William Hurt, a virtual unknown, shot onto the big screen in 1980 with Altered States and quickly became one of the most important actors of the decade. He starred in some of the biggest and most thoughtful films of the time. However by the end of the decade, severe personal problems including a highly publicized palimony case, allegations of abuse, and a dependence on drugs and alcohol wrecked his image, career, and almost his life.
Hurt seemed to disappear for a while, starring in foreign films with limited distribution and several movies that were less distinguished. However, he also used that time to seek help for his problems, underwent rehabilitation, and recovered to sobriety. He then resumed his passion for creating intense, sensitive, and fragile human characters year after year.
Despite his dominance in the 1980s, you don’t hear people talk about Hurt like other great actors of the time. But they should. Many of his films are classics and the depth of his characters is often the reason. His intensity, although typically less overt, always has an impact. His unmistakable voice and piercing eyes resonate long after the scene. His characters are often quiet and perhaps introverted, but speak volumes without saying anything. We read a deep set of emotions from his characters through a look, a word, or even a smile.
William Hurt, 6′ 2″, handsome, and intelligent was born in 1950 in Washington DC. He was raised in countries across the world including Guam, Somalia, and Sudan and is fluent in French. Hurt trained at the Juilliard School and has been nominated for six Golden Globes, two Emmys, and four Oscars over his distinguished career. He has won various prestigious awards including the Oscar for Best Actor in 1985 and received Academy Award nominations for Best Actor three years in a row. Only Marlon Brando has more consecutive Best Actor Oscar nominations (with four).
What follows is a list of some of William Hurt’s best films and performances.
20. I Love You To Death (Lawrence Kasdan, 1990)
I Love You To Death can be polarizing, but to those that like it there are few funnier films. The movie features great performances by Tracey Ullman, Kevin Kline, and River Phoenix (three years prior to his death). This was Phoenix’s only film with Hurt. Years later Hurt starred with River’s brother Joaquin in M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village.
I Love You To Death is a black comedy based on a true story of attempted murder. Kevin Kline plays Joey Boca, a married man with a wandering eye and years of cheating on his loyal wife, Rosalie Boca (played by Tracy Ullman). When Rosalie discovers Joey’s adulterous ways, she hires two hitmen (played by Hurt and Keanu Reeves) to do the job. The pair of hired guns are almost as incompetent as Rosalie. Hurt and Reeves are great as they flex their comedic muscles in this dark screwball comedy.
I Love You To Death is the fourth collaboration between director Lawrence Kasdan and Hurt. The others include the excellent films Body Heat, The Big Chill, and The Accidental Tourist.
19. The Yellow Handkerchief (Udayan Prasad, 2008)
A remake of a 1977 Japanese film favorite, The Yellow Handkerchief features William Hurt as Brett Hanson, an ex-con on the road released from a six-year jail sentence. Guilt, shame, and ghosts haunt the character as he faces his newfound freedom.
On the road he meets two teens looking for escape, connection, and forgiveness. A pre-Twilight Kristen Stewart stars as Martine, and Eddie Redmayne (Les Miserables, The Theory of Everything, and My Week with Marilyn) plays Gordy. The three form an unusual bond, pushing each other and growing as they face new challenges. The film is an interesting character study and the three leads excel in their roles. The film features Maria Bello (who also starred in “History of Violence” with Hurt) as Brett Hanson’s ex-wife.
The film was financed by four individuals searching to back a project that did not glorify sex or violence. These producers were less concerned over box office than being part of a good film with an emotional impact. They found “The Yellow Handkerchief”. The film is best to watch on a beautiful rainy day.
18. The Village (M. Night Shyamalan, 2004)
Say what you will about M. Night Shyamalan’s story twists and surprise revelations (or preferably withhold those thoughts and avoid kicking a director when their brand is down), The Village (2004) stars an amazing cast featuring Joaquin Phoenix, Bryce Dallas Howard, Sigourney Weaver, Adrien Brody, Michael Pitt, and Brendan Gleeson.
William Hurt plays Edward Walker, an elder of a community of villagers who have sealed themselves off from the world. In the nearby woods large, dangerous creatures loom and only avoid confrontation based on a fragile truce the villagers have made.
Hurt is something to watch in this film as his character sets a tone of paternity, devotion to the cause, and avoidance of evil. His character displays so much warmth and weight. His voice resonates and his eyes pierce off the screen when he empathizes with his family, friends, and even “those we don’t speak of.”
