Appreciation

John Hurt on film: A voice of wit, mischief and wily humanity

John Hurt possessed one of the greatest voices in cinema — a voice that could tremble with terror and fragility in “The Elephant Man” (1980), or drive its very owner mad with torment in “Krapp’s Last Tape” (2000). But so often it was the voice of sage mischief, of someone so knowing, observant and sharp-witted that he could afford to puncture every pretension.

It was no surprise that this splendidly versatile English actor was called on to play so many narrators over his career, dispensing his dry storybook wisdom in pictures as different as “Perfume: The Story of a Murderer” (2006), “Sightseers” (2012) and even “The Tigger Movie” (2000).

The best of these particular vocal performances may well be among the least known. In Lars von Trier’s punishing morality plays “Dogville” (2003) and “Manderlay” (2005), it is Hurt’s voice — arch, insinuating and deeply sarcastic — that guides us through the director’s neo-Brechtian world of spare sets and chalk outlines, and that encourages us to see his characters in the cold, harsh light that their actions demand. Hurt’s voice doesn’t just support these pictures; it speaks for them, nailing Von Trier's misanthropic tone with ruthless accuracy.

A narrator is by definition a kind of outsider, someone whose very omniscience both elevates and relegates them to the margins of the story. Before his death on Friday at the age of 77, Hurt excelled at playing outsiders of every stripe, giving dimension to an astonishingly rich cross section of the persecuted and marginalized.

He earned his first Academy Award nomination, for best supporting actor, for Alan Parker’s 1978 prison drama, “Midnight Express,” in which he played Max, the wry, cynical, drugged-out inmate who becomes a one-man rejoinder to all the macho bluster around him. Another outsider: Giles De’Ath, the gay English writer who crosses the Atlantic to pursue an improbable infatuation in “Love and Death on Long Island” (1998), and whom Hurt imbues with a poignant sense of dislocation from traditional romantic and social mores. 

Hurt delivered by far his most haunting rendition of an outcast in “The Elephant Man,” which earned him a second Oscar nomination, this time for best lead actor. Beneath the enormous facial protuberances of John Merrick in that David Lynch classic, Hurt so fully grasped the character’s terror and vulnerability that he ceased, in a sense, to be unrecognizable. He turned deformity into humanity and a disguise into a revelation.

Hurt was no slouch at playing insiders as well, and some of his most memorable performances offer a sharp, subtle critique of the trappings of power and privilege. He made an early big-screen impression as the treacherous Lord Richard Rich in “A Man for All Seasons” (1966), and gave himself over to the madness and debauchery of the Roman Emperor Caligula in the 1976 TV miniseries “I, Claudius.” In Tomas Alfredson’s beautifully bleak adaptation of “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” (2011), Hurt brought a marvelous gravity, at once elegiac and poker-faced, to the role of Control, the top-secret British intelligence chief trying to root out a mole in his rapidly shifting empire.

And in James McTeigue’s “V for Vendetta” (2005), Hurt became the villainous face of British totalitarianism as Chancellor Adam Sutler — a sly nod to his famous performance as Winston Smith in Michael Radford’s adaptation of “1984,” in which he did wily justice to the anguish of an individual crushed and warped by the workings of an authoritarian government. (There is a grim irony in the fact that Hurt died the same week that sales of George Orwell’s novel have skyrocketed, apparently in response to mounting fears over President Trump’s administration.)

Hurt could be a consummate ensemble player, too, even if his performance as Kane in “Alien” (1979), which featured the most famous and shocking of Hurt’s many, many death scenes, inevitably came to define Ridley Scott’s horror masterpiece for all time. He lent his voice to the animated projects “Watership Down” (1978), “The Lord of the Rings” (1978) and “The Black Cauldron” (1985), and donned all manner of white-wigged fantasy garb for the benefit of the “Harry Potter” and “Hellboy” franchises.

It is often said of our best actors that they disappear into their roles, but at a certain point, Hurt stopped disappearing. The pleasure of watching him on-screen came accompanied with an “aha!” of recognition — of hearing that elegant rasp of a voice and seeing those glinting, intelligent eyes, and knowing that, however eccentric the context, we were in exceptionally good hands.

It was delightful to see him turn up as a drunken father of the bride in Von Trier’s “Melancholia” (2011); as a grieving husband meeting his wife’s family in Billy Bob Thornton’s “Jayne Mansfield’s Car” (2012); and as a bearded, disabled fighter in Bong Joon-ho’s dystopian thriller “Snowpiercer” (2013). No one could have better played the undead incarnation of Christopher Marlowe in “Only Lovers Left Alive” (2013), whose director, Jim Jarmusch, became a semi-regular collaborator in films such as “Dead Man” (1995) and “The Limits of Control” (2009).

The last time I saw the actor on-screen was last year, in Pablo Larraín’s “Jackie,” in which Hurt plays a Catholic priest who consoles and at times contradicts the widowed Jacqueline Kennedy in her darkest hour. “You know my story,” she tells him at one point, to which he replies, “God isn’t interested in stories. He’s interested in truth.”

Hurt, more than most actors, succeeded in making them one and the same.

justin.chang@latimes.com

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