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John Hurt's extraordinary acting career, explained in 3 clips

The tremendous British character actor from Alien and The Elephant Man has died at 77

Memorial Service Held For Sir Richard Attenborough At Westminster Abbey
John Hurt, the legendary British character actor, has died at 77.
Photo by Ben A. Pruchnie/Getty Images
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

John Hurt, a two-time Academy Award nominee and consummate British character actor, has died at the age of 77, according to the BBC.

The actor was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2015, but kept working. While he was eventually cleared by doctors to work even more, he pulled out of a play in 2016 due to poor health.

Hurt is perhaps best known to American audiences for his role in the original Alien film (he’s the man whose chest the alien bursts out of) and his Oscar-nominated performance as the titular character in The Elephant Man, which required him to display immense subtlety and depth while covered in many layers of prosthetic makeup. (Watch a short section of that performance here.)

Hurt’s work, even at its biggest and showiest, always holds something back. His characters, no matter how emotionally pressed, try desperately to retain some essential piece of their humanity. Even with aliens chewing their way out of his body, he always made sure he had somewhere left to go. In some actors’ hands, that approach might have felt stingy, but it meant Hurt could build characters of tremendous psychological complexity, carefully modulating every level of emotion in their person, to achieve devastating effects.

If you’re looking for a great, recent Hurt performance, go see him as a Catholic priest offering Jackie Kennedy a sympathetic ear in Jackie (which is still in theaters). But if you want to see what made Hurt one of cinema’s finest performers, here are three scenes that showcase everything he did well.

Alien: the chestburster (1979)

This is one of the most famous scenes in film history. You probably don’t think you need to watch it again, but watch it and just pay attention to John Hurt before the alien rips its way out of his chest. It’s like his approach to acting in microcosm.

First, he’s complaining about the food in space and carrying himself like he has maybe just a touch of indigestion. Then he looks like he might vomit. Then he seemingly tries to vomit, but nothing will come up. By the time he’s writhing around on the table, you’re so fully invested in the scene that literally anything could happen, and you’d believe it.

If you stop and think about this scene — or, really, just about anything about the central monster in Alien — it doesn’t really make sense. A tiny little baby monster chews its way through a ribcage that quickly? And nobody immediately destroys it once it does? This moment requires a ton of suspension of disbelief to work, and almost all of that burden is on Hurt. That it succeeds at all is testament to the film’s cast and crew. That it’s one of the most famous scenes in cinematic history is all John Hurt.

1984: “He loved Big Brother” (1984)

The last few moments of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four seem like they’d be impossible to put on film. In them, Winston Smith, who previously questioned everything he knew about the totalitarian society he lives in and nearly became a revolutionary, has been broken. The book’s final sentences — “He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother” — are a chilling climax, but they’re so internal. How do you translate that to a movie screen?

Truth be told, this film version of the book, with Hurt as Winston, cheats a little bit, having him whisper “I love you” in voiceover after looking at an image of Big Brother. But it doesn’t feel like too much because of the sheer, shattered emptiness on Hurt’s face. You really believe this is a guy who’s been torn apart at the seams, who’s realized just how all-encompassing the nightmare he lives in has become.

As a film adaptation, 1984 doesn’t quite do justice to one of the most important novels ever written. It’s always underlining things that its visuals already convey nicely. But Hurt’s performance throughout makes him just about the perfect Winston Smith. After you watch the scene above, check him out in the scene where Winston is tortured and betrays his lover in the name of not having his face chewed off by rats. The horror is so much more horrific, thanks to his work.

Dogville: Accusations against Grace (2004)

There are many other clips I could share here, but perhaps Hurt’s most powerful weapon was his voice — to the degree that he could create a full character without appearing at all. That was certainly true when he voiced animated characters in movies like Watership Down (where he played the rabbit Hazel) or the animated Lord of the Rings (where he voiced Aragorn). But it was even true in Dogville, Lars von Trier’s polarizing film about America’s inability to see its own worst self, where Hurt played the role of “narrator,” normally a thankless part.

Yet despite not having a character at all, Hurt still gives the narrator personality. He’s detached and arch, cutting and witty. He watches everything that transpires in the little town of Dogville and offers what seems like omniscient commentary — but really he’s covering up the true horrors happening there. Hurt’s beautiful baritone, then, stands in for all authority figures, trying to say everything’s fine when nothing is fine.

If I were to name an idea that unites Hurt’s career, it might be that: People will tell you things are okay, but they never are. Look for those who are in trouble — thanks to totalitarianism, or social persecution, or alien monsters — and do what you can.