Recently, and by coincidence, I have seen three of John Hurt's major performances: As Krapp in the film version of Samuel Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape, as icy hitman Braddock in Stephen Frear's 80s film noir The Hit, and as the bigotted Old Man Peanut in 44 Inch Chest, released this year. Hurt has long been a favourite of mine, going back to my childhood, and one of the few actors who can get me to watch a film simply because he's in it. Infact, a quick glance over Hurt's CV reveals an actor who, through the excellence of his work, has elevated many films which would have been utterly mediocre without his presence: there was his Winston Smith in the film of Orwell's 1984, John Merrick in The Elephant Man, the repressed homosexual intellectual in Love & Death On Long Island, and then others include Midnight Express, 10 Rillington Place, The Oxford Murders, Scandal, Champions....well....you catch my drift.* However, it's Hurt's performance in 44 Inch Chest which has compelled me to examine the nature of his talent.
Hurt plays Old Man Peanut, a viscous misogynist old git, who at one point urges Ray Winstone's character to “stone” his wife as punishment for her infidelity. All through the film Old Man Peanut metes out bullying abuse and seems to hate all mankind. But Hurt's brilliance is to take a character which should have been utterly repulsive and render him utterly compelling. I found myself longing for the film to cut back to Hurt whenever he was offscreen, I wanted to see what he was going to do next. He takes this supporting character and almost steals the film (admittedly Hurt gets to deliver some wonderful lines like: “the man said PRIDE you facking pilchard!!”), and Hurt does this through his commitment to performing the actions of the character as fully as he can. And his commitment is total. He gives everything he's got, employing the full force of his personality, and with a total disregard for his own well being. What we see is the work of a supremely skilled actor, who's performance comes from the heart. And so it is Hurt's generosity we respond to, generous with his personality and generous with his talent.
Present in Hurt's performance is not only the literal struggle of the character in the scene, but also Hurt's own artistic struggle, we see him, before our very eyes, wrestling with the questions brought forth by the demands of craft. And this struggle too, is compelling. Finally, one cannot tell the difference between the man himself and his work, they are as one. He is the embodiment of truth. John Hurt is an example of the actor as artist.**
*Please note – I have only listed those films where Hurt's performance in them, in my opinion, saves the film from mediocrity, and that includes 44 Inch Chest, but excludes Krapps Last Tape and The Hit, which are excellent films and Hurt is excellent in them (I'd also recommend Dead Man, The Limits Of Control and The Proposition). There are, however, other films, not listed in this post, which Hurt was unable to save.
**And I have not even mentioned Hurt's famous and fabulous gravel – pit speaking voice, surely an inspiration to all actors to work daily on their voices, and an advert generally for the beauty and art of the human voice, much maligned and underrated in the 21st century.