Xenomorph’s Paradox: John Hurt
Bit of business to take care of…
Firstly, yes I’m the Friday guy now.
Secondly, I have a Patreon now, so if you like my stuff, and have some cash to spare, then you know what to do. Now. A few discerning people have already done it, or promised to, and you should copy them if you want to look cool and hard and clever. My patrons already have exclusive access to two pieces of my fiction-writing. Form an orderly queue, fans.
Thirdly, Episode 2 of Wrong With Authority is up. It’s a new(ish) podcast about movies that claim to be based on real history, and features myself, the laconic James Murphy, the leonine Kit Power, and Daniel Harper, who possesses no qualities beginning with ‘L’. We take it in turn to pick films and host episodes. This episode is Daniel’s, and it’s about two Oscarbait biopics of mathematicians, A Beautiful Mind and The Imitation Game.
Finally, ‘Xenomorph’s Paradox’ is a series about Alien and its various progenitors, progeny, parasites, predators, paratexts, para-phenomena, and paraphernalia. As some of you will know, I’ve been planning it for a long time. This post doesn’t necessarily mean the series is about to kick-off in full. But recent events prompted at least one installment. Things that have now retroactively become part of the series may be found here and here.
Harry Potter actor John Hurt has died. That’s how some news sources announced it. And that’s fine. I’m not here to sneer at that. For a generation, John Hurt was, first and foremost, Ollivander the wand-maker. And it’s not hard to see why. Hurt’s cameo is one of the most interesting spots in that first Potter film.
There’s a very real sense in which the film treats Hurt like its trump card. His appearance is given great weight. Harry walks into a mysterious, empty shop. There’s nobody about. He calls out. No answer. Then Ollivander slides into shot from nowhere on a rolling library ladder. The ladder is attached to shelves full of boxes of wands, immediately likening wands to books.
Ollivander is, from the start, the guardian of hidden knowledge.
Ollivander is one of the most interesting characters in the first book, because – unlike almost everyone else in it – he is allowed ambiguity. His ambiguity, moreover, is not connected to any plot point. It doesn’t mean anything in Rowling’s whodunnit structure. It has no payoff. It’s just there to be an interesting ambiguity. Ollivander is genial, amiable, helpful, and Harry is not sure he likes him. Harry, who normally strongly likes or dislikes people immediately, and is almost always proved right, isn’t sure about Ollivander. And this is left open, until Rowling retrofits some more content onto it in later books. But even this retrofitting doesn’t resolve Ollivander one way or the other.
Ollivander’s view of things is one that is not known about, shared, believed, or understood by almost anyone else. Without getting bogged-down in details, Ollivander turns out to be a devotee of occult knowledge, of hidden knowledge about wands, and of lore and myth and legend about a secret, counter-history of magic. This makes it sound more interesting than what Rowling actually does with it, but Rowling is a topic for another day.
The larger point is that, when Rowling comes to write her conclusion, she invents a new secret history for various characters, and for the Wizarding World itself, which will play into how Voldemort is ultimately defeated. And she needs to insert this new secret history into the gaps left by the early books. And one of the very few genuine gaps she finds is in the person of Mr Ollivander.
Ollivander is thus a liminal figure. Neither evil nor entirely trustworthy; amiable but sinister; crucial to British wizarding society but also at a remove from it; integrated into the normal functioning of his society and yet enclosed in a bubble. Until his needless appearance at Hogwarts in the fourth book, you get the feeling that he spends all day every day alone in his shop, seeing one lone child at a time, and providing each with a wand after a personal interview. Given how crucial wands are, it’s a pivotal position in wizarding society, yet Ollivander remains a shadowy, background figure.
He plays a crucial and unsettling role in the beginning of Harry’s story. He supplies him with a wand – with all the attendant text and subtext that implies. And the wand is the ‘twin’ of the one used by Voldemort to kill Harry’s parents, and to mark Harry himself. The idea of giving Harry this wand is Ollivander’s. Indeed, the spontaneity of this idea is played up in the film. In one of the film’s few moments of representing moral shading, Ollivander (Hurt) is depicted hesitating, allowing the disturbing (and exciting?) thought to cross his mind. He is in shadow, in medium shot, half-way away from us (i.e. from Harry’s POV) down a dark corridor.
