To show appreciation for the wonderful John Hurt in light of his recent announcement of a cancer diagnosis, the wonderful Sister Celluloid is hosting a summer-long “Love Hurt” blogathon. As a cancer escapee myself, I want to welcome Hurt to what I think of as “Life after the C-word” (after cancer diagnosis) with a brief appreciation of his work as Winston Smith in 1984.
This is a film noir blog, and Hurt certainly isn’t known for his work in the genre. That said, if social degeneration and post-war anxiety over modernity are central to noir, they are also central to George Orwell’s 1984, a novel published in 1948, even as film noir bloomed. Looking ahead and back simultaneously, the work showed the horrors of totalitarianism and corrupt communism, and disturbed me when I read it.
I saw this film adaptation only once, soon after it came out, but I remember Hurt’s performance to this day. I was in college. Fears of nuclear Armageddon were part of my everyday thoughts. Everyone was talking about 1984 and its ongoing relevance. The novel was assigned in my contemporary world literature course…or perhaps it wasn’t and I just decided to read it then. The memory fails or creates its own paths, as Winston Smith knows. (I’m sure it had also been assigned to me in high school, but I did a lot of ignoring reading assignments in high school, so I had definitely not read it until college.)
I’d never seen a film version of 1984 (though I loved the animated Animal Farm and actually did read that when assigned in junior high), so I was drawn to seeing how the misery and terror in the novel would be handled.
I remember talk of Richard Burton being in the film, but it was John Hurt who captivated me. This thin, pale man, playing Winston Smith as old before his time, held my gaze and my mind from beginning to end. As his mind opened to possibilities forbidden by the government and forgotten by most, I rejoiced with him, even as I knew the ending he faced. Smith is the personification of defeat brought by corrupt power, and Hurt embodied this painfully well as Smith is brainwashed and tortured, bringing to mind and eye both Holocaust victims and bystanders, both the innocent and the willfully ignorant.
I don’t know how I’d feel about the performance now. Certainly, I adore Hurt’s work in The Elephant Man and he’s iconic in Alien as the creature rips from his belly. He even gets to bang Mary Shelley in Frankenstein Unbound. To me, though, Hurt will always be most memorable as the man I picture when I picture Winston Smith.