'Romiaaaow & Juliet': John Hurt's strangest role in cat film

Los Angeles - They could have called it "Cats," if someone hadn't got there first, for John Hurt's strangest movie by far is an obscure Shakespeare adaptation placing him opposite 108 feline co-stars.

The British knight of the realm played some of cinema's most iconic characters across 150 movies before his death in January, but even ardent film buffs are unlikely to have seen him in "Romeo.Juliet."

Hurt is the only human in Armondo Acosta's 1990 movie, playing a Venetian bag lady while the feuding Montagues and Capulets -- or should that be Cat-ulets? -- were strays voiced by leading lights of stage and screen.

A sought-after curio, it was never released on home video, but Acosta has made available on the Internet rare footage of Hurt's scenes, not viewed for a quarter of a century, in tribute to the actor.

"He adjusted to everything, he moved so sweetly," Acosta, 78, said of Hurt in a telephone interview from Manhattan's iconic Chelsea Hotel, where he has run a meditation workshop for the last 29 years.

"He had always a little bit of too much wine, but who didn't, who doesn't in that business? He was just beautiful. He really became a bag lady, he really got it."

Hurt, who turned 77 a few days before his death, is not the only cast member to play against gender; Juliet is portrayed by a white Turkish Angora who in real life was a neutered male called Maria.

Almost all of the cats -- they numbered 250 at one point -- were plucked from rescue organisations in Belgium, where Acosta was living and where he filmed much of the action.

"If you're directing an amateur, never rehearse them. If you rehearse an amateur, you're in trouble," Acosta told AFP.

"But if you get why you cast them as an amateur and let them do their thing, you've got a shot, you've got a chance. And cats are that way."

The feline cast's reward for their work was homes for life with the crew or in Armondo's "Adopt A Movie Star" initiative -- except for Romeo, Juliet and four others taken on by the director.

Acosta has worked in various roles on some of the biggest films of all time -- including "El Cid," "Lawrence of Arabia," "The Birds" and "The Pink Panther" -- with auteurs like Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, David Lean and Roger Corman.

He got the idea for a cat movie as an executive at Paramount in the mid-1960s, he told AFP, when he encountered a family of cats on the Hollywood backlot and was struck by their balletic movement.

The score is provided by the London Symphony Orchestra playing Sergei Prokofiev's "Romeo and Juliet Ballet," while Maggie Smith, Vanessa Redgrave, Ben Kingsley, Robert Powell and other big names voice the cats.

The movie opened at the 1990 Venice Film Festival and toured the world's capitals for two years as a "live film concert," backed by various orchestras.

Hurt saw it at the Palais des Beaux Arts in Brussels in 1992 along with Oleg Prokofiev, the son of the composer, who reportedly described it as "not simply a film... (but) a poem."

"I'm sort of used to transformations, that's my living," Hurt told a documentary crew on the film set back in 1989.

"But I haven't very often gone this far... The whole idea is unique, as far as I know. I've never heard of such a thing and I thought it would indeed make a fascinating film."