Thursday 17 March 2022

In memoriam: William Hurt (Telegraph 14/03/22)

William Hurt, who has died aged 71, made his name on stage and screen as a rigorous, intelligent leading man, capable of lending even the most humdrum production an air of refinement. Tall, blonde and diffidently handsome, he broke through with an exceptional run of 1980s films that made full use of his good looks and versatility. In Body Heat (1981), he was the lawyer heading crotch-first towards destruction via femme fatale Kathleen Turner; he won the Best Actor Oscar for playing the crossdressing Luis Molina, incarcerated narrator of Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985); and then underlined his pin-up credentials as James, the sensitive speech tutor courting Marlee Matlin in Children of a Lesser God (1986), transforming sudsy material into a thinking person’s weepie.

His upright posture invited mocking, and Hurt gamely caught the spirit of James L. Brooks’ enduring media comedy Broadcast News (1987) as TV anchorman Tom Grunick, prettiest yet stiffest corner of the film’s indelibly etched love triangle. Less sympathetic observers wondered whether that stiffness was in fact early-onset woodenness, but he persistently tested and reinvented himself over his long screen career. He earned the first Oscar nomination for an actor in a comic-book adaptation with an astonishing extended cameo as a Mob boss in A History of Violence (2005), where his natural coolness hardened into throat-seizing viciousness. Hurt maintained he was only doing his job: “You know, if you do the work right, everybody’s vivid. Every life is vivid. That’s what we’re trying to say, right?”

He was born William McChord Hurt on March 20, 1950, into a worldly, well-connected Washington household. With his father, the State Department employee Alfred McChord, the young William travelled to Guam, Lahore, Mogadishu and Khartoum. (He had been conceived during an earlier trip to Shanghai.) After McChord died in 1960, his wife Claire (née McGill), an editorial assistant at Time magazine, remarried with Henry Luce III, son of Time founder Henry Luce and the diplomat Clare Boothe Luce. The stage presented some degree of stability. When Hurt graduated from the Middlesex School in 1968, he did so as vice-president of the school’s dramatics society, the school’s yearbook predicting: “With characteristics such as [his], you might even see him on Broadway.”

Somewhat circuitously, that prediction was borne out. The scholarly Hurt headed to Tufts University to study theology, only to fall in with a different crowd. After marrying actress Mary Beth Hurt in 1971, he signed up to study drama the following year at Julliard, where classmates included Christopher Reeve and Robin Williams. Plunging into summer stock amid the chaos of the 1970s, he caught eyes at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival of 1975; upon graduating from Julliard, he joined New York’s Circle Repertory Company. This immersion in theatrical life shaped his philosophy: “I had done sixty plays [including an acclaimed Hamlet in 1979] before I did a movie… I didn't want [the work] to be superficial, so I slowed down instead of speeding up.”

The approach paid off. After gathering some on-camera experience in a 1977 episode of TV’s Kojak, Hurt landed his first film role in a readymade cult classic: Ken Russell’s hallucinogenic head-trip Altered States (1980), where the actor’s intensity meshed entirely with Russell’s lunatic vision. A shrewd scriptreader, Hurt barely made a bad choice early on, succeeding in carving out a viable career as a thoughtful romantic lead at a time when American cinema was becoming the domain of steroidal action men. He demonstrated easy chemistry with his co-stars: a good match with Sigourney Weaver in Eyewitness (1981), he burned up the screen with Turner on Body Heat, and – despite some mutterings about his Methody approach – slotted nicely into the epochal ensemble of The Big Chill (1983).

Some turbulence followed this initial rise to prominence. Hurt divorced Mary Beth in 1982 having moved in with Sandra Jennings the previous year, but he finally achieved his dream of appearing on Broadway – and won a Tony – with Mike Nichols’ all-star 1984 production of David Rabe’s bruising Hollywood melodrama Hurlyburly. In his film choices, Hurt was becoming only more adventurous, waiving his fee and flying out to Brazil (where he was threatened by armed robbers) to occupy that early trans role in Kiss of the Spider Woman. The Oscar was reward for the risk, yet Hurt wrestled with the stardom it conferred upon him, asking Sally Field, who presented him with the gong: “Sally, what the hell do I do with this?” (Her response: “You live with it.”)

The 1990s found Hurt in steady employment, but the erstwhile young swain was starting to appear patrician or professorial: his Rochester in Franco Zeffirelli’s dingy Jane Eyre (1996) was the closest he came to a romantic lead. It felt natural that he should gravitate into Woody Allen’s world with Alice (1990), but his judgement had been clouded by heavy drinking, and his selectiveness began to count against him: he turned down both the James Caan role in Misery (1990) and Sam Neill's role in Jurassic Park (1993). His adventurousness flirted with waywardness, meanwhile, carrying him into Wim Wenders’ unfathomable Until the End of the World (1991), to Wales for the glum Second Best (1994) and into space for so-so spectacle Lost in Space (1998).

He’d settled into middle age by the millennium, remaining on casting agents’ radars as an indicator of class in supporting roles: as Professor Hobby in Spielberg’s singular A.I. (2001), Samuel L. Jackson’s sponsor in Changing Lanes (2002), one of the paranoid townsfolk in M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village (2004). These were flashes of quiet genius, but those ten minutes in A History of Violence were lightning in a bottle, testament to director David Cronenberg’s ability both to mould pulp into viscerally affecting art, and to guide a perpetual worrywart of a performer through his offscreen concerns. As Hurt confessed, “[Cronenberg] was so kind with me. I arrived ten days early. I filmed only for a couple of days. I’m of the belief there are no small roles. Only small actors.”

The Oscar nomination ensured him regular work in end-of-year awards bait: he reappeared among the ensembles of Syriana (2005) and the DeNiro-directed The Good Shepherd (2006), and was touching as the doomed Christopher McCandless’s distant father Walt in Sean Penn’s Into the Wild (2007). By the end of the decade, he’d embraced the authority roles he’d long seemed destined to play, facing an assassination threat as the President in tricksy thriller Vantage Point (2008) and – most profitably of all – assuming the military garb of General Thaddeus E. “Thunderbolt” Ross within the Marvel universe, first in The Incredible Hulk (2008) and then from CaptainAmerica: Civil War (2016): latter-day ensemble work, offering the kind of paycheques that can steady an ageing actor’s nerves.

In later life, Hurt moved back to Oregon, where he flew planes and quit the drinking that had earned him a difficult reputation; he renewed an apology to Matlin after revelations of offscreen physical abuse emerged in her 2009 memoir. He mixed film work with theatre gigs and blue-chip TV fare: the twisty legal saga Damages (2009), earning a Golden Globe nomination for playing Treasury secretary Henry Paulson in HBO’s Too Big to Fail (2011). In interviews, he grew more reflective yet: “When you’re a kid, you’re beset by fears and you think, ‘I’ll solve the fear by living forever and becoming a movie star.’ But I’m not going to live forever. And the more I know it, the more amazed I am by being here at all. I am so thrilled by the privilege of life, and yet at the same time I know I have to let it go.”

He is survived by four children: one son (Alexander) by Susan Jennings, two more (Willie and Samuel) by Heidi Henderson, and a daughter (Jeanne Bonnaire-Hurt) by the actress Sandrine Bonnaire.

William Hurt, born March 20, 1950, died March 13, 2022.

No comments:

Post a Comment