Friday, April 19, 2013

In Character: William Hurt


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.

Five Essential Roles
The Big Chill (1983)
Nick
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 H├ęctor 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)
James Leeds
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)
Tom Grunick
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)
Walt McCandless
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)
Richie Cusack
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
In AI: Artificial Intelligence
Altered States (1980)
Body Heat (1981)
Gorky Park (1983)
The Accidental Tourist (1988)
Alice (1990)
Smoke (1995)
Michael (1996)
Lost in Space (1998)
Dark City (1998)
One True Thing (1998)
Sunshine (1999)
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)
Damages (2009)
The Host (2013)

36 comments:

  1. William Hurt, totally cool dude. Love his performance in A History of Violence as well as Kiss of the Spider Woman.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hell yeah man, so glad you're a fan! He's amazing in those flicks.

      Delete
  2. I'm quite a big fan of Hurt's work and I agree with most of these choices (I think I probably would have thrown his performance in the totally underrated Altered States in there though).
    While I think his performance is great in A History of Violence, I feel like I'm one of the few people out there who doesn't really enjoy that movie as a whole. The acting and direction are spot on, but to me I think I built it up so much that I was let down when I finally saw it. But, like I said, Hurt is fantastic in it.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hey man, glad you're a Hurt fan. His work in Altered States is great, isn't it? Very close to making the top cut here.

      I actually know a few people who feel exactly the same as you do about A History of Violence. And hey, fair enough. It's a different kind of movie, you know? I completely love it, but understand why others may not.

      Delete
  3. I was just watching The Host yesterday and kept thinking to myself that he's so good in this piece of shit too.

    I think I will choose his performance in Into the Wild.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Ha, well, more power to you for watching that in the first place.

      He's perfect in Into the Wild. Just perfect.

      Delete
  4. A fine actor. So magnificent in Kiss of the Spider Woman among others.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Damn fine actor. He always manages to deliver, no matter how big or small the role is.

    ReplyDelete
  6. I am glad you're a huge fan of William Hurt. My favorite roles were in Kiss of the Spider Woman and Children of a Lesser God, but he gave a memorable performance in everything I've seen him in.

    He was also quite good in The Doctor, which you didn't mention, though the movie overall didn't particularly stick with me. I haven't watched A History of Violence yet.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. He really is one of my all time favorite actors. I like him in everything.

      The Doctor, hmmm... never heard of it. Sounds intense. Might have to check it out soon!

      Delete
    2. I don't remember the movie well, so I don't know whether to recommend it. But I recall being impressed with Hurt's work. I also got a kick out of seeing Inigo Mantoya in surgical scrubs. *LOL*

      Delete
    3. Ha that's awesome. Inigo is the maaaan.

      Delete
    4. One of the best cinematic revenge scenes ever!

      Delete
    5. I still can't believe the guy he's fighting is Christopher Guest. That dude is such a chameleon.

      Delete
  7. I should give A History of Violence another shot. Saw it years ago and didn't care much for it, but your writeup on Hurt's performance has me thinking I might appreciate it more. Great work as always on this series, man.

    BTW, have you been able to find all of your missing blog posts? Glad to see you haven't let it bring you down!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I just love the hell out of that film. Really works for me.

      I did find most all of the posts, thanks much in part to your cache trick. Cannot thank you enough for that man - really kind of you!

      Delete
  8. Woah. Richie Cusack at #1? Didn't see that coming, but it's an intriguing choice. I'd probably go with James Leeds, but I need to rewatch Into the Wild. Of course, it's great to see The Big Chill on any best-of post. :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Honestly, I didn't either. But when I went back and rewatched his essential roles, old Richie was the that hit most with me.

      You know, I actually hadn't seen Children of a Lesser God before this post. He was perfect in that movie.

      The Big Chill rocks!

      Delete
  9. I thought he was great in A History of Violence and pretty much anything I've seen him in but I would like to see a lot more than I have. Broadcast News actually just came in from Netflix so I'm excited to watch it after this post.

    Another smaller film I enjoyed him in was The Yellow Handkerchief. His role was really subtle and strong. Movie itself isn't remarkable but he raised the quality of it significantly.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Glad to hear you're a fan of Hurt's work. I loved rewatching Broadcast News for this post. That's such a good one there.

      The Yellow Handkerchief... you know, I meant to catch that one but never did. Now that I hear he's good in it, I'll definitely have to check it out!