Twist endings aside, The Village is a quiet and interesting film that will keep you thinking, if you can get past the gimmick and the director’s ego.
17. Too Big To Fail (Curtis Hanson, 2011)
A horror story, Too Big To Fail is an account of the economic crisis that hit U.S. in 2008, the factors that drove it, and the steps that Washington and Wall Street made to attempt averting a national financial meltdown.
The movie focuses on the months prior to the 2008 presidential election. The respected investment bank Bear Stearns, has already been bailed out by the US government. The fourth-largest US investment bank, 150-year-old Lehman Brothers, is on the verge of bankruptcy. Multinational insurance corporation, AIG, is on the brink of implosion.
Other banks will potentially falling like dominoes if AIG fails and the crisis escalates. For ordinary Americans this would mean mass unemployment, business failure, bankruptcies, and home foreclosures. The entire U.S. economy was at risk of going into a depression deeper than experienced in the 1930s.
The film boasts an extremely impressive cast that includes James Woods, Ed Asner, Paul Giamatti, Cynthia Nixon, and Matthew Modine as the CEOs, politicians, and government officials at the center of the crisis. At the core of the film is U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson (played by William Hurt), who is trying to avert an even greater catastrophic financial collapse. Paulson negotiates, consults, scolds, and even begs for help from the most powerful people in the country to prevent a dire situation from becoming far bleaker.
Based on the bestselling non-fiction book by New York Times columnist Andrew Ross Sorkin, Curtis Hanson (director of LA Confidential, Wonder Boys, 8 Mile, and Losin’ It) directed the movie for HBO. The film was nominated for 11 Emmy Awards, including Outstanding Lead Actor by Hurt and Outstanding Miniseries/Movie.
Apocalyptic financial meltdown? Thank God it was only a movie.
16. Jane Eyre (Franco Zeffirelli, 1996)
Jane Eyre, is based on the classic Charlotte Brontë novel. Franco Zeffirelli (Romeo and Juliet (1968), The Champ) directed the film. The movie features Anna Paquin in her first role following “The Piano”, Joan Plowright, Maria Schneider (Last Tango In Paris), and the brilliant Charlotte Gainsbourg in an early English-speaking role.
The film takes place over several years; however, it is moderately condensed from the novel to fit into a two-hour movie. Paquin plays the young Jane Eyre, an orphan who is an outcast from her family and forced to love in a dreadful boarding school for girls. There she learns, grows, and eventually becomes a teacher.
Gainsbourg plays the mature Jane Eyre that leaves school looking for work. Jane is “plain” but independent and intelligent. She comes across the manor of Mr. Rochester (Hurt), and he hires Jane to work as governess for his ward, Adele. Soon after, Rochester and Jane fall deeply in love and seek to marry. However, Rochester harbors a deep dark secret that will impact all involved.
There have been many TV and film adaptations of this classic novel. Each has its strengths. This one is raw, honest, dark, devastating, and haunting. Hurt plays the role with warmth and restraint, and Gainsbourg shows she is a force to reckon with.
15. The Doctor (Randa Haines, 1991)
The film The Doctor is based on a memoir A Taste of My Own Medicine by Dr. Edward E. Rosenbaum, about his own experiences becoming a patient. Dr. Rosenbaum was diagnosed with throat cancer experiences the world of hospitalization from the other side. In his book, he launched an unflinching criticism of his profession and helped illuminate what it means to be a good doctor.
In the film, Hurt plays Jack McKee, a rich, successful doctor who seems to have it all. However, below the surface, his relationships with the people that matter are lacking. McKee is unavailable to his sons, distant with his wife, and totally deficient in bedside manner with his patients. He is rude and self-centered, to put it mildly. Everything changes, however, when McKee’s cough turns out to be something more serious. Spitting up blood, Dr. McGee is diagnosed with throat cancer.
While the cancer is punishing his body, Dr. McKee experiences rude, insensitive treatment by doctors (despite being a respected doctor). Through the experience Dr. McKee begins to understand his own failings. Hurt excels as he transitions from being an egotistical jerk to a sympathetic hero of sorts. The Doctor was directed by Randa Haines (who also directed Children of a Lesser God).
14. Gorky Park (Michael Apted, 1983)
In the 1980s, director Michael Apted had a string of thoughtful films that included Coal Miner’s Daughter and Gorillas in the Mist. In 1983, Apted’s Gorky Park was one of the highlights and starred Lee Marvin, Brian Dennehy, and William Hurt.
