William Hurt, who died Sunday at 71, had a look and an aura that appeared, at first, to fit all too snugly into Hollywood’s conception of what a movie star should be. Tall and broad-shouldered, with a silky shock of wheat-colored hair, his handsome features set off by a cleft chin and a faraway gaze, he was, at a glance, the quintessence of the old-fashioned WASP he-man ideal. (In hindsight, he looked like a blond Jon Hamm.) In movies, this sort of fellow was generally presented as a paragon of rectitude, a “strong silent type.” But there was nothing silent about William Hurt. The first time audiences encountered him, he was floating in a sensory-deprivation tank in the loony-tunes acid-head psychodrama “Altered States” (1980), and the moment he climbed out of that tank, suffused with the visions he had seen , he couldn’t stop jabbering about them.
“Altered States” had a notorious backstory that translated onscreen in a special way. The director, the flamboyant British stylist Ken Russell (“The Music Lovers”), and the screenwriter, the virtuoso of American verbosity Paddy Chayefsky (“Network”), were temperamental opposites who couldn’t stand each other. Russell decided to stage the entire movie by having the actors whip through the dialogue at lightning speed. And Hurt proved uniquely suited to the task. In “Altered States,” there were moments when he seemed nearly possessed, tossing off lines like, “I’ve always been interested in interior experiences, especially the religious experience…I worked with monkeys for two years, but monkeys can’t tell you what’s going on inside their consciousness. You need human beings for that.”
You do indeed, and Hurt, for all the stoicism of his façade, was the kind of human being who was going to tell you all about his interior experiences. He was a talker, a spieler, an anxiously compulsive communicator. He had a special cerebral intensity, and for all his overgrown-lost-boy beauty, his most memorable quality was probably his voice. It was always a notch higher than you expected, with a hint of a prickly whine that sounded, at times, like a hypnotist’s monotone. He had the fervor of someone who seemed to be holding his breath until he got to the end of a sentence.
A cliché Hollywood icon might keep his emotions in check, but Hurt, in his singular movie-star period during the 1980s, wore his feelings on the outside. The words seemed to pour out of him, almost in spite of himself, and that’s the key to what audiences responded to in him. “Altered States” put him on the map, but it was “Body Heat,” released in 1981, that cemented Hurt as a leading man. Lawrence Kasdan’s first film was a remake of “Double Indemnity,” and unlike so many modern noirs that are too mannered for their own good, this one took a ’40s femme fatale (played with husky erotic magnetism by Kathleen Turner) and seemed to transport her through time. Hurt’s Ned Racine was a contempo loser — a two-bit Florida lawyer who is shocked back to life by falling for this temptress out of an old-movie dream. Hurt made him a neurotic sap, but he, in communion with her, was sexy. That sealed the deal of his stardom.
And yet Hurt, with his background in the theater (in the ’70s, he had attended Juilliard and won an Obie Award), didn’t necessarily trust that side of stardom. America, back then, had a less blockbustery culture than we do now, and Hurt didn’t run his career like someone who was happy to be the next big thing. He ran his career like someone who yearned to be a character actor in a movie star’s body.
He played a Russian detective in “Gorky Park.” He played a cynical truth-teller in “The Big Chill” — a poison pill of a Vietnam veteran who numbs his pain with recreational drugs, and is going to set his fellow boomers straight about how little relevance their ideals have in the real world. And then, having established that he was every inch an actor’s actor, Hurt embraced what would prove to be his role of a lifetime — in Hector Babenco’s “Kiss of the Spider Woman.” Though the irony that drove his performance is that he was, one could argue, almost spectacularly miscast.
He played Molina, a gay Brazilian movie queen who shared a prison cell, at the height of the country’s military dictatorship, with a furious leftist revolutionary played by Raul Julia. It was, in effect, an art-film buddy movie set mostly in the squalor of that cell, and the two actors developed a rapport that left audiences thrilled and moved. But it was Hurt’s performance as the soft-souled, willowy, head-in-the-clouds Molina that was the movie’s draw. In the summer of 1985, I saw “Kiss of the Spider Woman” in New York during its opening run, and it’s still the longest movie line I ever stood on (it snaked around nearly four blocks). The novelty of seeing an actor like Hurt play someone this “exotic” was all-powerful. And what was miraculous about his performance is that Hurt used his steely, cerebral reticence — that mesmerizing monotone — to play Molina as a tranquil pleasure-seeker who ached for the life of freedom he couldn’t have, because his society had denied it to him. It was a groundbreaking performance, the first of three in a row that netted Hurt an Oscar nomination. And he won, because no one that year could touch the ardor of his transformation.
Hurt was on a roll; as an actor, he owned the ’80s. His performance in “Children of a Lesser God,” as the hearing person who’s desperate for his partner, played by Marlee Matlin, to “learn my language” had an almost musical lilt to it. Hurt turned his use of ASL into an extension of his natural verbal intensity. He’d become a miraculously expressive actor. And this allowed him, in “Broadcast News,” to play a slightly thick lunk of a TV newscaster — a role based precisely on the kind of Ken-doll presence that Hurt had already transcended — by slyly deconstructing the character. His Tom was a romantic presence who was also a bit of an automaton, right down to the famous scene in which he triggers himself to cry on camera.
Hurt gave one more performance that capped his classic decade, although it didn’t happen until 1991, when he starred in “The Doctor,” playing a surgeon who has to overcome the clinical distance he has built up for years when he confronts his own diagnosis of throat cancer. It was a fully alive performance. But every actor, at least in Hollywood, has his moment, and Hurt’s had now passed. In the ’90s, he seemed to fade from the landscape. He tried to join the new franchise culture, but his token fling with it — “Lost in Space” — is a movie he got lost in.
Yet he kept showing up, ultimately finding a home for himself in the MCU (as the imperious Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross), successfully moving onto the small screen (notably in the legal thriller series “Damages”), and acting in one more major film that netted him an Oscar nomination: his searing performance as a crime boss in David Cronenberg’s “A History of Violence” (2005). It’s a defiantly eccentric piece of acting, and he was only onscreen for about 10 minutes. Yet Hurt, now bald, with a beard that made him look Amish and an accent that sounded halfway to Yiddish, endowed this family monster with an obscene frown of hatred that took the movie to another level of darkness. The acting, as always, seemed to burst right out of him. Even as a gangster, he wore his heartlessness on his sleeve.