The Art of Not Being There: The Genius of John Hurt

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On returning home from watching an anniversary screening of David Lynch’s magnificent The Elephant Man, John Hurt’s status as my favourite film actor, and one of the finest actors in cinema history, was warmly reaffirmed; but I was also struck by what an enigma John Hurt was. Nominated only twice for an Academy Award (once for Alan Parker’s Midnight Express and again for The Elephant Man), Hurt consistently delivered magnificent performances for more than fifty years and remained a firm favourite amongst the filmgoing public, and yet received few leading roles and comparatively little attention from awards circles.

 It’s not as though Hurt couldn’t carry a film on his own, as his turns in films such as The Elephant Man had shown. In his youth, when he played roles such as Kane in Alien, he had a certain schoolboy charm and sharp handsomeness about him, and age only accentuated the character of his face while retaining the same handsomeness; and throughout his career his eyes always held the same potent combination of intensity, warmth and vulnerability that simply cries out “Film Star”.

Not to mention his distinctive voice. Airy, silken, full, rich… adjectives fail to encapsulate the sensation of Hurt’s voice, a voice that defied class, that gave the impression of both an ancient wisdom and youthful mischief, of a great strength and startling sensitivity, a voice so reedy it bordered on a whisper and yet spread like heat across a room…

However, as the years rolled by, Hollywood pushed Hurt further and further from centre stage and into supporting roles, despite Hurt’s ability to consistently deliver chameleonic performances and become one with the characters he played. An ability which, on one level, kept him out of the spotlight, but on another level, provides the key to his genius.

Unfortunately, what the Hollywood system deems to be good acting is not for an actor to become indistinguishable from the character, but rather for a star to be seen doing a good job as a character, never allowing the audience to forget that they are in fact watching the star. That is why Oscars are handed out to handsome men who aren’t afraid to cry, and to beautiful women who don ugly-make-up for a role, and to both for doing good impersonations of real persons. It’s a horrible, cynical system, but that’s how it works.

Hurt, on the other hand, gave himself completely to the character, losing himself in the process. Though handsome, his face was still normal enough that he could play a variety of characters with equal credibility. While in Hollywood films the tone of the film is often set by the character the lead actor is playing, Hurt instead played his characters so that they suited the tone and aesthetic of the film around him (often with a little bit of help from excellent make-up work), ensuring that his characters at once felt like people, but also products of the worlds they occupied. If the film was quirky and whimsical, he too was quirky and whimsical; if the film was gritty and realist, so was he (you can see this by comparing his two performances as Mr Ollivander in the Harry Potter films).

But of all the iconic roles Hurt has played, I personally feel the best performance of his career was his turn as Krapp in Atom Egoyan’s adaptation of Krapp’s Last Tape by Samuel Beckett, about an old man who listens back to a voice recording he made as a much more energetic, optimistic young man, and the tape he records about the way he lives now. Much like Hurt, Krapp is a character who doesn’t draw attention to himself. His clothes are as dusty as the furniture around him. With his spiky hair and wrinkled shirt, he looks like a schoolboy in a grown man’s body. Though the audience is focused on him, the setting is a quiet room separated from the activity of the outside world. He is at once there but not there. And, the character he is interacting with is his own voice, floating out of the tape player like a ghost. (Article continues after video. Please do yourself a favour and watch it.)

Though Hurt’s early life was marked with isolation and abuse, he managed to surpass his troubled childhood to become one of the greatest actors to have graced the silver screen, giving himself to his characters, and to us, the audience, with dedication, sincerity, humour and humility. John Hurt brought life to every role and every film he appeared in, and more than that, he filled all those films with the indescribable presence of genius. Film fans will delight in his creations for years to come. I know I personally am grateful for the generosity with which he dedicated himself to his craft, giving us all some of our most beloved movie moments and characters, and I feel I speak on behalf of film lovers everywhere when I say, “Rest in peace, Mr Hurt. Your talent and humility was a joy to behold, and every second watching you on screen was a blessing. Thank you for sharing your abilities, and yourself, with us over the years. May God bless you and your family. Farewell, and, once again, thank you.”

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