Make the Case: 5 Essential John Hurt Films
With the tragic loss of John Hurt, Gabriel Ricard reflects on the actor's legendary career.
Make the Case lists choices chronologically, rather than in any order of quality. Picks reflect film acting roles only. If the actor in question also directed the movie, that’s purely a coincidence, and it plays no part in the film’s inclusion.
The first movie I ever remember seeing John Hurt in wasn’t Aliens, or The Elephant Man, or even 1984. It wasn’t his small, flawless cameo in Spaceballs, although that’s definitely close. Of all the movies and TV shows he did over his immense career, the first one that I honestly and truly remember is King Ralph. I guess that’s fair enough. I was a big John Goodman fan (I still am). Tiny Gabriel thought the movie was great. I admit I still have a certain nostalgic appreciation for it. I even watched it a little while ago, and I remembered how much I hated John Hurt’s character. It was the first time the actor made an impression on me.
Obviously, it wasn’t the last time he did that.
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Hurt’s exceptional flexibility as an actor meant you could find him in almost any type of movie, or any genre for that matter. His filmography covers several decades, along with nearly 130 film and television appearances. He could disappear into great roles, elevate dreadful ones, and stand out as an actor in all of them. Like so many of his English actor contemporaries, John Hurt could make even the most unfathomably wretched watchable, if only for his performance. There are a lot of movies in his filmography that are just barely worth your time, and really, only worth a tenth of a damn if you have a fetish for bad movies with entertaining performances. I know I do.
Good performances in bad movies are fine, but Hurt’s long career is also marked by several great performances in great movies. Choosing just five for this edition of Make The Case was a challenge, which is forever the problem with prolific actors. Hurt was prolific to the end of his life. Even when he was clearly just working to pay the bills, he almost always found a way to keep you interested regardless. I mourn that quality, particularly since his generation of actors are beginning to drop off in rapid fashion. I will miss his piercing, dry voice, and I will miss the fact that he never stopped being an actor who was capable of anything.
1. Midnight Express (1978)
Midnight Express is an unhappy, occasionally tedious movie. The story has a man (Brad Davis, whose performance will get on your nerves) being trapped in a Turkish prison, after he is caught at the airport with hashish. Based on the non-fiction account by Billy Hayes, the Alan Parker-directed film spends most of its time taking us through the grueling horrors that nearly submitted Hayes to a slow, agonizing death. John Hurt appears in the film as one of the prisoners. It is without question the best thing about this movie, which sometimes labors under Oliver Stone’s posturing, arrogant screenplay. Hurt plays a heroin addict, and a role like that, in a movie such as this, is often played with such obnoxious, superficial conviction, the performance becomes unintentionally hilarious. That is not the case with John Hurt’s performance in Midnight Express. His gallows charm suffers the unimaginable agony of an addiction that has already killed him, even if his body hasn’t caught on. Hurt plays this character with a believable, unshakable attention to realistic detail.
I would even go so far as to say that if you have any experience with heroin addicts, Hurt’s performance will lead you to believe he got hooked just to understand the character a little better. He didn’t.
2. The Elephant Man (1980)
By the start of the 80s, Hurt had already established himself in numerous films, including Alien and Watership Down. The Elephant Man got him his first Oscar nomination. It’s a shame he didn’t win, although it’s hard to get mad at the winner for that year (Robert De Niro in Raging Bull, and really, the 1980 Best Actor category was freaking stacked with amazing performances). Although the film and performance were parodied later on (including Hurt’s memorable cry as John Merrick that he was a human being, and not an animal), it’s not because the performance was showy, or anything close to insincere. Hurt plays Merrick with a preoccupation to be true to the character, even at the expense of opportunities that would compel lesser actors to pull out all of the emotional stops. Hurt plays the tragic figure of Merrick without pity. There is something closer to empathy in Hurt’s performance, as well as a heart open to understanding the pain of someone who was genuinely perceived to be a monster. Combined with Lynch’s creative direction, Hurt is nothing less than a flawless example of his craft.
3. The Hit (1984)
1984 was a good year for John Hurt. He gave us the definitive portrayal of Winston Smith (Peter Cushing’s take is a very close second) in the definitive version of George Orwell’s unintentional blue print for 21st century global politics 1984. He also appeared in The Hit, which remains one of the strangest, most intense films Stephen Frears has ever made. That’s saying something, and much of that feeling comes from one of John Hurt’s best characters of all time. Hurt’s hitman is desperate to be the ruthless, effortlessly efficient machine his job demands he become. Unfortunately, he is marred by weakness and vanity, and these things ultimately destroy him on every imaginable level. The contrast between this pitiable assassin and John Merrick is so substantial, you can’t even believe it was the same actor.
To the last possible moment of the claustrophobic psychological furnace that Hurt locks his character in, he is nothing short of gripping. It’s an oddly humorous performance, even if it’s the kind of comedy that doesn’t actually make you feel good about the situation, yourself, or the world around you.
4. Love and Death on Long Island (1997)
By all rights, Hurt should have scored an Oscar win for his performance as an arrogant, extremely reclusive writer, whose life is transformed by an accidental screening of an American teenage b-movie drama. As Giles De’Ath, Hurt wasn’t even nominated. That’s okay. The movie itself is good, but it’s Hurt’s starring role that provides the film with more than just a quirky plot. As the story goes on, Giles becomes infatuated with the male lead (a very effective Jason Priestley) in the movie he finds himself unable to look away from. It develops into an obsession that could very easily become creepy. Certainly, when Giles travels all the way to America to meet this actor who haunts him so, things do get fairly deep into the territory of uncomfortable.
But Giles, who is experiencing love for the first time in his long, lonely life, is at least empathetic, even when he crosses certain lines. Hurt doesn’t demand we accept the fact that Giles seems helpless to resist these sudden, suffocating impulses. He simply wants us to understand what that might be like. Even in the film’s most humorous moments (and there are a lot of those), Hurt finds something saddening in playing a man who has to contend with being clueless for the first time in his life. Love and Death on Long Island demands rediscovery.
5. An Englishman in New York (2009)
I debated about this last entry for a long time. So many inspired performances have been left off this list, including Hellboy, 44 Inch Chest, Tinker Tailor Solider Spy, V for Vendetta, Crime and Punishment, Dead Man, Rob Roy, and on, and on, and on. And we didn’t even get into TV shows that gave us characters like the War Doctor.
But in the end, I keep coming back to this television film, which tells the story of aging gay English author Quinten Crisp’s visit to America. It’s true that in terms of representation, we need to see more gay characters played by actors who are actually gay. Hurt, who was heterosexual, still delivers the best performance anyone could possibly bring to someone they can only understand up to a point.
The movie itself is pretty good, and not much more than that. John Hurt’s performance makes this list for the fact that Hurt once again avoided stereotypes in playing a character who would be left with dozens of them, if the role were in the hands of a lesser actor. It’s a remarkable feat for an actor who never stopped being remarkable, so it’s impressive in of itself that Hurt was still giving performances that could stand out so brilliantly. That thought is unavoidable in the wake of his passing.
Time has stolen another great artist. Granted, an elderly (77 years old) one, but when we talk about actors of the caliber of John Hurt, we have a habit of becoming selfish about time. In the presence of greatness, there is never enough.