Tag Archives: Tribute

He was a human being: R.I.P. John Hurt

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 28, 2017)

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Man of 1,000 faces: 1940-2017

Maybe I should just trash this whole movie review gig and become a full-time obit writer. I can’t keep up. I realize that this is all part of life’s rich pageant…but Jesus H. Christ.

When Digby texted me last night about John Hurt, I hadn’t heard about it. After reeling for a moment or so, I mustered up all the eloquence that befits my métier and texted back:

“No! Fuckity-fuck.”

I know. Style under pressure, right? But seriously, there are no words. He was one of the good ones. He was a master thespian with an embarrassment of rich, immersive performances. He was one of those actors who was so damn good that “he” wasn’t there.

But his characters were. Wholly present. In the moment. Fully human. And unforgettable.

Here are five performances I will never forget:

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I, Claudius – While an opening line of “I, Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus…” could portend more of a dull history lecture, rather than 11 hours of must-see-TV, the 1976 BBC series, adapted from Robert Graves’1934 historical novel about ancient Rome’s Julio-Claudian dynasty, was indeed the latter, holding viewers in thrall. While it is possible that at the time of its first run on Masterpiece Theater, my friends and I were more in thrall with the occasional teasing glimpses of semi-nudity than we were with, say, the beauty of Jac Pulman’s writing, the wonder of the performances and complexity of the narrative, over the years I have come to realize that I learned everything I needed to know about politics from watching (and re-watching) I, Claudius. With such a huge cast of heavyweight actors (many hailing from the Royal Shakespeare Company), it’s no small feat to steal the show…and John Hurt did just that, without blinking, as the mad emperor Caligula. This was my introduction to his work, and I’ve been a fan ever since.

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Midnight Express– If you can get through the first 15 minutes of this 1979 Best Picture nominee without experiencing even the slightest little anxiety attack, well then you are a much bigger man, or woman, than I. Which brings me to my next question: Have you ever been in a Turkish prison? Alan Parker’s almost unbearably intense drama is the next worst thing to actually being there. Oliver Stone won an Oscar for his adaptation of the screenplay from the eponymous book by Billy Hayes and William Hoffer, which recounted Hayes’ harrowing, real-life experience as an American student who got busted at the airport while attempting to smuggle some hash out of Turkey. The late Brad Davis is nothing short of astonishing as Billy Hayes, but interestingly it was John Hurt who caught the Academy’s eye; he earned a Best Supporting Actor nomination (and a Golden Globe win) for his portrayal of a long-time inmate who befriends Billy and becomes a father figure (or junkie uncle?). The film won a 2nd Oscar for Giorgio Moroder’s score.

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The Shout– For some unknown reason, Robert Graves and John Hurt go together like soup and sandwich. This 1978 sleeper was adapted from a Graves story by Michal Austin and its director, Jerzy Skolimowski. Hurt is excellent as a mild-mannered avant-garde musician who lives in a sleepy English hamlet with his wife (Susannah York). When an enigmatic vagabond (Alan Bates) blows into town, their quiet country life begins to go…elsewhere. This is a genre-defying film; somewhere between psychological thriller and culture clash drama. I’ll put it this way-if you like Peter Weir’s The Last Wave, this one is in your wheelhouse. Look for an uncharacteristically low-key Tim Curry in a supporting role.

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The Elephant Man -This 1980 David Lynch film (a Best Picture nominee) dramatizes the bizarre life of Joseph Merrick (Hurt), a 19th Century Englishman afflicted by a physical condition so hideously deforming and upsetting to people that when he entered adulthood, his sole option for survival was to “work” as a sideshow freak. However, when a compassionate surgeon named Frederick Treaves (Anthony Hopkins) entered his life, a whole new world opened up to him. While there is an inherent grotesqueness to much of the imagery, Lynch treats his subject as respectably and humanely as Dr. Treaves. Beautifully shot in black and white ( by DP Freddie Francis), Lynch’s film has a “steampunk” vibe. Hurt deservedly earned an Oscar nom for his performance, all the more impressive  when you consider how he conveys the intelligence and gentle soul of this man while encumbered by all that prosthetic. Amazing work from the entire cast, which includes Anne Bancroft, Freddie Jones and John Gielgud.

