Obituaries: William Hurt, Oscar-winner for Kiss of the Spider Woman
It takes a special sort of actor to pull off the trick of being an egghead and a sex symbol at the same time. William Hurt managed it.
In the 1980s Hollywood loved him, with nominations for the Academy Award for Best Actor three years running. He won for his portrayal of a camp homosexual sharing a South American jail cell with a political prisoner in Kiss of the Spider Woman, drawing cellmate Raul Julia into his elaborate romantic fantasies.
High-domed and bespectacled, Hurt often played intellectuals. He could seem like the epitome of ration and calm, but with more than a hint of turmoil beneath the surface.
His personal life was complicated. He drank heavily and met his second wife in rehab. He was married and divorced twice, but he had children with other women and lived with other women, including Marlee Matlin, his co-star in Children of a Lesser God.
She became the youngest ever winner of the Best Actress Oscar in 1987, prompting Hurt to ask her why she thought she deserved it after only one film, when others worked hard for years in the hope of winning an Oscar. Decades later, in 2009, Matlin claimed in her memoirs that their relationship had been marked by drugs and violence. This was before the #metoo phenomenon, the claims attracted little press attention and did little to damage his career. He played the role of General Thaddeus Ross in five Marvel films between 2008 and 2021.
At the time of Matlin’s book, Hurt issued a statement saying “My own recollection is that we both apologised and both did a great deal to heal our lives. Of course, I did and do apologise for any pain I caused. And I know we have both grown. I wish Marlee and her family nothing but good."
In press interviews he was famous or infamous for his meandering, philosophical answers. A question on what attracted him to his latest role could easily evolve into a discussion on the state of the world or a search for the meaning of life. The Washington Post once ran an interview with him under the headline “The Intensity of William Hurt”.
“It's normal in a crowded restaurant like this one on the Upper West Side for your eyes to dart away with the movement of passersby. But Hurt's never stray. His gaze is fixed on yours,” wrote interviewer Hal Hinson. “Hurt doesn't know the meaning of small talk. He's a marathon rapper, a metaphysical explorer. You can almost see him sitting in the bathtub before lathering up, pausing to contemplate the essential nature of soap.”
He was born William McChord Hurt in Washington DC in 1950. His father was a diplomat and his mother an executive at Time magazine. They split up when he was very young and he accompanied his father to postings in Mogadishu and Khartoum before going to an elite private school in Massachusetts.
He studied Theology at Tufts University in Massachusetts and Drama at the famous Juilliard performing arts school in New York and performed with the Circle Repertory Company in Manhattan in the 1970s and 1980s. David Mamet rated his Hamlet the best ever.
Hurt had appeared in dozens of plays and was 30 before he made his film debut in 1980 as an obsessive scientist, regressing through levels of consciousness, in Altered States.
Although Hurt often played complex intellectual characters, some of his best performances were as people struggling to keep up with what is going on. He was superb in the 1981 neo-noir thriller Body Heat, playing a lawyer who has been hired by femme fatale Kathleen Turner precisely because he is not too bright. She even spells it out for him: “You aren't too smart, are you? I like that in a man.”
Body Heat was the first of four films Hurt made with director Lawrence Kasdan. Kasdan drew another excellent performance from him a couple of years later in The Big Chill as a bitter and impotent Vietnam veteran, one of a group of old friends who get together and reflect on life after one of their friends commits suicide. Kevin Costner played the corpse - it was meant to be a bigger role, but the flashbacks were all dropped.
Kiss of the Spider Woman came out in 1985. It was only Hurt’s sixth film, but it firmly established him as one of Hollywood’s most exciting and cerebral actors. It was a tough shoot on location in Brazil and Hurt agreed to waive most of his fee in exchange for a back-end deal to make sure it got made. The Argentine director Hector Babenco spoke little English and had to talk to Hurt through a translator. On one occasion Hurt found himself being held at gunpoint for several hours by what seemed like kidnappers, before simply being freed unharmed. The film cost about $1 million, but grossed 17 times that on its initial North American release.
Hurt was ambivalent about his own Oscar. He seemingly did not expect to win in a field that included Harrison Ford and Jack Nicholson and said: “When they called my name out I really thought, ‘Oh no, no, don’t put that target on my chest’.”
Further Oscar nominations followed for his performances as a teacher in Children of a Lesser God and a newscaster, definitely no intellectual, in Broadcast News.
The 1980s were definitely the peak of his career, though he played Rochester in Franco Zeffirelli’s version of Jane Eyre and Professor Robinson in the big-screen version of Lost in Space in the 1990s, and he secured a fourth Oscar nomination, for best supporting actor, as a gangster pursuing his own brother, in David Cronenberg’s 2007 film A History of Violence.
It was announced in 2018 that Hurt had prostate cancer and it had spread into his bones. He is survived by four children, the youngest of which was the result of his relationship with the French actress Sandrine Bonnaire. He was a Francophile and had a home outside Paris.
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