Critic's Notebook: John Hurt, a Consummate Character Actor Who Exuded Elegance
The British actor was a model of weary sophistication and seemed, over the course of a long and varied career, utterly incapable of giving an inferior performance.
"I was in a film with him and he was so mesmerizing I kept forgetting to act and just watched him." So tweeted one of Sir John Hurt's screen colleagues — David Schneider — in the immediate aftermath of the British acting legend's death on Friday at 77.
Knighted in 2015, Hurt was genuinely revered among his international peers; he was both respected and beloved by audiences worldwide, and long treasured by connoisseurs of that rare craft known as "character acting." Not always the lead, Hurt's distinctive brand of sophisticated, raddled grace elevated each and every one of the films with which he was involved.
Oscar-nominated twice — for Midnight Express (1978) and his physically grueling incarnation of David Lynch's The Elephant Man (1980) — he won the BAFTA for both of those roles and gave highly acclaimed performances in 10 Rillington Place (1972); as Quentin Crisp in groundbreaking TV drama The Naked Civil Servant (1975) and its sequel An Englishman in New York (1990); Alien (1979), where his chest-bursting demise instantly entered cinema history; and The Field (1990). Hurt would land a third BAFTA in 2012, this time for his "outstanding contribution to British cinema."
For younger audiences, he was perhaps best known for his cameo turns as the crustily genial wand-crafter Mr. Ollivander in three of the Harry Potter films. Hurt also was effortlessly grandfathered, as the "War Doctor," into the complex continuum of the long-running sci-fi classic Doctor Who. For a certain generation of Brits, meanwhile, he's still arguably most vividly recalled as a show-stoppingly unhinged Caligula in the BBC's runaway-hit adaptation of Robert Graves' I Claudius (1976). And then there's his Winston Smith in Nineteen Eighty-Four and his superbly jaded assassin in Stephen Frears' The Hit (both 1984); his piercingly tragic Stephen Ward in Scandal (1989); his relatively low-key but multilayered and crucial turn in another outstanding Graves adaptation, the Jerzy Skolimowski-directed The Shout (1978), opposite Alan Bates; and his gravelly, world-weary narrations on such disparate productions as Watership Down (1979) and Lars Von Trier's Dogville (2013).
Hurt added off-hand gravitas and insouciant class to — among many others — V for Vendetta (2005), Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), Hellboy (2004), Contact (1997), Perfume (2006), Snowpiercer (2013), Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011) and most recently Pablo Larraín's Jackie (as Mrs. Kennedy's confessor). 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. 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; when he essayed a chummily vampiric, 450-year-old Christopher Marlowe in Jim Jarmusch's Only Lovers Left Alive (2013), nobody batted an eyelid.
Elegant, graceful and feline, the tirelessly prolific Hurt exuded an increasingly hard-won world-weariness which manifested itself in every glorious nuance of his truly astonishing voice. Nothing ever felt like a stretch for Hurt; this was a man who, one sensed, had seen the world, and who could channel every shade of that experience into the roles which happened to come his way. "I never sought anything out, really," the actor remarked in 2014 in an interview with Slant. "That's a nice thing to be able to say. Yeah, I never have. I never planned anything in my life professionally. It's what came up; it's what came through the mail."