The Overlooked Greatness of William Hurt

For about eleven years, William Hurt may have been the greatest actor on earth. Beginning in 1980 with Ken Russell’s mind-bending Altered States through to Randa Haines’ The Doctor in 1991, Hurt was unassailably magnificent in everything he did. He could exude warmth and tenderness (Children of a Lesser God, Kiss of the Spider Woman), play brilliant men (The Doctor, The Accidental Tourist), and also characters who aren’t as smart as they think they are (Body Heat), or, in the case of Broadcast News, a man who knew he wasn’t all that bright, but was just intelligent enough to know how to get ahead on looks and confidence – in short, he could do anything.

Over that decade plus, Hurt was nominated for three best actor Oscars (Children, Kiss of the Spider Woman – for which he won – and Broadcast News). He could have (and should have) been nominated for Body Heat and The Accidental Tourist as well. Even in his second tier films during that period (Eyewitness, Gorky Park, Woody Allen’s Alice), he was so eminently watchable that not only could you not take your eyes off of him, you could forgive the more pedestrian aspects of those films.

While no one would accuse Hurt of being an actor incapable of emoting, I always felt his greatest gift was in the unsaid. You could look at William Hurt and see him taking in information, ever-present. If one could visualize a person thinking, as if thoughts were not made up simply of concepts but of solid matter, that matter might well take on the image of William Hurt’s slightly furrowed brow. I’m always amazed by actors who make silence and stillness a gift. What confidence that must require. To do nothing externally while everything is going on inside of your character and trust that the audience will connect and not lose interest. At his peak, no one did that better than William Hurt.

It is a mystery to me why that peak was so short. Hurt lacked for nothing. He was handsome, brilliant, and relatable. Most of his films over that era were not only critically well received, but box office successes as well (The Big Chill being the most massive). Hurt was in-demand, marketable, and without peer. 

And just like that, it all went away.

While Hurt did pepper the last thirty years of his resume with art-house successes (Smoke, Jane Eyre, One True Thing, Into The Wild), cashed some high grade paychecks for Marvel, and dropped in for small parts in some other notable films (even scoring a fourth Oscar nomination in the category of supporting actor for David Cronenberg’s masterful A History of Violence), he never came close to recapturing the heat that radiated with his every step from 1980 to 1991. Looking over the last three decades of his career, I am struck by how few of his roles were leads, the paucity of memorable films, and how, in even the high profile films he was a part of, he was an accent color and not the core of the artistic work.

Maybe it was bad choices, bad luck, or a combination of the two, but I can think of hardly any actors who fell from the top of the ladder so quickly and so silently as Hurt did. In some ways, it’s almost as if he stuck around so long and kept so busy (he has just over 100 credits to his name) with projects that didn’t meet his mettle that we simply forgot just how great he was. 

How many actors can you name who had a decade-long stretch as remarkable as Hurt’s peak? Pacino? DeNiro? Washington? I suppose those are good matches. But the fact that his name belongs next to theirs when considering Hurt at his best just tells you how rare the air was when he was sailing through it.

Simply put, William Hurt was one of the finest actors of his generation. The last thirty years of his hit and miss career should not overshadow that fact. 

William Hurt died today. He was 71 years old.

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