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William Hurt: 1950-2022

When William Hurt, the Academy Award and Golden Globe winning, Tony nominated actor died on March 11th, three images of him stuck out, each seemingly irreconcilable, and none were directly from his movies. One is of seeing him in person for several weeks on the set of M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Village,” a man who radiated charisma, who seemed to carry some terrible burden inside of him that, when “action” was called, started fighting like hell to be released. One is of Hurt, sitting, tears in his eyes, on the floor of a theatre in Chicago, talking to the cast of a Clifford Odets play for which he’d been the only audience member. Fellow Ebert writer Sheila O’Malley told this story in 2019 and it’s become the great humanizing story about Hurt, a man who went and saw some broke actors do a play because he loved the craft of acting that much. And one is the horrific portrait of Hurt drawn by former girlfriend Marlee Matlin. In her 2009 autobiography I’ll Scream Later, she described living in fear of him, receiving physical, emotional, and sexual abuse from him during their years together. She wasn’t the only one who confessed that he was a violent partner, an alcoholic with a temper he couldn’t control during the height of his fame. This man, this respected and lauded actor responsible for some of the most heartbreaking performances of the last 40 years, left us a terrible burden, as famous men too often do. He has given us the job of keeping our every image of him in our heads simultaneously. On a day we should simply be able to grieve the loss of one of the most distinctive performers in cinema, we must also become reacquainted with the idea that some people knew him only as a monster.

Hurt came from less than humble surroundings. Born in 1950 to parents who worked for Time and the US State department, who would divorce when he was 10, he saw more of the world before he could drive than some of us will in our entire lives. He started acting in high school and was instantly recognized as a talent. He studied theology at Tufts, but he couldn’t get acting out of his brain and went to Julliard after he graduated. He joined the prestigious and respected Circle Repertory Company and made his off-Broadway debut in Corinne Jacker’s play My Life, a part Christopher Reeve originated before he was discovered and given the part of “Superman.” Hurt won an Obie award and was swiftly picked up for success in movies. He became known as a film actor, but he never stopped acting on stage. Like a good many theatre actors there was a tension in him about the importance of the work. Even late in life he’d play James Tyrone for a week’s worth of performances of Long Day's Journey into Night at a theatre near his home in Portland, Oregon. He respected the stage more than the screen. At his best Hurt brings the electricity of live theatre acting to the screen. For someone who seemed so sturdy, his gift was in becoming suddenly and overwhelmingly unpredictable.

He was doing guest appearances on TV in the late ‘70s (he had a two-episode arc on “Kojak”), but American audiences didn’t really get to meet Hurt the actor until 1980’s “Altered States,” directed by the great Ken Russell. The production was a collection of accidents and crises. Director Ken Russell, fleeing the awful reception of his biopic “Valentino,” was a last-minute replacement for Arthur Penn, who had cast Hurt and then fled the production. Writer Paddy Chayefsky, on whose book the script was based, nitpicked every creative decision so Russell had him banned from the set. Chief among the things that displeased him was that Russell instructed his cast to read the dialogue as quickly as possible, reducing in the writer’s eyes the import of its theological implications and ruining the flow of his language. Russell’s instincts were correct, “Altered States” works because Hurt, Bob Balaban, Blair Brown and the rest of the cast treat the dialogue like an excited conversation. A less theatrical performer probably couldn’t have pulled it off. Russell repaid him by making him a movie star. He’s introduced twice, which is unusual, but it works. We see him first floating in the sensory deprivation tank looking like distorted and strange in the turquoise water. Then when Brown, who will fall in love with his character, sees him for the first time he’s bathed in heavenly light at the end of a long hallway, The Doors playing on the soundtrack. We see him like Brown does, as a vision, a heroic figure, the man she’s going to marry. Here was born a modernist superhero, a new kind of leading man.

Hurt’s ascendance happened quickly. In 1981 he appeared opposite Sigourney Weaver in “Eyewitnessby Peter Yates, playing a janitor embroiled in a murder plot. The film hinges on the idea that Hurt is just some guy who’s bewitched by the otherworldly beauty of news anchor Weaver and it’s a testament to Hurt’s golden retriever energy that it comes close to working. Between the rock star academic in Altered Statesand the good-natured working class schlub in “Eyewitness” you’ve got the crux of Hurt’s appeal as a star. He could just as easily play dopes as the smartest guy in the room. His distant gaze, steady physicality and remote air could express boredom with unenlightening conversation or his own inability to come up with anything intelligent to add. The intensity was always remarkable, no matter who he was tasked with playing. His most intense performance yet came in Lawrence Kasdan’s “Body Heat,” a neo-noir retelling of Billy Wilder’s “Double Indemnity” in which Hurt falls for lonely wife Kathleen Turner. Though she’s married to boring old Richard Crenna, she jumps into bed with Hurt for one of the most frankly erotic movies of the ‘80s. Their chemistry is off the charts and Hurt gives everything he has to the part of a romantic who makes all the wrong moves because he can’t imagine life without the object of his obsession. His everyday good looks next to Turner’s smoldering old school glamour made for a winning combination.

He makes the strongest showing for himself in 1983’s ensemble film “The Big Chill,” from his “Body Heat” director Kasdan. He’s the coldest and most cynical of a group of old friends reuniting after the death of a classmate. While Jeff Goldblum, Kevin Kline, Glenn Close, and Mary Kay Place are figuring their lives out, flirting, and bickering, Hurt watches them all with bemused detachment. His blithe disgust in their self-interest rings truest of all the performances, the one that’s aged the best. “Wise up folks, we’re all alone out there. Tomorrow we’re going out there again,” he says as they make their friend’s death about themselves, before an unconvincing apology takes the sting out of his sentiments.

