“Pretending to be other people is my game” – on John Hurt

I can’t pinpoint when John Hurt became one of my teenage obsessions.
Was it when one the school bullies talked loudly about how he was so moved by The Elephant Man that he burst into tears?
Was it when I was allowed to stay over at Matthew Newman’s house to watch the first screening of Alien on ITV?
Maybe it sprung from a vanity when, for a few years in my life when I thinned down, someone commented that I looked “like a young John Hurt”. The John Hurt below.

It was probably The Elephant Man. Film magazines fetishised Christopher Tucker’s process of transforming John Hurt by printing numerous spreads of the painstaking process.

When I went to see the film, I probably expected a horror movie. I left wondering if I had seen a dream. It was as if someone had really taken us into the nineteenth century and, at the centre of it, an unrecognisable actor who, severely limited by latex, projected the humanity behind the disfigurement. As an audience, we were briefly awed by the make up, but soon moved from being sideshow freak voyeurs to troubled and empathetic spectators of the man, John Merrick.
I most recently watched the film on the day of an eclipse in a Leicester Holiday Inn. It has lost none of its power, it is a masterpiece with a genius at its centre. It is in the eyes. It is in the delicacy of the struggling voice. Almost every one of his spoken lines breaks your heart.

“I’m not used to being treated so well by a beautiful woman”

Having understanding and compassion for outsiders is so much easier when we see it in a film.

I was told that when John Hurt returned from filming the underrated drama about the Rwandan genocide, Shooting Dogs, he got in a taxi at Heathrow and told them to go straight to Amnesty headquarters. He wanted to immediately volunteer to do whatever he could to help in situations of oppression. Apocryphal perhaps, but believable.

When I read 1984 again (and aren’t we all reading it again now?), it is John Hurt’s Winston Smith I see. With other adapted books, I can rid my self of the on screen version, but Hurt’s Smith does not leave me as I read. John Hurt is perfect as the haunted realist who cannot fall for the choco ration lies and briefly risks a dream, but is then tortured to betrayal. We watch and wish to imagine we would be more heroic, but Hurt makes us see that we may well found ourselves pushed onto the same path as Winston. Again, it is the yes. It is the voice.

He was the greatest actor at portraying the fragility of being human, sometimes broken, betrayed and weak, as with Timothy Evans in 10 Rillington Place, at others, struggling, but surviving by being splendid, as with both his portrayals of Quentin Crisp, “blinded by mascara and dumbstruck by lipstick”. Traditional Hollywood didn’t seem to know what to do with him, so he found himself in the rightly forgotten Ryan O Neal vehicle, Partners.

Hurt was also the funniest thing in Mel Brooks’s Spaceballs, reprising his role of Kane in Alien. Drinking at a bar, a creature bursts from his chest again, looking down at the mutilated cavity he mutters, “oh no, not again”.

The malevolent, gleeful evil of Caligula in I, Claudius, the sad beauty of Hazel in Watership Down, the creepy outback drunk with a fly crawling across his eyeball in The Proposition, I started to make a list and then I realised that you might as well just look down his IMDB entry, in almost every film he offers something remarkable, something that traverses the screen. Last week, at the Slapstick Festival, we watched the first banana scene from Krapp’s Last Tape, directed by Atom Egoyan, few eat a banana with quite such compelling necessity and ultimate doom.
And Old Man Peanut, in 44 Inch Chest, leaves you open-mouthed at this bravura channeling of a brutal Steptoe. I am glad a new generation, too young for most of his recent work, have been introduced to him as The War Doctor.

A friend told me of a party not so long ago where John Hurt demonstrated how acting worked. They sat back as he made a moving, stirring, enigmatic speech that captured all around the table without using any real words at all. Christ, I wish I’d seen that.

When John Hurt found out that Brian Cox’s tour was not coming to Norwich, he berated him and demanded he did. We planned on putting on a smaller version of the tour show at a Norwich theatre which would be titled Because John Hurt Told Us To, I hope we still do it. If John Hurt told you to do it, then you should.

I think I’ll work backwards from Tinker, Tailor now…

Josie and Robin’s Book Shambles continues with latest guests including Noel Fielding, Alan Moore, Alice Lowe, Alice Roberts…HERE

I will be at Leicester Comedy Festival on 20th February and The Bill Murray Pub, London on 22nd February.

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One Response to “Pretending to be other people is my game” – on John Hurt

  1. paranotions says:

    Perfect piece Robin. My first impression of John Hurt was in fact the Naked Civil Servant. His unbreakable confidence and ability to rise above the contemporary disdain for the “others” had a massive impact on me. I was always different from my siblings, Bowie and Hurt’s Crisp gave me the confidence to be who exactly I was. My eldest brother commented much later that he always admired my confidence in who I was, despite their incessant bullying . of course I watched and absorbed everything he did after with rapt attention. He always seemed somewhat above those around him on screen, his acting was of a higher order regardless of who he shared the screen with.

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