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The Hit– Directed by Stephen Frears and written by Peter Prince, this 1984 sleeper marked a comeback for Terence Stamp, who stars as Willie Parker, a London hood who has “grassed” on his mob cohorts in exchange for immunity. As he is led out of the courtroom following his damning testimony, he is treated to a gruff, spontaneous a cappella rendition of “We’ll Meet Again”. Willie relocates to Spain, where the other shoe finally drops “one sunny day”. Willie is abducted and delivered to a veteran hit man (Hurt) and his “apprentice” (Tim Roth). Willie accepts his situation with a Zen-like calm.

What exactly is going on in Willie’s head? That’s what drives most of the ensuing narrative. As they motor through the scenic Spanish countryside (toward France, where Willie’s former boss awaits for a “reunion”) the trio engages in mind games, taking the story to unexpected places. The dynamic becomes even more interesting when an additional hostage (Laura del Sol) enters the equation. Hurt is sheer perfection as his character’s icy detachment slowly unravels into blackly comic exasperation; if pressed, this is my favorite Hurt performance. While this is essentially a drama, and not a “funny ha-ha” romp, there are black comedy underpinnings revealed upon subsequent viewings. There’s a great score by flamenco guitarist Paco de Lucia, and Eric Clapton plays the opening theme.

She had spunk

By Dennis Hartley

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1936-2017

Well, we almost made it all the way through the first month of 2017…but alas, another pop icon of my youth is gone. I was too young to fall in love with Mary Tyler Moore as Laura Petrie on the innovative Dick Van Dyke Show in the early 60s, but her endearing characterization of the warm, smart, and fiercely independent Mary Richards on the equally groundbreaking sitcom, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, completely captured my heart and made me a lifetime fan.

She was an admirable person off the set as well, with her dedication  to animal rights activism and as a spokesperson for juvenile diabetes.

She was a gifted comedic actor, but had more range than many people seemed willing to give her credit for. Consider this subtly played scene of underlying tension from Robert Redford’s Ordinary People:

Moore received an Oscar nom for Best Actress in 1980 for her work in that film; if you’ve never seen it I highly recommend it. That said, I’ll always be most grateful for all the laughs over the years;  her comedy chops are on full display in this classic Mary Tyler Moore Show bit:

It’s OK to laugh. Mary would consider it an insult if you didn’t. R.I.P.

 

Godspeed, Princess

By Dennis Hartley

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1956-2016

Can we just say that 2017 officially begins today?  Seriously, I’ve had it with you, 2016. You have more than worn out your welcome. Over.

I’ve  always felt Carrie Fisher missed her calling. Of course, she  will be forever cemented in our collective unconscious as Princess Leia; the smart, fearless, beautiful, and wisecracking heroine of the original Star Wars saga. But Carrie Fisher herself happened to be smart, fearless, beautiful, wisecracking ; a gifted comedic writer and raconteur. As we say in the business of show: she had “funny bones”.

Even if Star Wars had never been part of the equation, she would have taken her place alongside Fran Lebowitz  or Spalding Gray. If you’ve seen her autobiographical one-woman show, Wishful Drinking, you know what I’m talking about.  If not, when you’re done with your Star Wars marathon, do yourself a favor and catch it (I believe it’s still available  in HBO’s On Demand). You’ll see a Carrie Fisher who is brutally honest, self-effacing…and an absolute riot.

I bet she already has Ziggy Stardust and John Glenn in stitches. R.I.P.

Guilty feet have got no rhythm: R.I.P. George Michael

By Dennis Hartley

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1963-2016

Even in its final week, 2016 just won’t let up with the grim reaping:

On Christmas Day, no less.  I wasn’t a rabid fan, but I admired his chops as a pop craftsman (anyone who sells 100 million units is doing something right).  Fabulous voice; especially on this personal favorite:

53 years old. Much too young to go. This friggin’ year over yet?

Floating in a tin can: Godspeed, John Glenn

By Dennis Hartley

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Jesus…my blog is starting to read like an obituary column today.

