10. Children of a Lesser God (Randa Haines, 1986)
Children of a Lesser God is a love story based on the play of the same name and directed by Randa Haines in her directorial debut. Five years later Hurt would team up with Haines again for the film The Doctor.
The film stars Marlee Matlin as Sarah, a beautiful and emotional deaf custodian at a school for the hearing impaired. She is bound by her world without sound and is unwilling to explore outside these confines. Hurt plays James Leeds, a new teacher at the school, with some less conventional ideas about teaching the deaf. The two meet and eventually fall in love, but struggle over communication and bridging their lives together.
While Hurt was nominated for his second consecutive Oscar, Matlin won Best Actress at the Golden Globes and the Oscars. Matlin, deaf since a toddler, is the only deaf actress to ever win such accolades.
During the filming, Hurt and Matlin fell in love in real life and began a two-year relationship. In her best-selling memoir in 2009, Matlin recounted tales of drug and alcohol dependence and physical abuse in their tumultuous relationship. In addition to Hurt’s drug and alcohol problems, Matlin also struggled with cocaine addiction since a teenager, bouncing in and out of rehab.
The result was not pretty. Both actors have since recovered, sobered, and moved on with their lives. Hurt offered a public apology to Matlin for his actions.
9. Smoke (Wayne Wang and Paul Auster, 1995)
Smoke partners William Hurt with Harvey Keitel in a moving film that centers around a Brooklyn tobacco shop. Keitel plays Auggie, the store manager. People come and go through the shop and the film features a diverse cast that includes Forest Whitaker, Ashley Judd, Stockard Channing, Harold Perrineau Jr, and Victor Argo. In addition to managing the smoke shop, everyday Auggie immerses himself into his life project, shooting photographs from outside of his shop at almost exactly the same angle and depth.
Hurt plays Paul Benjamin, a widower and one of Auggie’s regular customers. In a truly moving scene, Auggie shows Paul “his life work”, the series of photographs he’s taken over the years from outside his store. When Paul states that all the photos look the same, Auggie teaches Paul how to see. Each photograph is different and it is the details that tell story. And as Paul begins to understand he comes across one image that rocks his world, a photograph of his deceased wife when times were happier.
Smoke is a quirky film about the human condition, and a true gem directed by Wayne Wang (The Joy Luck Club, Chinese Box) and Paul Auster (who also wrote the screenplay).
8. The Big Chill (Lawrence Kasdan, 1983)
William Hurt’s second collaboration with director Lawrence Kasdan was the cultural touchtone, The Big Chill. With an all-star cast including Kevin Kline, Glenn Close, Jeff Goldblum, Tom Berenger, JoBeth Williams and a soundtrack that was one of the most popular soundtracks of the decade, the film was a phenomenon.
The big chill is transition that occurs as we move from our idealistic youth to a more self-centered, egotistical construct of the world. In the film, a group of 1960s college friends reunite for an extremely somber occasion, the funeral of a close friend that committed suicide. The characters grieve and become reacquainted with each other through discussion, laughter, flirting, and fighting.
Hurt is at the emotional core of the film playing Nick, a damaged Vietnam Vet that struggles to maintain his sense of self. Nick deals with his situation and the demise from his ideals by escaping through drugs. Nick’s character is a blatant reminder that loss of one friend is not the only thing at stake. They are all vulnerable to losing what is important.
The film is sometimes criticized for sentimentality and narcissism. But to many, it has characters and themes that evoke extremely strong sentiment and thought.
7. Dark City (Alex Proyas, 1998)
Alex Proyas, director of The Crow, created the noir science fiction masterpiece, entitled Dark City, which Roger Ebert named as the best film of 1998. Ebert was a huge advocate for this film.
The film is a nightmare on screen. Rufus Sewell stars as John Murdoch, a man who has lost his memory and is wanted for murder. A group of individuals called “the strangers” control the city and alter it by utilizing unique powers over its inhabitants. The city exists without sunlight; it is permanently night in Dark City.
