Sexy. Cerebral. Inscrutable.
William Hurt, in part because he was perfect and in part because he remained impossible to pin down, was the thinking cinema fan’s god, always easy on the eyes but the rare actor who got not only under your skin, but inside your head.
Has any modern thespian announced their appearance with similar authority? Altered States and Body Heat remain one of the great one-two punches in cinema. Arriving fully formed and seemingly capable of anything, he went on to start in Gorky Park and The Big Chill. Now pause for a moment and consider not only how incendiary he is in each role (each one a home run in its unique way) but how utterly distinct these four roles are. That said, William Hurt brought his mannerisms (his Hurt-isms) consistently to the screen: his wit and sarcasm, his ability to appear dumbfounded by how dumb everyone else was (and, indelibly in Body Heat, his growing awareness — and incredulity — at how dumb he was).
There are no highlights, necessarily, in Altered States — it’s a series of epiphanies, but what was noteworthy (and how seems heroic in its way) is the way Hurt can dominate the screen without scene-chewing indulgence or method-actor histrionics: it’s appropriate that, for a character struggling between his head and heart, Hurt — as Dr. Eddie Jessup — embodies those extremes, both Apollo and Dionysus trapped in the same weird genius.
Likewise, there’s no one scene to do Body Heat justice; it has to be savored. And, for my money — and largely though not entirely because of Hurt — it remains one of the most compulsively rewatchable movies of the last several decades. It’s a film where you could mute the sound and just study Hurt; indeed, you could focus only on his facial expressions and marvel at this master class. A trio of examples: when he meets his elderly client and apologizes for his profanity (her reaction and then his reaction); when he is leaving the prison after meeting another client and freezes when he hears the cell doors slam (foreshadowing #1); when he sees the clown driving down the street in a convertible (foreshadowing #2, and big props to first time director Lawrence Kasdan for the brass balls to go for broke with a moment that, not carried out flawlessly, could have derailed the proceedings) and we appreciate the look of bewilderment on his face. Okay, two more: when he walks into the public restroom, sees the young kid smoking a joint, pauses, and inhales dramatically, blissfully (he’s just fallen in love, after all); and at the very end of the amazing scene when he comes face to face with his lover’s husband: it’s all fun and games (and cat and mouse) until — he’s not that smart and he’s that obsessed — the mask drops and we see not only that he’s capable of murder, he’s already prepared to commit it.
Throughout the ’80s, which Hurt, in his understated way, owned as much as, say, Nicholson or DeNiro owned the ’70s, his work was one ceaseless revelation. He neither hit his stride nor reached a pinnacle; each role offered something special, and he remained in rare air as long as many more celebrated superstars ever have. He won the Academy Award, deservedly, for Kiss of the Spider Woman, but he could (should?) have also won it for Children of a Lesser God, Broadcast News, and The Accidental Tourist (in each case, taking solid material and elevating it, accordingly). That he wasn’t even nominated for Body Heat is embarrassing, but knowing he nailed Ned Racine — the role of a lifetime, aside from all the other ones — likely meant more to him than any trophy.
Contemporary and future audiences will never be able to fully appreciate how audacious, risky, and brave this role was in 1985. Aside from the brilliance of the material (and the necessity of the message; then, now), America in the mid-‘80s was anything but amenable to frank explorations of sexual identity, political causes not featuring Rocky Balboa, and the fact that history may be written by the winner, but art is owned by the underdogs.
He settled comfortably into supporting roles, no longer an icon so much as an eccentricity; the rare Hollywood insider who knew we knew he knew what a joke show business can be (and the joke was never on him, to his eternal credit). He earned approbation for his work in A History of Violence, but it was smaller, quieter roles, in two other blockbusters that revealed he was still sui generis, proving there could only be one William Hurt.
In Syriana, few other actors could exude the world-weary cynicism and smarts that he brings to bear, the guy who knows where the bodies are buried (literally), doing his best to steer George Clooney away from his worst instincts. He is quietly devastating in Into the Wild as the control freak father who sees his son reject all the material advantages his wealth has provided, and then loses his son altogether.
There’s a short scene, near the end, when — worn down and, finally, aware that his ego and money can’t fortify a breaking heart — he wanders outside his house, lost in his own front yard, looking around like a scared child, feeling the full weight of the world and the way it can be. He stares upward, ready and willing for enlightenment or a merciful lightning strike, and then collapses in the middle of the street, clutching his khakis like a scared toddler grabbing his blanket. As great as Hurt was during his do-no-wrong run in the ’80s, this moment required an actor — and a mature man — who knew a thing or two about pain and grief and the way dreams do come true, only they turn out to be nightmares.
(He was also a far from uncomplicated man, and while there are credible reports of horrific behavior –all of which should and must be part of any full appraisal– it seems appropriate, for today, to reflect on his gift, and the gifts he left behind, which will remain his artistic legacy.)