by Iñaki Oñate
“Occupational necessity,” exclaims Max as he smokes a joint of hash in his Turkish cell. He moves and talks slowly, tenderly, showing off the heroin scars in his arms. In a soft and broken voice he’s describing why the Turkish lawyers are so corrupted. Later he adds “catch the midnight express”, advicing Billy Hayes (Brad Davis) that he should escape. A pair of cracked round glasses cover his eyes, his sight long gone, lost in the isolation and the substance abuse.
Max was John Hurt’s breakthrough role and it launched him into international stardom. Prior to that he had become a prominent British actor for appearing in productions such as A Man For All Seasons (1966) and the 70s mini-series I, Claudius, where he performed as the sadistic emperor Caligula. Now he has parted after a 50-year career, a Golden Globe, two Oscar nominations and an immense body of work that without question makes him an actor’s actor.
Born in 1940, he was the son of an actress and a mathematician-turned-clergyman. Post -war Britain was a tough place for a kid and poverty came along with discipline and religion. His parents wouldn’t allow him to play with other kids and much worse: he wasn’t allowed to go to the cinema even though they lived next to one. Cinema was the work of the devil.
Interestingly enough, Catholic school would be a seminal place for little John. It was the place where he performed for the first time and also the place where he was abused and mocked by priests. Neither the viciousness nor the disbelief of those who professed faith stopped the now teenager John to go to London and enroll in art school. The scars, the repression, the class consciousness, all of that was the breeding ground of the depth and artistry of his acting.
There is a certain fragility, a certain amount of tenderness in his style, yet at the same time you can see that deep down there is a stormy soul rattling the cage. Let’s remember John Merrick crying out loud: “I am a human being!” in The Elephant Man (1980) and Max from Midnight Express (1978) unhanging his strangled cat and sobbing desperately in the depths of a Turkish prison. Even though these characters were weak and meant to be doomed Hurt was able to portray them with a sense of hope.
He battled against Big Brother as Winston Smith in the classic 1984 and paradoxically he brilliantly portrayed the face of tirany in V for Vendetta (2005). He also had a marvelous sense of parody as he played Jesus in the film The History of The World Part I (1981) – directed by The Elephant Man producer Mel Brooks – and then again in Spaceballs (1987) where he revisits Kane, his Alien (1979) character. He’s having a meal with his group of astronaut friends in some sort of space diner when suddenly his stomach aches and the alien monster bursts from his belly. Hurt looks at it and goes “Oh no… not again!“. Next thing you see the alien dancing and singing the Tin Pan Alley song “Hello! Ma Baby” with a hat on and a cane.
John Hurt is an acting heavyweight and an indelible icon of both pop culture and cinema. In one of his last interviews he was asked how did he feel about life, about growing old. He said that life to him was like a mountain. Once you go all the way up you inevitably have to go down and going down is as much fun as going up because you remember how hard it was to get to the top. I have to say that John Hurt never went down. He always stayed at the top of his game, of his art. Now he has just climbed a little bit higher. No worries, down here we have, till the end of times, his movies, his strokes of humanity and truth printed on the silver screen.
Iñaki Oñate / Writer (Quito, Ecuador – 1988) Iñaki resides in Buenos Aires, where he studied film directing at Universidad del Cine. His short films have been part of the official selection at the New York, La Habana and Cannes festivals. He’s currently developing his first feature film with his own independent production company, Undergofilms. He also works in music and art illustration.