William Hurt stars as inspector Frank Bumstead who is pursuing Murdock in connection to the murder. Hurt plays Bumstead with seriousness, intensity, and compassion. The film also stars the stunningly beautiful Jennifer Connelly, Kiefer Sutherland, and Richard O’Brien (of The Rocky Horror Picture Show).
Dark City has become a cult classic and has influenced numerous filmmakers over the years. If viewing Dark City, seek out the director’s cut. Like Blade Runner, the director’s cut omits much unnecessary exposition from the opening narration.
6. The Accidental Tourist (Lawrence Kasdan, 1988)
The Accidental Tourist is William Hurt’s third collaboration with director Lawrence Kasdan and is based on the best-selling novel by Anne Tyler. It was nominated for Best Picture and lead to an Oscar win for Geena Davis for Best Supporting Actress. It is also Hurt’s second film with Kathleen Turner.
Hurt plays Macon Leary, a travel writer for business people that hate travel and want to avoid the hassles of being away from home. After the death of Macon’s son, his distraught wife Sarah (Kathleen Turner) leaves him as their marriage begins collapse.
Following the loss, Macon moves back to his hometown to live with family. He hires Muriel Pritchett (Geena Davis), a quirky dog trainer, to help him with his disobedient canine. Macon is a character who has dedicated his life and career to keeping emotional distant from others. When he meets Pritchett, it creates a new stage in his life which might open him to growth or leave him even more isolated.
Hurt was nominated for Best Actor three years in a row from 1985 to 1987. While many have pointed to his 1988 performance in The Accidental Tourist as being his 4th Oscar-contending role, it is likely that his personal problems and impending palimony trial ruined this possibility. Soon after this film, Hurt transitioned from predominantly playing Hollywood’s leading man to taking on exceptional character roles.
5. A History of Violence (David Cronenberg, 2005)
David Cronenberg’s 2005 masterpiece is based on a graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke. A History of Violence is unlike many of Cronenberg’s prior films which typically have a horror/sci-fi edge. In the film, Viggo Mortensen plays Tom Stall a local diner owner in a small town based in the fictional Millbrook, Indiana. When two gangsters wreak havoc on the town and threaten the diner patrons, Tom steps in and corrects the situation.
Tom’s heroics make national news. However his newfound celebrity generates several problems that he will need to deal with. His biggest problem is Richie Cusack (played by Hurt), the lead crime boss from a syndicate in Philadelphia who has a special interest in him.
Hurt excels in this character-driven role. His depiction of Richie Cusack won accolades from critics and audiences alike. He was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, the fourth Oscar nomination of his career. He also won awards for Best Supporting Actor from Austin Film Critics Association, New York Film Critics Circle, and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association.
4. Altered States (Ken Russell, 1980)
Altered States was Paddy Chayefsky’s final film and it is based on the only novel written by the three-time Oscar winning writer. Chayefsky’s Oscars for screenwriting include Marty (1955), The Hospital (1971), and Network (1976).
Altered States was William Hurt’s first feature film and his break-out performance. Hurt plays Eddie Jessup, a graduate student studying the impact of sensory deprivation with an isolation chamber and using himself as a subject. Years later, Jessup, a professor of psychology, begins studying schizophrenia.
He immerses himself into some new experiments that combine sensory deprivation with powerful hallucinogenic drugs that he acquired from a mystical Mexican Indian tribe. Jessup’s states of reality and hallucination begin to merge, leading to possible permanent physical, psychological, and spiritual change and deterioration.
The film was directed by the Ken Russell, who also created Tommy, Lair of the White Worm (based on the Bram Stoker novel), and Crimes of Passion (with Kathleen Turner and Anthony Perkins). Altered States is the film debut for Drew Barrymore who plays his daughter, Margaret Jessup.
Nominated for two academy awards, Altered States is one of the groundbreaking films of the 1980s and a must-see for Science Fiction fans. It also had a direct impact on Hurt’s propensity for science fiction roles which dominate the latter half of his career.
