John Hurt remembered by John Boorman

22 January 1940 – 25 January 2017
The film director remembers his friend, the actor with ‘a single malt of a voice’, who despite his ups and downs, remained a rare talent and a true professional

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That voice, distilled from alcohol and Gauloises, a single malt of a voice, caressed the nation for half a century. In The Elephant Man it was only the voice. As Quentin Crisp in The Naked Civil Servant the voice swerved into a gay queenery. It expressed pain and suffering as a monster exploded out of his stomach in Alien. His Christ for Mel Brooks persuaded us that Jesus had such a voice. Its emollience spread over hundreds of movies, plays and commercials. On stage, it put audiences into a light hypnosis.

He lent it to me for two short films which were the most enjoyable of my career. He was a fine companion over 45 years. He first came to Ireland to make Sinful Davey in 1969. He was convinced that [the director] John Huston decided after the first week that the film was a dud and if he could kill or seriously injure his star it would be cancelled and the insurance would pay up. He had Hurt riding over rough terrain on mettlesome horses. Despite that John moved here. He spent four months living in my guest cottage with a lover and we had dinner nearly every night.

In 1991 I made a docudrama, I Dreamt I Woke Up. I conducted the reality elements myself, but when it became mystical or magical John became my alter ego. In the final scene we appeared side by side debating the nature of reality. It was tongue-in-cheek. He was fearless and would rise to any challenge. I loved that about him.

For Two Nudes Bathing in 1995 I asked him to play the strict, possessive father. I sent him the script but got no response. He was having a bad time. His marriage was collapsing and he was staying with various friends and hard to contact. When I finally reached him he apologised.

“I left the script somewhere, John. Lost it.”

“I’ll send you another copy,” I said, “but I need a quick answer.”

John said, “Don’t worry, John. Of course I’ll do it. I don’t need to read the script.”

Nevertheless, I sent him another copy, a plane ticket to Paris and instructions about where to get the train for Angers. He headed for Dublin airport; halfway there he realised he had left his passport behind. He raced back and retrieved it, but left the script and ticket behind. He bought another ticket, made the plane by the skin of his teeth and astonishingly got on the right train despite having been drinking heavily for several days. Whatever else went wrong, he always managed to turn up on the set on time.

He spoke to his fellow passengers and told them he was going to Angers, then fell asleep. We waited on the platform to meet him: the train pulled in, people got off, people got on, no sign of John. The train started to pull out. John’s fellow passengers wondered if they should wake him. Didn’t he say he was getting off at Angers? Someone shook him. With a roar he leapt out of the moving train and fell in a heap on the platform where he lay inert. His suitcase was hurled out after him.

In the morning we dressed him in his heavy, elaborate costume as he drank a beer to steady himself. He asked me what dialogue he had in the first setup; I said just these two lines. He looked them over, we shot it and moved to the next setup. He learnt the next speech as we lit the scene. I filled in the absolute minimum of story and emotion that he needed to know for each shot.

Thus we proceeded through the morning. He had not read the script, did not know the name of the character he was playing, or even the name of the film. As we broke for lunch, he said, “This is the way to make movies. All that rehearsal bullshit is a waste of time. Spontaneity is everything.”

Drinking steadily through those three days, John was wonderful and I loved him dearly. He played this authoritarian aristocrat out of some kind of actor’s intuition that connected him to the period. The 17th-century costume helped: its heft and style defined the man. He was brilliant. After the three days we poured him back on to the train.

John won best dramatic actor at the Ace (Award for Cable Excellence) awards for his performance, although he scarcely remembered being in the film at all. Nevertheless, he went out to Los Angeles and graciously accepted.

I later wrote a stage play for him, The Loves of My Life, but he died before we could stage it. It was about a man revisiting the loves of his life and I drew freely on John’s life for it.

We had a memorial for him at the magical Luggala Valley [inWicklow, Ireland], where he had spent many good days with his friend [Guinness heir] Garech Browne. His two sons planted three Scots pines in his honour in the presence of past and present wives and a long-time lover. I hope their branches will whisper his name.

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