After it has become clear that this is the wand for Harry, Ollivander (Hurt) has possibly the only genuinely unsettling line of dialogue in the film, lifted directly from the book:
“I think we may expect great things from you, Mr Potter. After all, He Who Must Not Be Named did great things. Terrible, but great.”
John Hurt could never have played any other character. He couldn’t have played Dumbledore… unless the filmmakers had been prepared to play-up things about Dumbledore that Rowling is unwilling to acknowledge in the books, such as his sexual ambiguity, his manipulativeness, etc. There was simply something too disreputable about John Hurt to allow him to play the Dumbledore who lives on the surface of Rowling’s text, or on the Hollywood screen.
I don’t mean that John Hurt as a man was disreputable. The opposite seems to have been the case, unless you want to go into any bad behaviour which may have stemmed from his chronic drinking problem. But there was something louche, fey, insolent, and peculiar about Hurt’s onscreen presence. There was an air of ambivalence and ambiguity which could be sexual, or intellectual, or moral, or whatever, depending on how he wielded it. And he wielded it well.
In the later stages of his career, he was one of those plummy, prestigious old British thesps who are always been drafted in to Hollywood fantasy films for the cultural capital they bring with them. You know the ones I mean. They’re always getting hired to confer an air of literary and artistic seriousness that still clings to the posh British accent when used properly. I’m not sniping at them. They do their jobs well, and I like most of them.
And yet, Hurt was not very much like the other actors in that bracket, except in superficial ways.
Ian McKellen has something of the same sexual ambiguity as Hurt, but also gives off far too much of an air of crusty avuncular wisdom these days. Even as Magneto, McKellen seems more sad than anything else… which is precisely why he works so well as that version of Magneto. Hurt could’ve played Magneto, but the effect would’ve been quite jarring with the Bryan Singer approach. Patrick Stewart comes loaded with professional benevolence and authority. These other actors are great, and have range – don’t get me wrong. But when Stewart plays, say, a neo-Nazi, it’s seen as an interesting departure, almost in the manner of an experiment, and part of one’s appreciation of it comes from the very fact that it worked so well.
Nothing of the kind applied to Hurt. I’m talking about the performer’s persona, the cultural meaning that accrued around him, the perception we had of him. These things are separate from the character of the man. Actors don’t come across to us in ways that are simply and directly related to their real personalities. They exist as notional entities for those of us who know them only on screen or on stage. We construct them from our phantasmagorical experiences of them, as we watch them channelling other alien creatures, as we sit in the darkness and gape at their acts of clairvoyance. They are created, in our minds, dialectically, from their interactions with the roles they choose to play, the stories they choose to enter.
John Hurt always seemed to go for the grey area, the liminal space, the fuzzy boundary. He went there because he seemed at home there; and he seemed at home there because he went there. The face, the voice, and of course his genuine and intense talent… these were his passports.
Hurt was one of those people, like Patrick Troughton, who seems entirely original, unique. Nobody else ever looked or sounded quite like John Hurt. Also like Troughton, his screen presence was built on an unconventional kind of masculinity. It comprised things that are anathema to masculinity as our society usually constructs and prizes it: sexual ambiguity, vulnerability, and suffering.
Hurt was, famously, an actor who specialised in the depiction of suffering and the engendering of sympathy. It’s hard to resist the temptations of nominative determinism here. But the suffering seemed etched onto the craggy, raddled face. Disturbingly, it always did.
Even when he was young, he looked old and tired… or rather, he looked like age and exhaustion were lurking beneath the relatively smooth skin. That could just be us mapping our present perception of him back onto his youth… but then how can we see him any other way, now, but in the light of what we know he became? But I don’t think it’s just that. As a young man, he was chosen to play Richard Rich in the film of A Man for All Seasons. Rich is the young lawyer who rises in the employment of Thomas Cromwell by betraying his former mentor Sir Thomas More. There is a sly quality to him, which makes him perfect for the role. And the excess and paranoia of a guilty old age already seem to be there, nascent, waiting to creep across the face, or lurking under the fresh skin.
