burton."
For the Guardian's Peter Bradshaw, Hurt's "masterpiece as an actor… was his utterly superb performance as the fashionable osteopath Dr Stephen Ward in Michael Caton-Jones’s Scandal (1989)—about the Profumo scandal of the 50s with Ian McKellen as Profumo and Joanne Whalley excellent as Christine Keeler. Hurt absolutely nailed a role which he had basically to invent or imagine from scratch, there being relatively little known about Ward; he was the society figure who was made a sacrificial victim by an establishment who wanted someone to blame for a Cabinet Minister’s disgrace. Hurt’s sprightly, louche outsider nailed British pomposity, snobbery and fear of sex, by getting his Stephen Ward to exist in opposition to all that."
As for The Elephant Man, William Hughes notes at the AV Club that the "prosthetics in Lynch’s 1980 film were widely praised, but they would have been worthless without Hurt, conveying rage, dignity, fear, pain, and more from within a very narrow frame."
As Susan Wloszczyna noted at RogerEbert.com in 2014, in Jim Jarmusch's Only Lovers Left Alive, "Hurt invests both pathos and humor into the role" of Christopher Marlowe, the Elizabethan playwright who lives on to this day as a vampire and close companion to Tilda Swinton's Eve.
"Hurt never stopped working, continuing to act in movies and TV until the end," writes Deadline's Erik Pedersen. "He plays a priest in last year’s Natalie Portman-led biopic Jackie," and "they also worked together in 2005’s V for Vendetta." Hurt also "appeared in Snowpiercer and Doctor Who, and he had four films in various stages of completion at the time of his death."
Among those gathering tributes from those who knew and worked with Hurt is the Guardian's Bonnie Malkin.
Updates: "He was supremely versatile, but at the same time regularly played a stylized version of himself: grizzled, avuncular, warm, extremely wise," writes Little White Lies' David Jenkins. "His narration in Lars Von Trier’s 2003 film Dogville could and should be considered one of the greatest spoken word performances in the history of cinema. It’s a masterstroke of casting, for sure, as Hurt, in his sandpapery, sage-like drawl, intones a tale that resonates with all gentle power of a fable or a Bible story. He had one of the great, distinctive voices in cinema, the voice of a storyteller, someone you were drawn to, to whom you wanted to listen."
For the BFI, David Parkinson revisits "10 essential films," including Stephen Frears's The Hit (1984): "Even though Hurt has several villains on his CV, Quentin Crisp rightly claimed that he specializes in victims."
The Telegraph's posted Gaby Wood's interview with Hurt that originally ran in 2015. Wood had been told not to bring up Hurt's cancer, but: "That afternoon, a buoyant Hurt tells me, seconds after shaking my hand, that he’s just come from a treatment. 'I’m completely in remission,' he says, as if we were here to celebrate the fact—and perhaps we are, or should be. He orders a black coffee and a glass of red wine. Far from being reluctant, Hurt is only too keen to tell me about his new lease of life. Who wouldn’t be?"
"Is it accurate to say that you have a particularly deep well of pain to draw from, or is it more a matter of craft?" Nick Pinkerton asked for the Voice in 2011. Hurt: "I don’t think that that’s a matter of craft, because it’s not. On the other hand, without craft, you wouldn’t get it across. I can’t tell you how deep my well is. But I can tell you I wouldn’t be able to draw it out of the well if it were not for craft."
Updates, 1/29: "Inveterately honest—often against PR briefings—Hurt was always an inclusive talker," writes Sight & Sound editor Nick James. "For many of us in film he was as much a link to that legendary bohemia of London in the 1950s, of Francis Bacon and the Colony Room—and, of course, to the world of Quentin Crisp…—as he was, originally, to the studio days of British film…. If there was a Mount Rushmore for British Film giants, it would be bereft without him, for he carried so much of what’s great about British film and TV in his very features."
"He was one of those rare individuals about whom it could be truly said that he didn't know how to give a bad or inferior performance," writes Neil Young for the Hollywood Reporter. "As critic Danny Peary wrote in his book Cult Movie Stars, Hurt "always seems to be deep in thought; his characters' sexual natures are often thematically central to Hurt's films. He specializes in effeminate men, superior-acting decadent men, sadistic killers, and victims." His range was vast, his identification with characters absolute and deep. Known to be self-effacing (and discreetly generous) in his private life, Hurt's big-screen career spanned more than half a century as he graduated from callow youths to grand old dudes."
Update, 1/30: "Low-budget independent work attracted him the most," writes Philip Kemp for Sight & Sound. "'I’ve spent a great deal of my life doing independent film,' he once remarked, 'and that is partly because the subject matter interests me and partly because that is the basis of the film industry.' Also, it seems, because those films gave him much more pleasure than big-budget productions; interviewed after his largely expositional role as Professor Oxley in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) he asked wryly, 'I don’t suppose we could talk about the lack of enjoyment in making it?' … It’s been said that there are two types of actor—those who hate acting (Marlon Brando would be the classic example) and those who love it. John Hurt would unmistakably fall into the second category."
Update, 1/31: "We call actors like Hurt 'chameleons' because they can be anything a movie wants them to be," writes Sean Fennessey at the Ringer. "But we’d be better off with something more valiant. An intoxicant, a transporter. He was the midafternoon coffee in every movie, a presence that made you perk up. Though he was rarely a leading man, and often beside the point, Hurt was more than what came to be known as a 'That Guy.' When he was visible, he was the guy."
Update, 2/6: "I had the extraordinary privilege of working with John Hurt many years ago," writes Atom Egoyan in the Globe and Mail. "It was a film adaptation of Samuel Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape, and it was the only project I've ever made that allowed me to shoot sequentially. Over four days of shooting at Ardmore Studios in Dublin, we moved from the beginning of this magnificent play to the very end, with John's extraordinary performance deepening from moment to moment…. I have never had such a front-row seat to such a masterful actor."