      Delete
    2. So I watched Broadcast News and I absolutely loved it! Hurt was amazing alongside Hunter & Brooks. I still have to gather my thoughts a bit but I'm going to try to wrap my head around it a bit more when I write about The Last Emperor later this month. I looked back at your "If I Chose the Best Pictures" post and totally agree that it should have won over Emperor.

      Delete
    3. Nice, so glad you liked it! I really enjoy that film. The Last Emperor is such a classic Best Picture-winning type of movie, you know? But I definitely think it should've been Broadcast.

      Delete
  10. He is amazing in his latest documentary/Drama about the Challenger disaster.He plays the brilliant theoretical physicist Richard Feynman.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hurt AND Bruce Greenwood?! I really need to see this ASAP. Sounds great. Thanks for the reco!

      Delete
  11. See user reviews of Hurt's latest movie by going to this site on IMDB. The movie was originally screened as The Challenger, but will be renamed as 73 when released later

    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2421662/reviews?ref_=tt_ov_rt

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Just got done reading some. Can't wait, thanks!

      Delete
  12. Also really liked him in 'Dark City' and 'Syriana', and for a different reasons 'Lost in Space'. See, it just goes to show what projects the man is truly invested in, apparent in his ambien fueled performance in LIS. Thought for sure you were going to go with 'Call of the Wild' but his Richie Cusack was worth the wait to finally see the man pulling the strings.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Glad to hear you're a Hurt fan. I had a damn hard time choosing a best role here. But Richie was the one I kept coming back to. I just love that character.

      Delete
  13. You know what I don't see anywhere here? Rare Birds, a quirky little romantic comedy that is just too cute for words. You can't call yourself a fan without seeing that one. Another aspect of his work that shouldn't be ignored is his many TV roles. A piece of work that is a big standout is his role as Jason Renshaw in Battleground, Episode 1 of Stephen King's Nightmares and Dreamscapes. It's a short film (just 60 minutes) done entirely without dialog, and its done so well that you don't even need it or miss it. Check out Too Big To Fail, The Challenger Disaster, Damages, The Host, Frankenstein, Moby Dick... all are really strong performances. I would even recommend you check out Shrink Wrap, Season 4 Episode 25 of King of Queens, which I thought was really funny.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I've seen most of those, but Nightmares and Dreamscapes sounds very interesting. Guess I have to see Rare Birds, then I can finally call myself a fan.

      Delete
  14. This was a great read! I hope you've caught his work in the recent AMC/Channel 4 series, Humans. Fabulous.

    In regards to Hurt's career, I always got the impression from interviews that he made it big, made his money, and then decided he could afford to be choosy with only taking roles that truly interest him, which I assume is why things like Dark City and Humans happened. He did a great interview for Humans where he talks about identifying as a stage actor and a character actor first and foremost, and not wanting to tackle a role unless it's both a new and interesting challenge but also something that he feels like he's completely suited for.
    A++ great actor.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks! So happy you like the post and are a Hurt fan. An A++ great actor indeed.

      Delete
  15. I don't think you get to call yourself a fan until you see him in his most obscure films. In fact, I would challenge your top 5 picks, especially Into the Wild, with his performance in Second Best. He is almost unrecognizable as "the Leading Man of the 80s" in his role as a painfully awkward single guy looking to adopt a troubled boy. His performance is IMHO one of THE best performances on film. End Game was another movie where I thought Hurt's work was truly remarkable. I also loved him in Loved. The movie as a whole could've been done better, but I was impressed with the character Hurt created - a deep, complex lawyer prosecuting a mentally abusive former lover of Robin Wright. I liked Maddened by His Absence, but I have to say it's a hard film to watch. I also loved him in Jane Eyre. I honestly didn't think I would since I think the version with Orson Wells is the best. I still think the Orson Wells' version is the best, but I love what William Hurt brought to the role. I'm actually surprised that Hurt isn't in more comedies because I think he's really got a talent for timing and delivery, as well as facial expressions. That said, A Couch in New York and Late Bloomers were both disappointments, and so was Silent Witness. All three had a lot of potential to be really great, with better dialog and better direction. If you are a true fan, you will check out another hard film to watch: Until the End of the World. It's good because Hurt's in it. The Plague, Contaminated Man, and The Countess are not good, even with Hurt, but if you're really a fan you'll watch them anyway... I did. lol

    ReplyDelete