The same simultaneous youth and age can be seen in his Fool to Olivier’s Lear, a role Hurt played when he was quite young, going against the tradition – more dominant in recent decades – of casting the Fool as a man of or near Lear’s age. Hurt can be a boy and seem to have a wiser head than the old men surrounding him. His socially-circumscribed affection and annoyance with Lear, his desperation to make the man see sense, his inability to break through the hierarchy that is crumbling around him, his doomed childishness… all made a profound impression on me. It was the first Lear I ever properly watched. Even today, for me, a Fool who isn’t Hurt doesn’t seem quite right.
It’s this way for me with many Hurt roles. Somehow he always seemed to be there, cropping up regularly when I was a young man assembling my tastes and obsessions, and always seemingly in a crucial position. He was the Fool in what is, to me, for all that there are better productions, still the ur-Lear. He was an unjustly-hanged working-class man in a film that had a big political effect upon me, 10 Rillington Place. He was a superb Winston Smith in the film of Nineteen Eighty-Four, a book that obsessed me when I was younger, and about which I still have complex feelings. And, of course, he was Kane. But we’ll get to that.
It’s a shame Hurt never played Dr Jekyll. I’ve always felt he should have. He could’ve played the character as written by Stevenson. Benevolent, sad, well-meaning, “with something of a slyish cast” even in his ‘good’ persona, and doomed to suffer more than anyone else has ever suffered for pampering his own petty sins. Because Jekyll isn’t ‘good’. In a book which is about the unsustainability of pure moral categories, he is impure, mixed. He’s a slave to nameless “undignified” pleasures, and so ashamed of them that he invents an alter-ego of pure evil to bear the brunt of them for him. Hurt could’ve done that brilliantly. Jekyll is tortured and martyred to his own failures and vulnerabilities, much like other characters Hurt played… especially his sideline in tragic ‘real’ people like the unjustly hanged Timothy Evans in 10 Rillington Place and the betrayed Stephen Ward in Scandal. Evans is destroyed by his own poverty and lack of education, his willingness to trust Christie, a man he perceives as his social superior. Christie murders Evans’ wife and baby daughter, and lets Evans hang for it. Ward is the smeared scapegoat of the establishment, driven to suicide, turned into the human wreckage of the ‘Profumo Affair’. These films loomed large for me in my youth, and Hurt was at the centre of their political pathos.
His most famous portrayal of a real historical figure is, of course, in David Lynch’s The Elephant Man, in which he plays ‘John’ Merrick. Merrick is the ultimate victim, but the reason Hurt can make the character come alive behind the make-up and the equally-obscuring cloud of pathos, is that he finds charisma and charm inside the physical ‘deformity’. Crucially, it isn’t that Merrick has these attractive qualities despite his disability and mistreatment; it’s rather that he has them as a response to his disability and mistreatment. It’s the classic Hurt role. Strength and weakness inextricably combined; repulsion and attraction inextricably combined. The position of Merrick is the classic position for a Hurt character: half in and half out of society, in the shadows, in the boundary zone, seen and unseen, wanted and unwanted, human and animal, powerless and powerful. Hurt constructed the role from himself; Hurt constructed himself, his persona, in and through the role.
He plays Suttler in V for Vendetta as a pathetic figure, separated from his people and his government, hiding from them somewhere else, speaking to them only via a TV screen. He doesn’t appear before his people any more, or even speak to them on TV. He is a distant figure. His only appearance amidst the people, or on public television, is fake. It’s when two fake-Suttlers appear on Dietrich’s comedy talkshow in order to be humiliated and ridiculed for a nervous but delighted audience. Despite his dominance, Suttler has an air of fragility. He is paranoid and overreacts – fatally – to every hint of challenge. His ministers humour him and sneer at him behind his back. His closest ally, Creevey, is quick to distrust and betray him. The quintessential moment of the character is not any of his Hitlerian strutting or his villain order-barking, but his fate at the end: betrayed by his own henchmen, kneeling, bloody-nosed, snivelling, begging. Hurt puts across the fragility of such overblown and brittle power.
