One week following William Hurt’s death, is the title of this post “too soon”? Given the many charges of violence against women (several of them) over the decades which taint Hurt’s dossier, we decided that there’s worse than jokey disrespect that could be leveled at him. Anyway, we weren’t about to write an on-the-spot obit for him (as I often do), not with his birthday a week out from his March 13 passing (he’d have been 72 today). And in any event, the day after his death by cancer, I opted instead to write a tribute to the late Conrad Janis, who’s more in my wheelhouse anyway, and then Barbara Maier Gustern died.
When she was interning at Circle Rep, my wife once babysat for the toddler Hurt fathered out of wedlock with actress Sandra Jennings, one of the many women who’ve charged him with drinking, drugging and expressing himself with his fists. That’s her connection, but I have one, too. When I was at New-York Historical Society, I got to know Henry Luce III, a board member there. He was Hurt’s stepfather, though I didn’t know it at the time, I just thought of Luce as the Time-Life heir. Hurt’s mother had worked at Time. At any rate, his privileged upbringing is another reason I am not going to cut Hurt slack for his self-indulgent brutality. Few are saints; people make mistakes. But when you do it to many people over a period of decades it becomes less an aberration than a major theme of your life story.
The product of private schools, Tufts and Julliard (the same class as Mandy Patinkin, 1976), Hurt first made his bones the old-fashioned way: on New York stages. He was in the original 1978 production of Lanford Wilson’s Fifth of July. The following year, he played Hamlet — one of the few actors I would really like to have seen in the role. Few actors are suited to that strange part, but Hurt was kind of perfect: to the manor born, tortured, self-indulgent, unlikeable, but somehow commanding our sympathy besides all that. He was also in the original 1985 production of David Rabe’s Hurlyburly, as well as high profile productions of Henry V, Richard II, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Like most American audiences, I first knew Hurt from his movie debut, Altered States (1981), famously intended by Paddy Chayefsky to have been a satire, but transformed into a psychedelic sci fi thriller by director Ken Russell. It’s a Jekyll and Hyde story and a perfect calling card for the new star. He was terrific too in Lawrence Kazdan’s blockbuster neo-noir Body Heat (1981), although as a 16 year old heterosexual boy my eyes were glued to Kathleen Turner. We recently re-watched this film, and while Turner’s ability to reduce me to Jello remains undiminished, I studied Hurt more closely, and remembered what was so great about him. He had a tremendous capacity to go beyond the dialogue, to act non-verbally with his face, and to express himself through the inarticulate bits around the words: sighs, moans, groans, ers, and ums. His breathy voice was an asset, though his posh way of talking limited his range. He was a perfect actor for the Reagan ’80s: an arrogant WASP who could be sensitive and smoldering. He had pretty eyes with long-lashes but they were also shifty. He was tall and elegant but he was also a mouth-breather and sweaty. So he had levels. He was always complicated. I’m not sure if it was possible for him to be one-dimensional.
Hurt was to be a sometime member of the Kazdan stock company, playing roles in his subsequent The Big Chill (1983), The Accidental Tourist (1988), and I Love You to Death (1990). He had an amazing streak at the beginning of his career: Michael Apted’s Gorky Park (1983), the multiple award winning Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985), Children of a Lesser God (1986, opposite Marlee Matlin, who was his life partner for a couple of years and is one of the women who’s accused him of abuse), James L. Brook’s Broadcast News (1987), then parts in the ensembles of Woody Allen’s Alice (1990), and Wim Wenders’ ‘Til the End of the World (1991).
I could be wrong but at the time The Doctor (1991) was when I felt Hurt had jumped the shark as a major star. One of those saccharine Hollywood things where a callous surgeon “learns and grows” after he himself contracts cancer. It felt like his “Dingo took my baby” moment, though, like Streep, he continued to do much great work after his lapse, in worthy projects like Paul Auster’s Smoke (1995), Franco Zeffirelli’s Jane Eyre (1996), Spielberg and Kubrick’s A.I. (2001), Tuck Everlasting (2002), M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village (2004), Cronenberg’s A History of Violence (2005), Syriana (2005), De Niro’s The Good Shepherd (2006), Sean Penn’s adaptation of Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild (2007), Julie Delpy’s The Countess (2009), Too Big To Fail (2011) and Winter’s Tale (2014). But there was also sillier, more cartoonish stuff like the 1998 Lost in Space roboot, Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood (2010), and since 2008, many of the MCU pictures, which specialize in wasting good actors.
After all, he was that: a good actor. And so many simply aren’t. As per his personal life, did he have an 11th hour deathbed redemption a la The Doctor, “What have I done? How have I behaved? I’ll change! I can change!”. If he did, so what? My whole problem with movies like that (and life) is that you’re not supposed to wait until the bitter end for your epiphany. You’re really not.