No actor was more perfectly named than John Hurt. It’s not as if the people he played were always in pain (though more often than not, they were). Yet he was graced with a seductively layered and tricky personality — you sensed that his characters were sly, furtive, and complicated because Hurt, who died Jan. 27 in England, was all those things as well. And the deepest layer was the hint of torment he carried around with him. It was like the speck of sand around which a pearl forms.
Hurt was born in 1940, but he was never some impeccable boring well-mannered “Masterpiece Theatre” thespian. Over and over, he gave performances that were daring and surprising and outrageous. Comb through his credits, and it’s hard to find anything that approaches the safe, bland note of costume-drama respectability. And yet, when you think of John Hurt, the first thing you probably gravitate to is the dour secrecy of that face, the handsome hang-dog scowl, the baggy eyes often narrowed to slits, all communicating something that dared not speak its name: the deep-down sense of an inner wound.
He made his first official mark playing the Lord Chancellor Richard Rich in “A Man for All Seasons” (1966), but the performance that really put Hurt on the map — that defined him as a boundary-smashing new breed of audacious British actor — was his extraordinary channeling of Quentin Crisp in the 1975 British TV-movie “The Naked Civil Servant.” In English film, we’d seen a generation of “angry young men,” but who, exactly, was this defiant (yet not so angry) androgynous cringing-wallflower fashion plate?
Cloaked in white make-up, with a shock of orange hair and a bombs-away bitchery as unapologetic, in its way, as Johnny Rotten’s sneer, Hurt’s Quentin Crisp was an effete outcast, delicate and merciless at the same time. At that point, gay cinema was still in its relative infancy, but the way that Hurt played Crisp — as a dandy from another planet, fey yet fearless, with quips that would have made Oscar Wilde blush with envy — he wasn’t just a sublimely ironic flaming creature. The performance was intensely political, way ahead of the curve. Gay movies, at that point, were mostly liberal pleas for tolerance, but in “The Naked Civil Servant” Hurt’s droll moonbeam humanity shot past all that. The character was saying: Accept me for who and what I am. For whatever I am. The performance wasn’t a plea for “tolerance” but a plea for the insane glory of the individual.
Hurt’s range was extraordinary, but it wasn’t just a matter of acting chops. It was a matter of the outreach of his empathy. One thinks of his mordant undertone of regret as the professional killer in Stephen Frears’ “The Hit” (1984); or the twinkle of Dickensian benevolence he brought to the Harry Potter series as Mr. Garrick Ollivander, the master of wands who gives Harry his very first one; or the bitter shades of feeling he found in Max, the shaky, disheveled, and ruefully articulate druggie wastrel who shows Billy Hayes the ropes of life in a Turkish prison in “Midnight Express” (1978); or his weary malevolence as the head of British intelligence, furrowed with his own power, in “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” (2011); or his ghostly recessive melancholy as Winston Smith in “1984,” a man who has erased himself to survive; or his smirk of debauchery as Caligula in the television landmark “I, Claudius” (1976), that misanthropic leer then turning insane, as the unhinged emperor — in the series’ most controversial scene — cut his pregnant sister-wife’s baby right out of her body; or the infamous moment in “Alien” (1979) that was like a cosmic payback for that scene, with Hurt as the crew member out of whose chest the alien bursts.
The “Alien” scene was all about the special effects, right? Wrong. I still remember the first time I saw it, and what was nearly as unsettling as the fleshy erupting monster fetus was Hurt’s writhing expression of torment, his sense of this cannot be happening.
John Hurt was a playful master who completely accepted — in fact, reveled in — the idea that he was not meant to be a “leading man.” Yet there was one movie in which he seemed to transcend the very category, by giving a performance of such humane virtuosity that it seemed to speak to everyone on earth who was never meant to be a leading man (or woman). That movie was David Lynch’s “The Elephant Man” (1980), and it remains a miraculous performance — certainly, along with Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein monster, the most visionary film performance ever given under pounds of disfiguring makeup.
As John Merrick, the 19th-century British “freak” whose severe congenital deformities made his head look like a melting mushroom, Hurt spoke in a strangled, flesh-clogged voice that, at first, seemed as damaged as his physique. Yet as the movie went on, Merrick was revealed to be a soul as gossamer as his face and body were grotesque. The performance wasn’t just moving — it ripped at your heart. (No stage version has ever come close.) When Merrick, cornered by a mob, does all he can to slosh out the words, “I am not an animal! I am a human being,” the agony of Hurt’s emotion makes you stop and consider what a human being is. That’s what movies used to do — expand your empathy by challenging it.
John Hurt did that in every performance. Yet he did it with a playful sense of ego. One of my favorite Hurt films — I think it’s his lost masterpiece — is “Love and Death on Long Island” (1997), which is basically “Death in Venice” remade as a light comedy. Hurt plays an excruciatingly civilized British writer named Giles De’Ath who has lost his place in the modern world. One day, he wanders into the wrong theater at a multiplex and winds up watching a movie called “Hotpants College II,” which stars the callow teen idol Ronnie Bostock, played by Jason Priestly. Giles becomes obsessed with Ronnie; he collects teen magazines and tapes of his movies, and eventually stalks him to his hometown, befriending the young man. Yet the whole time, he remains in complete denial of what he’s doing. He’s in love, but he can’t say it, or act on it, or maybe even know it.
The movie seems to distill something about John Hurt, which is that his characters aren’t “repressed” so much as they’re roiling with an emotion they don’t know what to do with. That’s their agony and dilemma; that’s why they hurt. In his last great performance, Hurt, now white-haired and wizened, but with that twinkle of awareness still shining through, plays the priest in “Jackie” who offers comfort to Jacqueline Kennedy (Natalie Portman) in the week following her husband’s assassination. By the time he played this role, Hurt knew that he had pancreatic cancer, and there’s a sense of his imparting a lifetime of wisdom. He gazes at Jackie, who’s looking into the void, and tells her that there’s no absolute faith, that there are no answers, but that God has given us just enough. That sounds a little dark, but in the mournful devotional way Hurt says it, caressing each word (and caressing Jackie with his eyes), it’s the opposite of dark. It’s his way of saying: Because no faith is absolute, you must find the faith in yourself. That’s what John Hurt did, every time he took his inner hurt and made it ours.