‘Living is so torrential, such an amazing experience that we often create moats to keep this vivacity away from our senses,’ William Hurt once said
Photo: Actor William Hurt Rich Fury/Invision/AP
13 March 2022 | Christian Zilko | Indiewire | With additional material
William Hurt, one of the most esteemed actors of the 1980s with success in film, television, and theatre, has died at the age of 71.
Hurt was born in 1950 and grew up in Washington D.C. before studying acting at the Juilliard School alongside classmates Robin Williams and Christopher Reeve.
He made his feature film debut in 1980’s “Altered States,” earning a Golden Globe nomination for Best New Star. His Hollywood career got off to a rapid start, as 1981’s “Body Heat,” Lawrence Kasdan’s noir in which he plays the easily duped lover of Kathleen Turner’s femme fatale, was a massive hit.
He then earned three consecutive Oscar nominations for “Kiss of the Spider Woman” (for which he won Best Actor), “Children of a Lesser God,” and “Broadcast News.”
Throughout his four decade career, Hurt was able to straddle the line between serious acting and blockbuster filmmaking.
In addition to roles in prestigious films like “Broadcast News” and “A History of Violence,” Hurt also starred in Steven Spielberg’s “A.I.: Artificial Intelligence” and enjoyed a decade-long run playing General Thaddeus Ross in five Marvel Cinematic Universe films, most recently in “Black Widow.”
He also maintained a successful stage acting career, with a particular interest in Shakespeare roles.
His most recent work includes an acclaimed stint on the Amazon series “Goliath,” appearing in 14 episodes as Donald Cooperman.
The 25 Best films of William HurtIMDB
A statement from the actor’s son Will reads: “It is with great sadness that the Hurt family mourns the passing of William Hurt, beloved father and Oscar winning actor, on March 13, 2022, one week before his 72nd birthday. He died peacefully, among family, of natural causes. The family requests privacy at this time.”
From Body Heat to Broadcast News, the imposing Hurt could always bring out a character’s dark side with exquisite subtlety
13 March 2022 | Peter Bradshaw | The Guardian
Hollywood in the 1980s was energised and enhanced by the sly beauty, masculinity and sexuality of William Hurt, who managed three best actor Oscar nominations in a row in the middle of the decade: for Kiss of the Spider Woman in 1986, Children of a Lesser God in 1987 and Broadcast News in 1988.
Having morphed from sleek leading man to character actor, he later got a fourth nomination for best supporting actor, for David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence.
Hurt won for the first of these, in which he played a gay man imprisoned for sexual offences in an oppressive South American state, sharing a cell with a gruffly straight political prisoner, and escaping into florid melodramatic fantasies.
He was a sinuous and yet athletic screen presence as the exotic Luis, in his gowns and turban, exquisitely beautiful but with absolutely nothing delicate or elfin about him.
Hurt’s imposing features and subtly mischievous smile always had something of the Roman emperor about them. Perhaps if his looks had been a bit blander or more conventional he could have had Robert Redford’s career.
It was perhaps something to do with his receding hairline, noticeable even at the very beginning of his career, in Ken Russell’s Altered States in 1980, where he played a psychologist who plunges down the rabbit hole of the mind into realms of modified consciousness and heightened experience.
Hurt was superb in darker roles, in which his handsomeness coexisted with something venal, cynical and vain.
He was superb in Lawrence Kasdan’s neo-noir riff on Double Indemnity, Body Heat in 1981 in which he has a fatal desire for a married woman played by Kathleen Turner; she had a sulphurous chemistry with Hurt’s weak-minded lawyer, to go with the chemistry they both had with the camera.
The movies he made next were hugely important for establishing his star presence: Michael Apted’s thriller Gorky Park in 1983, scripted by Dennis Potter, cast Hurt as a Russian police officer who has to take on a gruesome case of murder.
In 1986, he played James Leeds, the earnestly well-intentioned teacher of hearing-impaired children in Children of a Lesser God, who becomes fascinated by Sarah, a young deaf woman working at his school, played by hearing-impaired performer Marlee Matlin, with whom Hurt was to have a relationship.