Hurt plays Arkady Renko, a Soviet policeman investigating a murder near a skating rink in Gorky Park. Renko soon discovers there is more to the crime than expected, as the KGB take over the investigation. Renko soon meets William Kirwill, an American detective searching for his lost brother (Dennehy), Jack Osborne an American sable importer (Marvin), and Jack’s girlfriend Irina (the gorgeous Joanna Pacuła). Soon, several of the characters are in over their heads as they inch closer to the perpetrator(s) of the crime.
In addition to a suspenseful plot and the intricate details on police procedure, is the depth in which the characters are portrayed. The year 1983 was at the height of the cold war between U.S. and Soviet Union. This is the year Reagan first characterized the Soviet Union as the “evil empire” in a speech to the National Association of Evangelicals. Reagan also first proposed the Star Wars (Strategic Defense Initiative) in 1983.
This marked a definite low point in the relationship between the two world powers. The film, on the other hand, portrays a more complex country with heroes and villains, corruption and bravery. This is definitely a film worth revisiting, especially as the U.S.-Russian relationship is again strained.
13. Mr. Brooks (Bruce A. Evans, 2007)
Mr. Brooks was directed by Bruce A. Evans. While not a household name, Evans was co-screenwriter for Stephen King’s, Stand By Me, one of the best and most adored Stephen King adaptations. He also co-wrote the screenplay for John Carpenter’s beloved “Starman” with long-time collaborator Raynold Gideon.
Mr. Brooks stars Kevin Costner as a well-respected businessman and William Hurt as Marshall, Mr. Brooks’ dark, blood-thirsty alter-ego. Whereas Mr. Brooks is rational, cool, and methodical, Marshall is primal with a significant fetish for murder. Hurt plays Mr. Brooks’ alter-ego to a tee, driving compassion for his addiction to blood, even as we are repulsed by his actions. When the two characters come together, whether it be Hurt’s depraved whispers or the two men sharing a hearty laugh, we don’t need CGI to believe that these men could meld into one.
While Mr. Brooks is a flawed film that tries to do too much, it has garnered a strong cult following due to the dual performance for one of the most memorable serial killers portrayed on screen in recent years. The film also stars Demi Moore as detective (perhaps inspired by Michael Mann’s “Manhunter”) and Dane Cook as a witness to a crime that maybe gets in too deep.
12. A.I. Artificial Intelligence (Steven Spielberg, 2001)
A.I. Artificial Intelligence is a film developed by Stanley Kubrick, directed by Steven Spielberg, and stars Haley Joel Osment as David, a child android (or Mecha) built by Cybertronics. Unlike other androids which were designed for specific jobs and tasks, David, a prototype, was built solely to love and be loved by parents imprinted in his brain. Being a prototype, David is “adopted” by an employee at Cybertronics as a test model and to be a surrogate of love for a family that has temporarily lost their only child.
The film is exceptional in many ways as it challenges our definition humanity and the abilities we take for granted (compassion, loving others, and awareness of self). At almost every turn, David (an android) displays more humanity than the humans he encounters.
William Hurt stars as Professor Allen Hobby, the creator of David. In an especially moving scene, David returns to Cybertronics searching for his mother, and going through hell to get there. Instead of finding his mother he meets Professor Hobby, his actual father, for the first time.
Professor Hobby who is brilliant and knows better than anyone what David is experiencing emotionally, is clueless as a human being. He is more excited about the capabilities of his creation than in responding like a human to another being that is suffering. Watching Osment and Hurt together is heartbreaking and great cinema. While the film is sometimes polarizing with audiences, it is often hailed as one of the great science fiction films of all time.
11. Alice (Woody Allen, 1990)
Alice is a fantasy film written and directed by Woody Allen, and influenced by Federico Fellini’s Juliet of the Spirits. Mia Farrow stars as the title character, a NYC housewife, married with two children, but with an unspecified dissatisfaction in her life. When issues begin to bubble up and she experiences back pain, she seeks the help of an herbalist named Dr. Yang (played by Keye Luke).
Dr. Yang identifies her problems as being due to psychological turmoil. He prescribes special herbs (that among other things) give her the power to be invisible. William Hurt plays Alice’s wealthy husband Doug. While Doug is handsome, charming, and persuasive, he also has some secrets.
Alice is a sentimental favorite of Woody Allen fans who enjoy his use of magical realism in film (e.g., Purple Rose of Cairo and Midnight in Paris). Alice was nominated for a 1990 Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay and was Hurt’s only collaboration with Allen. It is a film worth checking out.