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Five Great Performances by John Hurt

On Friday 27th January, we lost one of our most versatile performers in the uniquely gifted Sir John Hurt.
Adept at committing to any role with absolute dedication – an actor doesn’t remain working decade after decade without giving his all in every role and Hurt enlightened even the most unworthy project with his unconventional charm – it seems odd to single out a specific role when there’s an absolute treasure trove of commanding, thought-provoking and brave performances in fifty years of memorable work.
So, quite rightly, we are biased. These may not be your favourites, they may not be the ones that are burned into your conscious, or are indelibly attached to the name John Hurt, but, really, we are absolutely spoiled for choice.

Love and Death on Long Island – Giles De’Ath (1997)

Hurt stars as fusty widower Giles De’Ath, (a pun on Death in Venice, with which the film owes a debt to) who after spending most of his life cocooned in his books and his musings, one afternoon, locks himself out of the house on a rainy day. Deciding to avoid the showers by seeing the latest E.M Forster adaptation in the comfort of a dry cinema, De’Ath accidentally stumbles into a screening of tawdry teen comedy, Hotpants College II.
“This isn’t E.M Forster!” he whispers, and just as he’s about to leave, he catches on the silver screen, the single most beautiful thing he could ever have imagined, teen heartthrob Ronnie Bostock (Jason Priestley).
That moment of utter rapture, impeccably captured in a close-up of Hurt’s enchanted face, carries the rest of the film with an air of comic delight.  Dragging De’Ath into the 20th century, he quickly learns there are such things as VCR’s, pours over teen magazines for gushy, vapid quotes from Bostock (Favourite author: Stephen King. Favourite Musician: Axl Rose), and compiles a compendium of cursive writing on his idol entitled ‘Bostockiana’.
This “discovery of beauty where no one ever thought of looking for it”, eventually leads him to Bostock’s home on Long Island, where the film resists the urge to fall into melodrama and instead, presents us with an emotionally mature treatise on fascination (It’s never clear if De’Ath’s is homosexual – he has been married – or that he’s had any kind of sex life at all, for that matter) culminating in beautiful performance by Hurt that often feels like a person wrestling with a new emotion than repression.
It’s well worth seeking out.

The Naked Civil Servant – Quentin Crisp (1975)

There are iconic performances (Alien), there are chilling performances (1984), and then there are the fearless ones. Although, Hurt didn’t see it that way. When asked by Gay Times about his status amongst the gay community and legacy of The Naked Civil Servant, the adaptation of the book of the same name by Quentin Crisp, the eccentric writer, raconteur and self-styled “stately homo”, he simply replied:
“Sexuality has never worried me, I don’t care. Love worries me. If somebody can’t express their love, that is worrying. I’ve never had any difficulties in who it is you give your love to, it doesn’t make any difference to me.”
Although he can’t have known the impact that role would have had (who could?), Hurt, who was advised by his contemporaries not to take the part, is both wonderfully camp and exuberant but also sensitive – it’s a dynamic that audiences would become familiar with, given how easily he could switch between hyper-sensitivity and utter belligerence as each role dictated. He was just as mercurial showing us inner torment as he was, in the case of The Naked Civil Servant, meeting prejudice head on with outlandish defiance. A cry for individuality rather than acceptance.

Little Malcolm and His Struggle Against the Eunuchs – Malcolm Scrawdyke (1974)

Perhaps more famous now for being the first movie purchased by former Beatle George Harrison (it was one of the contestable assets in the ‘Beatles divorce’ proceedings and financed through Suba Films, the company set up purely to profit from the release of the animated Yellow Submarine, yes, this film was financed by Yellow Submarine), nonetheless, there’s much to recommend in this Goons style rallying at the so-called powers that be.
Hurt plays Malcolm, an expelled art student, who, fuelled by a hopeless campaign for recompense against what he calls ‘the Eunarchy’ a social stratum he defines as sexually timid and conformist, he launches into a full-on quasi-fascist regime that belies his group the Party of Dynamic Erection’s own sexually inadequacy with the opposite sex.
Based on David Halliwell’s unwieldy play (performances would often run to six hours, with no director able to exact a cut from the notoriously resistant Halliwell), Little Malcolm and His Struggle Against the Eunuchs feels oddly prescient; in mocking the buffoonery of fascism (Halliwell talked of Hitler as being an influence, namely as a source of much mirth amidst the terror), Hurt’s wonderfully verbose performance captures that same uneasy mixture of self-belief and thwarted power.

The Elephant Man – John Merrick (1980)

John Hurt’s finest performance and one that tears at the heartstrings. The physical transformation into 19th century London ‘freak’ John Merrick, wouldn’t be as startling without Hurt’s own characterisation – his physical presence and that strangled voice that, after much coaxing, reveals a hidden sensitive soul yearning for acceptance – the gentleness with which he asks passers-by to look at a picture of his mother, a beautiful woman who, in his heart, he hopes he too has retained some of that same quality, is particularly moving.

The Hit – Braddock (1984)

A relatively obscure film from one of Hurt’s favourite directors, Stephen Frears, The Hit sees Hurt play a hitman called Braddock, an alien, unknowable figure clearly haunted the deaths of those whose lives he has taken (it’s one of those rare movies that uses his fragility not to elicit sympathy, but to suggest something has gone rotten from the inside out) who’s charged with taking a stool pigeon to Paris to meet his fate
What follows is a road movie cum travelogue that reveals in its opacity – it often feels as though no one is really concerned with an overbearing sense of death as the film weaves its way through the countryside and back to civilisation – everyone except Hurt, who’s unmistakable voice, portends to a sudden end that no one else sees coming.

Which of John Hurt’s many fantastic performances are your favourites? 

Andrew Reynolds

Five Great Performances by John Hurt

by Andrew Reynolds time to read: 4 min
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