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A Look Back at John Hurt’s Greatest Film Roles

No actor was more perfectly named than John Hurt. It’s not as if the characters 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 he was all those things as well.

Hurt died, at age 77, of pancreatic cancer on Jan. 27 at his home in Norfolk, England. These are my favorites of his films.

The Naked Civil Servant
The performance that really put Hurt on the map was his channeling of Quentin 
Crisp in a 1975 British TV movie. Cloaked in white makeup, with a shock of orange hair and a bombs-away bitchery as unapologetic as Johnny Rotten’s sneer, Hurt’s Crisp is effete , delicate, and merciless. The beauty of the performance is that it’s not a plea for “tolerance” so much as it a plea for the insane glory of the individual.

Midnight Express
In 1978, Hurt found bitter shades of feeling in the role of Max, the shaky, disheveled, and ruefully articulate druggie wastrel who shows Billy Hayes the ropes of life in a Turkish prison.

Alien
The following year, Hurt famously played the crew member out of whose chest the alien bursts — a scene that’s all about the special effects, right? Wrong. What’s nearly as unsettling as the fleshy erupting monster fetus is Hurt’s writhing expression of torment, his sense of “This cannot be happening.”

The Elephant Man
In his miraculous 1980 performance as John Merrick, the 19th-century British “freak” whose deformities made his head look like an oversized melting mushroom, Hurt speaks in a strangled, flesh-clogged voice that, at first, seems as damaged as his physique. Yet as the movie goes on, Merrick is revealed to be a soul as gossamer as his face and body are grotesque. The performance isn’t just moving — it rips at your heart.

Love and Death on Long Island
In a 1997 movie that’s basically “Death in Venice” remade as a light comedy, Hurt plays an excruciatingly civilized British writer who becomes obsessed with a callow teen idol played by Jason Priestly. He collects fan magazines and tapes of the young man’s movies and eventually stalks him to his hometown, where he befriends him. Yet the whole time he remains in 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 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.

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