Suttler is, of course, the inverse of the character of Winston Smith who he played in Michael Radford’s movie adaptation of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. At first sight, it’s hard to see how this fits. Certainly, the role gives Hurt ample opportunity to showcase his ability to martyr himself to suffering in front of the camera… indeed, Winston does a lot of his suffering in front of the ever-watching telescreens, so a self-referential hall-of-mirrors effect is produced. But another key aspect to Winston is that he is disreputable. He is one of those people whom everyone in Oceania unspokenly understands to be suspect, dodgy, likely to be picked up by the Thought Police one day. He’s old and remembers things before ‘the Revolution’ (just), which means he could potentially remember that much of what the Party says about it isn’t true (actually, he doesn’t). He works in the Ministry of Truth where news is falsified, and as such he has constant access to facts the Party wants erased. He deals in words. His very proficiency with Newspeak is itself, paradoxically, a sign that he thinks too much about language. He is what the Party would think of as anti-social. He is separated from his wife and has no children, and is reluctant to join the community hiking groups, etc. And most of all, secretly, he is a Thought Criminal. He himself understands from the outset – theoretically anyway – that he is doomed to be liquidated in the Ministry of Love. His Thought Crime is expressed most fully in his sexual relationship with Julia. Together, they revel in their violation of the puritanism imposed by the Party. Julia, who is in the Anti-Sex League, covertly sleeps around with Party members, and they are both proud of her fornications, and of their own illicit fucking. They enjoy the feeling of revelling in dirtiness and lust. This is political in their world. In Oceania, where all virtue is defined and imposed by the Party, they phrase their dissent in terms of wanting to destroy all decency and purity. They idolise rottenness and decadence. Winston gets a thrill from defiling a girl who presents herself as the shiny-faced embodiment of sexless, ideologically pure goodness. Suffering, furtiveness, and indecency. The role of Winston was made for Hurt.
But so was the role of the equally fragile, scared, ersatz Big brother, Suttler. And it’s not just that Hurt was ‘versatile’. Hurt could find the vulnerability in the powerful and the power in the vulnerable. It’s no accident, and not merely down to his voice changing with the ageing process and years of booze and fags, that he played Hazel in the late ‘70s and then General Woundwort in the late ‘90s.
That air of the disreputable, the indecent, the dissolute, the sexually ambiguous… that is key to his charisma, but also to his vulnerability. He could’ve played one of the urban bawds in Measure for Measure, and given them their sadness and subversion alongside their lusty heartiness. He was a very sexy actor. He was an example of what our friend Holly memorably called “properly, beautifully ugly” when talking about the classic Doctors (of which he was an honorary one). There’s no mystery about why he was chosen to play Quentin Crisp, Caligula, and the Countess in Even Cowgirls get the Blues. I’m not equating those characters, by the way. But each has – in their own ways – deeply ambivalent sexual and gender identities. Hurt manages to get across even the pathos of Caligula. Tyrant though he is, when he collapses under the pain of the horses galloping in his head, you feel for him. This is a man of dynamism, of expressiveness, of wit and sardonic humour, of artistic temperament, of fascination and glee, of joy… turned, by his insane position within an insane system, and by the torment of his headaches, into a raging, sobbing monster.
Again: irresolvable ambiguity, liminality, sadness, sexiness, vulnerability, suffering. The frailty of the flesh. The horror and injustice of the body, of pain. Doom. And, I’d argue, not so disconnectedly, a recurring tendency to be a scapegoat, a Thought Criminal, a clever but Foolish martyr to power, to the huge – terrible and great – forces that swirl around us, uncomprehended by us and uninterested in us.
All of which almost brings us directly to Kane, but we’ll have one more digression first. The obvious and big and necessary digression on this blog. Whatever you think of the War Doctor, of the whole idea and of the stories in which he appears, there’s no denying that… well, that John Hurt played the Doctor. In some form, in some way… that happened. And that’s good enough for me, personally.
I can’t do any better than Mark Bould, so I’ll just quote him at length:
He is the one who comes between. The one we did not know was there. The one who does not count (or, at least, was not counted). Even his costume, part-McGann/part-Eccleston and bridging between them both, is interstitial, not really his own. He is the not-Doctor who says ‘no more’. As Matt Smith’s Doctor explains: ‘I said he was me, I never said he was the Doctor. … The name I chose is the Doctor. The name you choose, … it’s like a promise you make. He’s the one who broke the promise’ – and what he did to end the Time War, destroying Gallifrey and billions of Time Lords, he did ‘not [do] in the name of the Doctor’.
