John Hurt was recognizable, prolific, immensely talented, stage trained and an all round terrific artist. To me in observing his work I always saw a calculated, measured style, he never showboated or filled up the space in the extroverted sense but in that deep set gaze, his quietly intense eyes always found the core of whatever character he was bringing to life, not to mention that steady, delicate yet brittle speaking voice. Here are my top ten performances from this extraordinary actor!
10. Old Man Peanut in Malcolm Venville’s 44 Inch Chest
This is one of those hard boiled British gangster flicks with a weirdo edge that I can’t quite describe. Anyways, every character in the ensemble has an oddball quirk, Peanut’s being that he’s a near biblical level, savagely misogynistic, chauvinist piece of shit. It works for the role and the film and there’s nothing quite like seeing this good natured actor spout off sexist rhetoric like a teapot full of fire, brimstone and rancid piss.
9. Hrothgar in Howard McCain’s Outlander
A noble Viking king in times of great turmoil, Hrothgar and his people join forces with a strange being (Jim Caviesel) from a distant galaxy to fight off a nasty neon space dragon that followed him there. Hurt makes this guy a fair but pragmatic king who fights tooth an nail to protect his settlement from the creature.
8. John Merrick in David Lynch’s The Elephant Man
A gentle soul with an unfortunate facial disfigurement during a less enlightened time than we now live in, Hurt got an Oscar nomination for his compassionate, heartbreaking and researched role here.
7. S.R. Hadden in Robert Zemeckis’s Contact
I’m not a huge fan of this film overall but John is one of the factors that help it, playing an eccentric billionaire who secretly funds Jodie Foster’s search for alien life and when his cancer advances he just fucks off to space because the zero gravity helps his symptoms. It’s a sly encore supporting turn that undermines some of the more show-boaty performances (I’m looking at you McConaughey) with wit and genuine inspiration.
6. Jellon Lamb in John Hillcoat’s The Proposition
A cantankerous, half mad old British fuck marooned alone in the Australian outback, Jellon provides acidic, dark comic relief to this grim, no nonsense western when Guy Pearce’s stoic outlaw comes across his hovel in the middle of nowhere. After being told not to insult Irish people he promptly makes a potato peeling joke that causes Pearce to draw both guns, then swiftly talks the man down. Hurt was just so good at backhanded, knife-in-the-ribs dialogue like this.
5. Lawrence Fassett in Sam Peckinpah’s The Osterman Weekend
This is a near incomprehensible spy film with a terrific cast stuck in the world’s most over complicated plot, revolving around John’s rogue MI6 agent who is up to something, exactly what isn’t clear. He’s steely, cold and ruthless though as his intentions sort of become clear and his performance, calibrated just right, is the films strongest point.
4. John Schofield in Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man
The most patronizing and sarcastic factory clerk in the old west, Schofield is personal assistant to Robert Mitchum’s thunderous metalworks tycoon and insults anyone who walks into his office with an attitude. Wry, thinly veiled cynicism play at the edges of his performance, and his semi-alarmed, morbidly curious expression when Mitchum barks at someone to shut up is just priceless. Also the fact that Jarmusch chose to cut to Hurt mid conversation when the scene didn’t really even have anything to do with him just cracks me up big time too.
3. Trevor ‘Broom’ Bruttenholm in Guillermo Del Toro’s Hellboy
“In the absence of light, darkness prevails.” I remember his words in the trailer for this film so clearly, his character is the perfect harbinger of paranormal events, mentor and surrogate father to Ron Perlman’s Red, classy gentleman of otherworldly knowledge and one of the last individuals standing between our world and oblivion.
2. Garrick Ollivander in Harry Potter
“The wand chooses the wizard, Mr. Potter..”
His appearance in the Philosopher’s Stone as the placidly intense wand maker is a scene of terrific gravity that lulls both Harry and audience alike into a hypnotic place as he outlines important historical events. It was nice to see him again so many years later in The Deathly Hallows as well, still with a keen, observant edge.
1. Kane in Ridley Scott’s Alien
No other scene is as synonymous with cosmic dread as when we see that horrific little Xenomorph pup burst out of poor Kane’s chest at the dinner table. Hurt sells the scene with adept terror, wide eyed disbelief and heart stopping panic with his work. The fact that his fellow cast members weren’t aware of what was going to happen in the scene prior to shooting it just makes his performance ring all the more clear. An iconic moment, character and film.