He next appeared as a Russian cop in Michael Apted’s entertaining “Gorky Park” while stage performances in Midsummer Night’s Dream (which sees him in rare comedic form) and Tad Mosel’s All the Way Home were filmed and broadcast on network TV. In 1985 he appeared in Hector Babenco’s “Kiss of the Spider Woman” as a gay prison snitch who trades stories for secrets with revolutionary cell mate Raul Julia, another theatrical luminary who’d crossed over into films. Hurt won his only Oscar for the performance, to this day among his most earnest turns, still a pretty radical departure for the actor.

Up next was the issue drama “Children of a Lesser God,” which co-starred deaf actress Marlee Matlin, not even 20 when the 36-year-old star initiated their relationship. Theirs was an awful union marked by bruises that the crew of “God” chose not to notice. Hollywood circled the wagons around Hurt when women came forward with their stories about his terrible behavior in his personal life. He stepped out on first wife Mary Beth Hurt with Sandra Jennings, leading to the marriage’s dissolution. Jennings became pregnant and later had to sue for alimony when Hurt refused to have their common law marriage recognized. Matlin was routinely seen with bloody injuries after fights with Hurt and he spitefully undermined her Oscar win, an Oscar he himself presented to her, when they were alone. Many, many people knew what was happening and while Matlin checked herself into the Betty Ford clinic to deal with a drug addiction she’d picked up to cope with a long string of predators in her young life, Hurt just continued to be one of Hollywood’s most bankable stars despite how visible his abuses had become. He was nominated for an Oscar in 1987 for James L. Brooks’ “Broadcast News” and Kasdan gave him another leading role as a writer experiencing mid-life drift in “The Accidental Tourist.”

He’s excellent in both films, handily playing a young, inexperienced, buffoonish anchor in the former and a man who realizes his whole life has passed him by in the latter. Brooks carefully composed the part of Tom Grunick for Hurt. He has to play a character who represents everything wrong with journalism but Hurt plays him as a man with everything to prove, easily hurt feelings, and a heart he doesn’t know how to protect. Initially, we’re meant to see him as a cavalier and banal antagonist, given everything in life, but he becomes the most sympathetic character thanks to Hurt’s ability to shade him, to show that he has problems as real as his colleague’s.

“The Accidental Tourist” finds him at the end of his tether, aging and losing all the comforts of his upper middle-class life. His wife leaves him, his son dies, he breaks his leg, and he feels like a fraud. He’s both affecting and hilarious in the part. It was his last huge enduring hit for a while (1991’s “The Doctor” by his “God” director Randa Haines made decent money but has been forgotten in the intervening years).

Hurt spent the next decade making lower profile movies all over the globe, settling into a role as a kind of curdled bohemian traveler. Parts in Luis Puenzo’s “The Plague” (in which he once again starred opposite Raul Julia), Wayne Wang’s “Smoke,” and Wim Wenders’ “Until the End of the World” show him as men lost in tumultuous times and places. “The Plague” has vanished into complete obscurity but he met Sandrine Bonnaire on set and the two had a child together. In “Smoke,” he’s a writer still grieving the loss of his wife, erupting with emotion at the sight of her in pictures, a wonderfully studied performance of living with loss. “Until the End of the World” was a famous flop and at times saddles Hurt with a part that calls for pedestrian petulance, raging at his father played by Max Von Sydow, but for the most part he makes a terrific, moody stand-in for his raincoat-clad director. He was one of the only American actors to work with Chantal Akerman (on 1996’s “A Couch in New York”), the mother of durational cinema and one of the best film artists ever born, and though his stillness fits her mise-en-scene like a glove, they didn’t like working with each other.

After leading Stephen Hopkins’ dreadful “Lost in Space,” Hurt started to settle into life as a character actor. He picked up a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his work in David Cronenberg’s “A History of Violence” but he does better and more risky work in Steven Spielberg’s “A.I.”, “The Village,” Bruce A. Evans’ “Mr. Brooks,” and Christian Camargo’s “Days and Nights.” A lifelong fan of The Incredible Hulk comics, he started appearing in Marvel movies in 2008, but those parts didn’t demand he do much more than stand there.

His performance in "The Village" might be my favorite thing he did and its endemic of why directors sought him out in the last two decades of his life. He carries in him an air of regal resignation (which explains why despite his unmistakable American cadence, he was cast as royal advisors in Ridley Scott’s “Robin Hood” and Julie Delpy’s “The Countess”). He’s seen everything and just wants to do what will make life simplest, his own happiness a distant concern. When he finally cracks, it’s unspeakably moving because we’ve been watching him hide his inner turmoil so expertly for an hour without realizing it. His voice like a sail ripped from its mast and tossed into the wind, the intensity of the young theatre actor undimmed by age, heartbreak pouring from his eyes.

It’s hard now to just enjoy the work, to celebrate someone who caused so much pain, and it isn’t easy to praise an artist I’ve been watching with reverence for most of my life without getting a knot in my stomach. History is for survivors to contend with and it’s awful to have to take stock of the life of men who took their own power for granted. We don’t always get to choose which version of a man we see. I wish Hurt had given us the choice to just remember him as one of the most singular presences in the American cinema. He was. Or as a champion of the art of theatrical production. He was. But there was more, and we can’t choose to forget it. His legacy is ours to grapple with. “Wise up folks, we’re all alone out there.”

Scout Tafoya

Scout Tafoya is a critic and filmmaker who writes for and edits the arts blog Apocalypse Now and directs both feature length and short films.

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