“When I say that acting is just a rather more sophisticated way of playing cowboys and Indians, it’s my way of trying to quash all the pretentious crap that’s said about acting. What I mean is, if you pretend well enough, the audience will believe you.”
–John Hurt, 1990, as quoted in The New York Times
I can’t honestly say that John Hurt was ever an actor whose films I actively sought out solely because of his presence. On some level, I think that might have pleased him. There was a proper retreat from ostentation in Hurt’s work. He never seemed particular interested in commanding the screen, even in those instances when he was the clear lead. Instead, he stealthily infiltrated scenes, taking charge of moments by smartly withdrawing from them, leading the audience to reach out to him, with a instinctual and fascinated intensity.
So I didn’t hunt for Hurt, but I was always glad for his presence. Indeed, he was often the best part of the films in which he appeared, offering a flint of sly authenticity in even the most fantastical roles, which he took on with increasing frequency over the years because, well, those were the roles that were there. Whether it was a Harry Potter or a Hellboy, Hurt didn’t condescend. There was truth to be found everywhere. And the currency of that truth only increased when the implausible swirled elsewhere in the narrative.
Hurt’s capacity to push past complicated trappings with resonant humanity also served him in more serious fare. It’s fully present in his Oscar-nominated performance in David Lynch’s The Elephant Man, in which the necessarily smothering makeup required to play David Merrick (it took as long as eight hours to apply) didn’t obscure the actor’s soulfulness. What could have been a mere technical feat, stultifying in its commitment to the apparatus over the artistry, is instead a marvel of delivering emotional integrity, regardless of what barrier might exist between actor and audience. There is purity to the work that is startling.
It’s been decades since Hurt’s most iconic film moments, notably his character’s unfortunate end in Ridley Scott’s Alien (which he playfully, wonderfully revisited for Mel Brooks, producer of The Elephant Man, a few years later), but I’d argue he only got stronger as an actor as he aged. He was arguably never better than in his delicate, heart-rending performance in Richard Kwietniowski’s Love and Death on Long Island, a film that never quite got it’s due, in part because it arrived in the same calendar year as the superficially similar Gods and Monsters. But my main affection is centered on even more recent fare, when it sometimes seemed Hurt took parts with the condition that he be allowed to experiment with riotously wild facial hair best suited for a deranged scientist. He’s a delight as a battered wise man survivor in Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer and plays nothing but trump cards in his two-hander scenes with Natalie Portman in the recent Jackie. Many of these performances are simultaneously rambunctious and contained, as if Hurt is endeavoring to condense the range of human experience into single acting notes.
Hurt pretended well enough, and then some.