It now seems inevitable that sooner or later John Hurt would play the Doctor, and that when he did it would be this particular Doctor – the War Doctor – or someone like him. The one who can bear it no longer. The one who must face a Kobayashi Maru moment that is no mere test or simulation, and which cannot, Kirk-like, be glibly cheated. It is not just that Hurt, the oldest actor to play the role, has been around even longer than the series, and thus can bring a sense of perspective to the more infantile, gurning, gesticulatory, timey-wimey shenanigans of the relaunched series, to its peacock displays of masculinity, its violence and all the snogging. Although, edging his sorrow with an impish despair at the younger men playing his older self, he does.
…it[‘s] this capacity for suffering, and for provoking our sympathy, that is the key to Hurt’s persona and to his casting as the Doctor, and as this particular Doctor; that, and his aura of jaded sexual dissidence… that often also leads to suffering.
No wonder the War Doctor’s weary mantra is ‘no more, no more’. You can hear his exhaustion ground deep in that gravelly voice.
‘I’ve been fighting this war for a long time, I’ve lost the right to be the Doctor’, he tells the sentient ultimate weapon as he prepares to use it, knowing that his punishment will be to survive genociding his own people. But Hurt has suffered – has hurt – for so long, who else had the right to be the War Doctor?
I can’t add anything to that. Read all of it here.
So now it’s time to turn to Hurt’s central role in the dark dream that is Alien… and, of course, to his strange encore, in a later film.
But that’s another post. It was always going to be another post. That post will not be about Hurt, though clearly he will be an element in that part of the dream. That post will be about Kane. Kane the explorer, the idealist, the one everyone likes. Kane, the incubator, the father, the mother. Kane, the dead man walking. Kane, the first dreamer to awaken and stumble into the light, and the first to cross over into darkness.
February 3, 2017 @ 1:17 pm
Thank you, Jack.
One of the best, and most moving, pieces on this site; and that’s saying something.
February 3, 2017 @ 1:17 pm
Well, I had to look up leonine, which is probably the nicest thing anyone has ever said about me, but how the hell is Daniel not loquacious?!?
Lovely piece, though. Thank you.
February 3, 2017 @ 2:25 pm
To me, Hurt will always be firstly the Storyteller. And it occurs to me that this role fits a lot of the aspects you mention. The liminality, by definition; he was the gateway to the story. The disreputability; “the best seat by the fire” may be reserved for the storyteller, but he’s a vagrant, not someone with an established position in the quasi-medieval society. And you’re never quite sure what the Storyteller himself thinks, how he really feels about the story, even when he’s claiming it happened to a friend of his. The Storyteller is fundamentally unknowable, because to be otherwise would be to get in the way of the story.
February 5, 2017 @ 10:12 am
Just need to say what a well constructed and thoughtful elegy to John Hurt this is, Jack. Your observations on his unique acting decisions and style really resonated with me. Particularly this
‘(Hurt’s) irresolvable ambiguity, liminality, sadness, sexiness, vulnerability, suffering. The frailty of the flesh. The horror and injustice of the body, of pain. Doom. And, I’d argue, not so disconnectedly, a recurring tendency to be a scapegoat, a Thought Criminal, a clever but Foolish martyr to power, to the huge – terrible and great – forces that swirl around us, uncomprehended by us and uninterested in us.’
He really was and we’ve really lost the consummate portrayer of the ‘everyman’ for our times haven’t we?
February 5, 2017 @ 11:40 pm
Thought I was alone in finding Hurt sexy. Especially weird as the first thing I saw him in is Storyteller, and that is the role I most associate with him. Watched 1984 with some friends last night, and during our halftime ciggie break I asked “Is he sexy?” and there was unanimous agreement. I don’t feel so alone anymore.
February 9, 2017 @ 10:10 pm
For the next Wrong With Authority, you should wrangle Pride and the Iron Lady. Two very different views of the Thatcher years.
February 10, 2017 @ 12:01 pm
Not at all a bad idea. I think both those films are on our master list.