William Hurt dead: The extraordinary story behind his Oscar-winning performance

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Hurt shocked the film industry and movie-goers in 1985. He had last been seen on screen in 1983 as a Vietnam vet in The Big Chill and as a tough Russian officer in the thriller Gorky Park. His appearance as a cross-dressing, effeminate homosexual in a Brazilian prison brought him BAFTA, Oscar and Cannes Film Festival Best Actor awards. The Kiss of the Spider Woman had been a traumatic labour of love for the star, who deferred his own payment to help get the film made. However, he was quickly terrified by what he had taken on and initially struggled with the role. The shoot was rife with personal dramas and things only got worse in post-production, when it was rejected by every film distributor.

Kiss of the Spider Woman was based on the 1976 Manuel Puig novel, which had been adapted into a 1985 West End play, starring Mark Rylance and Simon Callow. A 1993 Broadway musical would also follow.

Burt Lancaster was originally attached to the role before Hurt came on board as Luis Molina, a flamboyant and troubled man in prison for raping an underage boy. He shares his cell with a political revolutionary, Valentin Arregui, played by Raul Julia, after Richard Gere dropped out. The film follows their budding relationship as Luis creates fantasy stories based on his favourite film, which are brought to life throughout the movie, to comfort and distract Valentin. 

Early on in the Sao Paolo film shoot, director Hector Babenco, found the star in his dressing room dressed in women’s clothes, caked in make-up and “freaking out.”

At their very first meeting in New York, Babenco was convinced Hurt was wrong for the part: “This man, too American for my Latin American eyes, a Montana boy could never play this man I love.”

The actor was actually from Washington, DC, and had trained at the prestigious Juilliard.

However, something magical happened during the first read-through of the script and Babenco saw Hurt transformed “like a wounded bird,” and was brought to tears.  

So, when Banco saw his leading man struggling on set he told him to imagine he was someone with the body of a boxer who desperately wanted to be a graceful dancer. Once he understood that internal conflict and contradiction they would then work on the exterior looks.

Hurt worked with choreographer Mara Borba, who played Luis’ imagined creation, the Spider Woman, in fantasy scenes. He would walk behind her, studying her movements and called on her help throughout the shoot.

He also spent time with homosexual castmate Patricio Bisso, visiting gay bars and cinemas. Hurt continued to struggle but eventually had breakthrough when he started to approach Luis as “a woman trapped in a man’s body” rather than simply as a homosexual.

Hurt and Raul Julia struggled with chemistry during tortuous early rehearsals and experimented with role swapping to understand each other’s character better. Meanwhile, Hurt and Babenco constantly clashed and eventually would not speak to each other.

Hurt later admitted he could be challenging to work with, but he gained enormous affection from the crew when they saw his and Julia’s dedication to their roles. The two actors would be found at all hours rehearsing, even at weekends, while the crew would secretly watch them.

Producer David Weisman said: “I don’t know two men who got into each other’s souls as thoroughly as these two guys.”

Assistant director Amilcar Monteiro Claro described how the entire crew came to the airport to pay respect to Hurt when he left: “He won them over with his personality and integrity, his sincerity and commitment to his work”.

Filmed on a tight budget of $1.1million, Hurt and Julia only took minimum industry union wages and basic living costs. But the chaotic 60-day shoot ran 40 days over with daily script revisions.

In post-production, word began to spread that the film was a mess and Julia was horrified when he saw the first cut: “What happened to the movie? What happened to all our great work?!” 

The fantasy sequences had taken over the film, swamping the main narrative and Hurt was so angry he wanted to buy the negatives and burn them, so it could not be released. After seven months of post-production, no distributor would touch the film.

Babenco was forced to make major cuts, while Hurt and Julia spent five weeks dubbing in dialogue which restored the focus on their reolationship.

The film was finally revealed at the Cannes Film Festival in May 1985, where it caused a sensation, before opening in the US that July.

Despite its arthouse themes, and challenging narrative and content, Kiss of the Spider Woman made back more than eight times its budget.  It went on to become the first indie release to win the Best Film Oscar, while Hurt was the first star to win for playing an openly gay character. He would be nominated the next year for Children of A Lesser God, and again in 1987 for Broadcast News.

In a career that spans Marvel to Shakespeare on stage, it is fitting that his Oscar win remains his most memorable and admired performance.

 



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