Matlin’s character rejects the idea of vocalising, instead of signing, an idea which Leeds is trying to foist on her. (This debate may have influenced the recent film Sound of Metal.) It was a perfectly solid performance from Hurt, though the film was a bit sonorous, platitudinous and insufferable for all that the character is supposed to be conceited and redeemed by his relationship with Sarah.
But his performing masterpiece was to come one year later, with James L Brooks’s glorious media satire Broadcast News, playing opposite two superb actors also giving the performance of their lives: Holly Hunter as Jane, the driven and emotionally tortured TV news producer and her best friend and colleague Aaron, a talented but insecure and prickly news reporter played by Albert Brooks.
Hurt plays Tom, a blandly handsome and narcissistic former sports presenter who – to the horrified resentment of Aaron – gets promoted to chief anchorman. And to add to his woes, Jane (with whom brainy beta-male Aaron is pathetically and unrequitedly in love) is clearly very attracted to the shallow and sexy Tom, whose career advances as Aaron’s falters.
Hurt is superb as the guy who has an instinctive grasp of how to work the camera, how to read cues, how to invest everything with a specious air of charm and authority.
To Aaron he seems like Satan himself. Tom begins the movie with much humility and self-doubt but gradually becomes entirely happy with his own massive prestige and even coaches Aaron in how to read the news when Aaron has to fill in for one evening – a job at which he is a humiliating failure – but Aaron catches Tom in the act of faking a tearful response in one of his interviews.
Tom is essentially a comic creation but Hurt makes him complicated and vulnerable and human for all that he is clearly smug and objectionable.
The glowering gangster he played in Cronenberg’s A History of Violence amplified Hurt’s talent for a certain kind of male vanity.
He was a loathsome assassin who is living a life of preposterous self-importance in a faintly bizarre pseudo-baronial stately home that he considers commensurate with a killer of his standing and when he confronts Viggo Mortensen’s small-town hero, he has that puzzled, quizzical look of distaste and disdain that he did so well. In his later roles, he could play elder-statesman figures with an opaque, forbidding mien (even in the Marvel movies) but it was in serio-comic roles that he really shone. Hurt was so sexy, funny and imposing.
Ciara Dwyer | August 08 2004 12:11 AM
WILLIAM Hurt is late. All the other stars of M Night Shyamalan’s latest film The Village have reported for duty, but there is still no sign of Mr Hurt.
“I think he is driving in himself,” one of the publicists tells me while checking his watch once more. A movie star who declines the free ride to interviews?
Hurt would rather endure the chaos of Manhattan traffic? Yes, he would. As I sit in a New York hotel room looking down at the chaos – builders busy building, cops directing trafficand pedestrians on Central Park South – Hurt is inching his way through it all, listening on BBC satellite radio to John Le Carre reading from his book.
This is armour. William Hurt is putting on protection, building himself up in his own little bubble before he faces the tyranny of endless press interviews. Not that it makes that much difference.
By the time the 54-year-old actor sits down in front of me, he looks like he has been dragged through the streets. His turquoise eyes are bloodshot with tiredness and his thin hair is standing on end.
Before he speaks, he sighs. He does this a lot. William Hurt looks like he does not enjoy the interview process. Nor can he fake it. In some ways this is all rather endearing.
“The idea is to have a pretty wide audience for this film and that’s why they put all this money inside it,” he says. “That’s why we’re all sitting in these hotels with our minds frying because we are trying to say things over and over again. We’re trying to do a collective amassing of opinion dissemination. That’s why we’re all organised in this hotel . . . I’m not sorry, I’m just tired. It’s just that it’s not easy. We’re all dealing with this situation.”
William Hurt does not know how to do easy-going. Everything about him is intense. And then there’s that added irritant, that question which people have been asking him for days on end. Where has he been for the past few years?
Back in the Eighties, William Hurt was huge. Although he made his feature film debut as an obsessed scientist in Altered States, it was his role in Body Heat that made everyone notice him.
The film was a modern take on Double Indemnity and Kathleen Turner was the femme fatale. William played a Southern lawyer who was manipulated by her. The sex scenes were pretty steamy – all silhouettes and charged erotic energy.