3. Kiss of the Spider Woman (Hector Babenco, 1985)
In 1985, William Hurt played Luis Molina in the critically acclaimed Kiss of the Spider Woman based on the novel of the same name. The film received four Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. Only Hurt took home the Oscar that night. He won for Best Actor, beating out the likes of Jack Nicholson, James Garner, Jon Voight, and Harrison Ford.
Hurt plays Luis Molina, a flamboyant homosexual window dresser that is jailed in South America for immorality. To deal with his incarceration, Luis loses himself in fantasy. He daydreams and pontificates about his favorite movie, a Nazi propaganda film, often interweaving new facts and images. His cellmate, Valentin Arregui (Raul Julia), is a political prisoner due to his affiliation with revolutionaries. Valentin is routinely tortured for his actions. The film throws the men together and focuses on their changing relationship, their struggles, and their secrets.
Almost 30 years ago when gay characters were few, negative, and stereotypical, William Hurt portrayed Luis Molina with depth, humanity, and charm. He is the first person to win an Academy Award for portraying a gay person.
In an extremely short acceptance speech, he calls out to his co-star “I share this with Raul” and thanks “the courageous people in Brazil with whom I made this film. Saudade”. Saudade is one of those words that have no direct equivalent in English. It is sometimes described as a longing for something that may never happen again, or may never have happened at all. Saudade.
2. Body Heat (Lawrence Kasdan, 1981)
Body Heat is a Neo Noir written and directed by Lawrence Kasdan (the screenwriter for two of the original Star Wars films, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and other classics). Body Heat was Mr. Kasdan’s directorial debut and his first (and steamiest) collaboration with William Hurt.
Hurt plays Ned Racine, a sleazy Florida-based lawyer that starts an illicit affair with Matty played by the beautiful and seductive Kathleen Turner. Later, Matty convinces Ned to kill her husband in a plot to become free from her marriage and rich beyond their dreams. Of course, plans don’t always work out as they should.
The film was inspired by Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944) and Tay Garnett’s The Postman Always Rings Twice. However Body Heat is unique and dark in its own right. The film also stars Mickey Rourke in his first memorable film role and Ted Danson as an Assistant Prosecutor from the firm.
It is recommended you watch this film on a hot, humid, summer night with someone you are immensely attracted to, but not necessarily in love with. Hang on tight and don’t turn your back.
1. Broadcast News (James L. Brooks, 1987)
James L. Brooks wrote and directed this romantic comedy-drama that transcends the genre. This was the second feature film directed by James Brooks after his 1983’s heartbreaking Terms of Endearment.
Broadcast News stars Holly Hunter as Jane Craig, the excitable and dramatic producer of a news program, Albert Brooks as Aaron Altman, an awkward but authentic news reporter, and William Hurt as Tom Grunick, a local sports correspondent hired to be the lead news anchor, but without a background in news reporting. Tom is handsome, charming, and a good communicator but without the substance to his new segments.
A love triangle develops and these characters could have easily become caricatures. Instead, each of the cast is unique, living, and breathing. Holly Hunter’s Jane is at her most frenetic and sexy as her conscience and libido battle over her relationship with Tom.
In one of the most memorable scenes, Aaron calls Tom the devil. “Nobody is going to be taken in by a guy with a long, red, pointy tail!… He will be attractive! He’ll be nice and helpful. He’ll get a job where he influences a great God-fearing nation. He’ll never do an evil thing!… he will just bit by little bit lower our standards where they are important”.
Not since the 1976 film “Network” has a movie provided such an accurate critique of the news industry. And even as we agree with every negative thing that Aaron says, we can’t help but love, understand, and root for the relationship between Jane and Tom. That is why Hurt is so great.
The film was nominated for seven Academy Awards including Best Picture and Hurt was nominated for Best Actor for the third consecutive year. However in 1987, “greed was good” and Michael Douglas took home the trophy for Wall Street.
Author Bio: Michael Apostolidis is movie fanatic and an aspiring filmmaker born in Queens NY and living near Chicago. He has written and directed three short films. He enjoys a wide variety of film genres including sci-fi, indies, classics, and trash cinema.