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Remembering John Hurt: The Pajiba Staff Pick Their Favorite Performances

By Petr Navovy | Think Pieces | January 30, 2017 |

By Petr Navovy | Think Pieces | January 30, 2017 |

As it applies to people, the word ‘institution’ has through years of repetition and misattribution become almost meaningless. Yet John Hurt, beloved English actor who died over the weekend aged 77, was exactly that. In a career spanning six decades, Mr. Hurt managed to bring his quite unique and considerable talents to bear on a stunningly wide variety of projects. For despite his vast reservoirs of craft and talent it could be said that it was perhaps this eclecticism that remained his defining attribute and greatest strength. From drama to comedy to science fiction, John Hurt brought to every role a degree of respect and nuanced understanding that—were it not for his empathetic and cooperative acting style—could risk putting his co-stars to shame.

In memory of the great man’s legacy here the Pajiba writers decided to reflect on their favorite John Hurt performance. There was a lot to pick from.

Gilliam, Snowpiercer
Bong Joon-ho’s deranged dystopian sci-fi thriller is still one of my favorite movies of the decade. Staggeringly inventive visually, it races along at a gonzo sprint through a dark and bleak future still somehow shot through with humor. It is also a movie that is absolutely perfectly cast. From Chris Evans’ grim and determined rebellion leader to Song Kang-ho’s wildcard asset, Snowpiercer stacks its quasi-parable with formidable talent. More than anyone else, though, it is perhaps the appearance of John Hurt as the gentle, elderly patriarch-of-sorts of the rebellion that makes things sing. Without spoiling anything, Hurt’s casting as Gilliam (lovely shout-out to the man whose visual aesthetic undoubtedly inspired Snowpiercer) is pure magic. For Gilliam’s role to be an effective one, the actor portraying him would have to bring to his relatively short screen time a mixture of gravitas, pathos, authority, regret, anger, and warmth. He would have to bring all that, and he would have to juggle it perfectly; in brief snatches telling so much of what the world in the movie’s universe stands upon—of what those fighting stand to lose, and what they are trying to regain. Bong Joon-ho knew: you want that kind of job done, you hire John Hurt.
~ Petr Knava

John Hurt, my life

As an entertainment writer, part of my job is interviewing filmmakers—usually directors, sometimes producers and screenwriters, occasionally actors. It used to be, when I first started doing interviews, that I found it exceedingly unpleasant—like, “pants-shitting terror” unpleasant. Now it’s more manageable, along the lines of “oh God, oh God, I’m going to say something stupid, oh God, oh God,” with a side of “I’m going to have to listen to my voice when I transcribe this later, fuck my life.” But in 2013 I was still in the “extreme social anxiety indicates that if I have to interview someone I will probably have a heart attack” stage of my professional career. Still, if you’re offered the chance to interview John Hurt, you interview John Hurt—he’s the Elephant Man, for Chrissakes, and the interview was for Snowpiercer, my favorite movie of that year.

To say I was nervous in the weekend running up to that interview was an understatement. “Freaking the fuck out” is more accurate. It ended up being my favorite interview I’ve ever done. Not because my questions were great, or his responses were anything special—honestly, I don’t even remember what he said about the movie. But talking to John Hurt was like talking to the hip old grandfather I never had. For ten minutes, we just chatted, my nerves slipping away with every passing second. It’s impossible to feel on-edge when you’re in a hotel bar, sitting two feet away from John Hurt, who’s wearing a wide-brim hat and a hipster scarf while sipping red wine and giving you writing advice. All of fucking Brooklyn—and hell, throw in Portland and San Francisco for good measure—wishes it could collectively exude the coolness John Hurt effortlessly possessed in a single strand of his bushy yet well-groomed goatee. John Hurt’s done a lot of press for a lot of movies. I was one of hundreds upon hundreds of people who interviewed him in his lifetime. My questions weren’t all that good, and I very clearly had no clue what I was doing. He could have been a dick, or come across as bored or condescending. He didn’t. He was one of the most engaged, unpretentious, kind people I’ve ever spoken to. The world has lost someone special. ~ Rebecca Pahle

While there are so many Hurt performances that I love, and several iconic roles (Alien, The Elephant Man, V for Vendetta, etc. etc.) that could be worthy of their own pieces, the Hurt role that has always stuck with me is the Howard Hughes-esque billionaire S.R. Hadden in Robert Zemeckis’ wonderful Contact. Hadden is an interesting character that lacks a fundamental humanity on paper, but John Hurt is John Hurt, so the humanity is there on the screen, muddled in with this weird combination of warmth and creep that only Hurt could do. Though Hurt was stripped of his usually glorious locks, you could never hide that wonderful voice of his, and yet despite such a distinctive characteristic this, like all of his performances, feels unique. It’s own thing. I don’t have much I can say about this performance, or any of John Hurt’s performances, because they all speak so strongly for themselves. I was always one level more excited for any movie I learned he was in, but the real treat was watching a movie I didn’t even know he was in. I will miss never again having that moment of heart-racing surprise when his name scrolls by in the opening credits….
~ Seth Freilich

The Storyteller, The Storyteller
I’m a writer. I deeply believe in the power of stories. It was a belief forged early by my garrulous family and cemented by Jim Henson’s fantasy-rich mini-series. John Hurt, wearing prosthetic ears and a bulbous nose that made him part Muppet sat beside a chatty dog and roaring fire, and employed his wizened yet velvet voice to one story after another, pulling us in to imagine and awe. When I heard of his passing, I unearthed my DVD of the show, and watched him once more, spinning tales of gambling demons, an evil tyrant toppled by greed, and good triumphing—no matter how dire the circumstanced! I wept for him, and for us who’ve lost him. But I take heart that Hurt’s stories (and films and TV shows) live on, still spurring us to imagine, encouraging us to tell stories that matter, and urging us to be the good that’ll topple evil. ~Kristy Puchko