A funny thing happens as some actors get older. As their career progresses, they quietly transform from one of the most respected, accomplished leading men, to a steadfast character actor who occasionally pops up in obscure little roles. That’s been the case for William Hurt, one of the finest American actors who have ever graced the screen. He hit it big in his early 30s, crushed lead roles, won an Oscar, then, for whatever reason, faded out.
Don’t get me wrong, when Hurt hits (both then and now) he hits. When his spontaneous anger, unique humor and reserved sensitivity are all on point, it’s impossible to not take notice.
The Big Chill (1983)
Reunited for the first time since college, seven friends spend a long weekend together in a Southern mansion after a mutual friend kills himself. They drink, they drug, they screw, they chill. Since first seeing The Big Chill (a film that I love), Nick has always been my favorite character. Emotional and physical scarred as a result of serving in Vietnam, Nick often consumes copious amounts of drugs to mask his pain, but, as is the case with every character in the film, there is much more going on here.
For example, Nick is funny. Not just in what he says, but in how he reacts. In one scene, the unwelcomed husband of one of the group’s members tells Nick that his friend killed himself because he couldn’t handle “it.” And instead of reacting with anger or violence, Hurt exhales deeply and let’s his shoulders drop, much in the way a disappointed cartoon character would. It shouldn’t work, but boy does it ever.
Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985)
Luis Alberto Molina
William Hurt’s Best Actor Oscar win for Kiss of the Spider Woman is an instance of an actor has winning an Academy Award for playing a role in such a new way. To explain: Luis Molina is a complicated character purposefully trapped in the middle of a complicated movie. In prison for having sex with a young boy, Luis recounts his life experiences by diving into fantastical monologues, which director Héctor Babenco follows, thereby creating a movie(s) within a movie. Complicated, perhaps, but the film’s loose narrative structure certainly doesn’t hinder Hurt’s work. In fact, it propels it.
By most all accounts, William Hurt is a different kind of fella. His process is layered, his frustration is real, and his characters are his own. In short, a character as eccentric and complex as Luis Molina is destined to be played by someone like William Hurt.
Children of a Lesser God (1986)
As a teacher who makes a living attempting to teach deaf children how to speak, Hurt is wondrously caring in Children of a Lesser God. Shortly into his tenure at a new school, James falls in love with Sarah (Marlee Matlin), a deaf school employee with anger management issues. The two begin a love affair that often works well, but frequently lends itself to heated arguments. Late in the picture James and Sarah dive head first into a particularly hellacious argument in which tempers flare, James screams and Sarah attempts to do what she always does, which is run away. James literally pins her against a wall and, with unexpected fury, demands that Sarah speak. I’ll let you discover what happens (and how Hurt reacts to it) yourself, for it is far too emotional a moment to ruin here.
Broadcast News (1987)
From the start of William Hurt’s film acting career through the late ‘80s, the man starred in Altered States, Body Heat, The Big Chill, Kiss of the Spider Woman, Children of a Lesser God, Broadcast News, and two decent thrillers… so yeah, dude began with a hot streak rarely matched.
At the tail end of that impressive run is James L. Brooks’ perfect dramedy Broadcast News, in which Hurt plays a fresh faced, determined, and not very bright news anchor. I could write paragraph after paragraph about why this performance is so accomplished, but really, highlighting one scene in particular is enough to justify this performance. When Tom is asked to anchor his first segment for the new station he works for, he sits confidently behind the news desks, cameras pointed straight at him, with his producer (played to excellence by Holly Hunter) feeding him lines via his earpiece. The scene is a sentence-by-sentence reconstruction of news delivery at its finest. Tom doesn’t stutter, he doesn’t fail or falter. He nails it. And it is simply thrilling to watch.
Into the Wild (2007)
When I drafted my recent list of movie characters receiving the worst news of their lives, the first scene that popped into my head was Walt McCandless sitting helplessly in the middle of his suburban street, mourning the loss of his only son.
Based on what we see in Sean Penn’s film (and what we read in Jon Krakauer’s source novel), Walt McCandless was a complicated fellow. A NASA genius with a quick, inexplicable temper, it’s implied that one of the reasons his son, Chris, left in search of the wild was to flee from his father’s strict ways. Perhaps William Hurt knew this. Perhaps he carried the real man’s pain over to his role and let it fuel his performance. Whatever the reasoning, few things are as devastating as watching William Hurt take a sunset stroll around his neighborhood as his wife cooks dinner.
Hurt gently walks through his yard, gives a heartbreaking look back to his front door to make sure no one is looking, then collapses in the street as tears flood his eyes. He can’t scream, he can’t speak – he can only sit in anguish. Anyone with a remote interest in acting should watch and study this moment. In just 30 seconds, Hurt accomplishes more in this scene than some actors do in their entire careers. That is how it is done.
The Best of the Best
A History of Violence (2005)
Would you believe me if I told you this was the most difficult In Character I’ve ever done? Choosing five essential roles for an actor like William Hurt was no easy feat, and picking his best was damn near impossible. So many of his best roles are worthy because they highlight an aspect of his process that we’ve never seen before. Or, at the very least, they magnificently call attention to a skill we already knew he had.
With his brief but no less startling work in A History of Violence, every characteristic of Hurt’s distinct craft is brought to light. He’s gruff, intimidating, manipulative, ferocious, and, perhaps most importantly, hilarious. It’s a stunning, scenery-chewing bit of acting that represents one of my favorite performances of the 2000s.
Much in the way of Orson Welles’ character in The Third Mad (a lofty but fair comparison), we hear a lot about Richie Cusack before we actually meet him. We hear that he’s the boss of a ruthless Philadelphia crime syndicate. We hear that he’s the suspected estranged brother of Viggo Mortensen’s Tom Stall. We hear, in short, that Richie is a force to be reckoned with. And when we meet him, our assumptions are certainly not without merit. Sporting an authentic-as-all-hell Philadelphia accent, Hurt strolls into the picture quietly, and leaves with a genuine bang. And everything in between? Well, it’s a noted screen veteran proving he’s still in the fight. It’s an actor at the top of his game, when many falsely assumed his time was up. In one 10-minute scene, William Hurt manages to come alive in a way I thought I’d seen before, but clearly had not.
Other Notable Roles
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Altered States (1980)
Body Heat (1981)
Gorky Park (1983)
The Accidental Tourist (1988)
Lost in Space (1998)
Dark City (1998)
One True Thing (1998)
A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)
Changing Lanes (2002)
The Village (2004)
The King (2005)
The Good Shepherd (2006)
Mr. Brooks (2007)
The Incredible Hulk (2008)
The Host (2013)