In The Big Chill he played a drug dealer and starred alongside other golden actors of that time – Glenn Close, Kevin Kline, Tom Berenger and Jeff Goldblum.
He won an Oscar for his role as an imprisoned homosexual in Kiss of the Spiderwoman. Everything was going swimmingly for him. He wasa talented actor who was daring enough to take on a variety of roles. And with Hurt, there was always a guarantee that you were going to see some intelligent work. So what happened? Did he choose to work less?
“I work all the time. I may not always work in big movies, but I work all the time. The work I do is just as important. I did a play for three-and-a-half months for 250 bucks a week and I worked as hard on that. I did good work.”
When he mentions the film industry, he tells me thatit is “something which I don’t accept myself being a member of”. William Hurt is disillusioned by a lot of the workthat is churned out thesedays. He cannot hide his disappointment.
“Do I think ‘Give people what they want’ is the right phrase? No. I think that the phrase ought to be ‘Better written, better spoken’. I would prefer to see more vision, more accuracy, more honesty. Why do a billion people want to see Baywatch? I don’t know. Women put silicone in their breasts and I get turned off. I know people who can execute some of the finest forms of art – these are decent, good, sensitive, cultured people – and they’ll sit and watch that. Why would they watch that drivel?”
William wants to shout STOP! And in a way, thatis what he did with his acting career, ever since hisOscar win.
“Success is isolating. Certainly the Oscar was isolating. In some ways, it was antithetical to what I was aiming at. I didn’t want to be isolated. I didn’t want some big target on my chest saying: ‘He’s anOscar-winner, he’s the one to be.’ I wanted to be an actor, so I was very confused about it. Sometimes I’m still confused about it. You’re sceptical and honoured and scared because you’re carrying a weight now that you weren’t carrying before. People change. Coping with that is not easy. It’s not simple but I think it’s like any energy – you try to use it positively.”
William was offered big roles in blockbuster films like Jurassic Park. He declined and went his own sweet way, taking on an interesting supporting role in Wayne Wang’s Smoke. He worked with Franco Zeffirelli on Jane Eyre, playing Rochester. Andhe played Mia Farrow’s wealthy, aloof husband in Woody Allen’s Alice.
In his latest film, The Village, a period piece of sorts, William plays Edward Walker, a town leader. It’s good to see him back and on form. In one scene with Sigourney Weaver, he shows his mettle – it’s just a moment, but as he creates it with a look and a line, time stands still.
William Hurt was born in Washington DC. His father was a US State Department employee and was sent to Guam. They lived there until William was six. His parents divorced and he moved to Manhattan with his mother. He would still spend the summers holidaying with his father in a variety of unusual places, including Sudan.
When William was 10 his life changed dramatically – his mother married Henry Luce III, multimillionaire and son of the founder of Time magazine. He was sent away to boarding school in Massachusetts and while there he found comfort in acting. He studied theology and theatre, but it was the latter that won his interest. He started his acting career on the stage, working with New York’s prestigious Circle Repertory Company. He has been married twice – to Mary Beth Hurt and Heidi Henderson.
As for children, he smiles and says that he has children all over the place – two with Heidi Henderson, one with Sandra Jennings and another with Sandrine Bonnaire.
“I’m not an actor, I’m a person,” William Hurt says. “Sometimes you have to challenge the dependencies before the rot sets in. Sometimes it’s the thing that holds you up in the middle of the night in a dark storm and you only have habits. You don’t have thoughts or inspiration or guidance, you just have habits. That’s why you have to make those habits good habits – because they’re gonna stand for you when your body and soul are weak. Some of my good habits are the things I stopped. I stopped smoking, I stopped drinking.”
Just as we are about to finish I get a glimpse of what he might be like on a good day. He is almost poetic.
“Living is so torrential, such an amazing experience that we often create moats to keep this vivacity away from our senses. It’s such a tremendous experience so we create deadening habits which we think we enjoy – and they’re killing us.”
No longer bloodshot, his eyes are ablaze with passion.
“Living is so exciting that sometimes you can’t stand it.”
He’s right about himself. He is not an actor, he is a person. As he spoke his parting line, he was burning bright.