Not that it is 100% shocking to hear that a 95 year-old astronaut has gone into his final trajectory…but this is John flippin’ Glenn, one of the true icons of America’s original NASA Mercury space program.

When Walter Cronkite died back in 2009, I wrote:

The passing of Walter Cronkite, just several days shy of this upcoming Monday’s 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, has added a bittersweet poignancy to the occasion that is hard for me to put into words. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that some of my earliest and fondest childhood memories of being plunked in front of the TV are of being transfixed by the reassuring visage of Uncle Walter, with the familiar backdrop of the Cape Canaveral launch pad behind him. Remember when the coverage of NASA spaceflights were an exciting, all-day news event, as opposed to a perfunctory sound bite sandwiched in between wall-to-wall minutiae about the latest celebrity death?

Good times.

Good times, indeed. Progressive times for science, and America. That’s what John Glenn and his cohorts will forever stand for.

So he laid down…R.I.P. Greg Lake

By Dennis Hartley

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1947-2016

You know what, 2016? Fuck you. Seriously. This is really too much.

Bowie. Prince. Sir George Martin. Leonard Cohen. Leon Russell. Glenn Frey. Paul Kantner. Keith Emerson…now, Greg Lake.

This is the toughest one for me since Bowie at the beginning of this year. Greg Lake was not only one of the gods of prog-rock, but for my money, owned the greatest set of pipes in any musical genre.

That voice has captivated me from the first time I heard “In the Court of the Crimson King” wafting from my radio back in 1969. Even through a tinny 4″ speaker, that beautiful, cathedral voice shot directly through my medulla oblongata and took my breath away.     Instrumental accompaniment was always purely optional:

And speaking of “cathedral”…

The angels can retire now.

…and one is hope: So long, Leon

By Dennis Hartley

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Leon Russell 1942-2016

It’s getting crowded up there. Leonard Cohen on Friday, now Leon Russell on Sunday? All in all, the weekend’s been a bit of a bummer.

Oh well, we’ll always have their music.

Russell was one of the heavyweights; an in-demand session player for decades, he cut his teeth with the legendary “Wrecking Crew”, who  were profiled in Denny Tedesco’s eponymous 2015 doc (my review).

He also had a prolific recording career as a solo artist, and was a truly  outstanding songwriter. So many classics. Here is but a sampling…

The saddest song in the world: R.I.P. Leonard Cohen

By Dennis Hartley

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1934-2016

It sounds like a bad joke: Man, what a depressing week! [“How depressing was it, Johnny?”]. I’ll tell you, Ed.  American democracy died on Tuesday…and Leonard Cohen was only able to make it to Friday.

(SFX: rim shot)

Hiyo!

Of course that’s not funny. But if I don’t laugh, I’ll cry. I’m all cried out.

It goes like this: The fourth, the fifth; the minor fall, the major lift

I’m uplifted already. Halle-fuckin’-lujah. Make the angels cry, Leonard:

Was anyone’s music more cinematic? Robert Altman was an early fan:

From his final album, released just weeks ago.  A true poet to the end:

Strictly rude: R.I.P. Prince Buster

By Dennis Hartley

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He may not have been as big of a household name as another Prince we lost earlier this year (what is it with 2016?), but Cecil Bustamente Campbell (aka Prince Buster) was no less an important figure in the music world, particularly to fans of Jamaican ska and rocksteady.

(from the Jamaica Observer)

Ska legend Prince Buster died Thursday morning in a South Florida hospital, his son Kareem Ali has confirmed.

The singer/producer, born Cecil Bustamante Campbell, was 78.

Prince Buster was ailing for some time, after suffering a series of strokes.

From West Kingston, Prince Buster was a protégé of producer Clement ‘Coxson’ Dodd. In the late 1950s, he launched his Voice Of The People sound system and label, which released a number of his self-produced hits including Wash Wash, Blackhead Chineyman and Judge Dread.

He also produced the Ffolkes Brothers Oh Carolina in 1961.

Buster had an enduring following in Europe, especially in the United Kingdom where he performed regularly up to 12 years ago.

Here’s one of his classic productions/compositions:

Hush up! My favorite by the man himself:

Seen.