William Hurt changed my perception of acting. I was fourteen when I saw his performance in The Big Chill, so I was certainly old enough to realize that acting required effort beyond memorization and recitation to bring authenticity to a piece. I knew it was possible to delineate between good and not-so-good performances, and that the good performances had the ability to elevate a film, a play, or a television program. But my understand was still facile, based more on my response to qualities such as onscreen charisma or comic timing than an impulse to consider how an actor did, or didn’t, infuse moments with truth. I was susceptible to emotive spectacle in my assessments.
As Nick Carlton, Hurt transformed my view. He educated me through his commitment, his invention, his connectivity. I watched The Big Chill repeatedly. I practically memorized it, doing so with a special need to absorb the magma churn of Hurt’s performance, devoting myself to individual line readings like it was my responsibility to somehow transcribe them onto a page of sheet music. The scene where Nick finds a video camera and decides to interview himself is tattooed on my psyche.
I was — and remain — utterly mesmerized by what Hurt does in the scene. It’s performative within the context of the narrative. Nick is hamming it up as he fulfills both ends of the chat show–style interrogation, but Hurt keeps into noticeably grounded in the reflexive, self-protective demeanor he’s already established for the character. There are big choices in practically every line (the precise beats on “I could have, I chose not to,” the mocking announcer-voice in naming the San Francisco radio station where Nick once worked, the molasses-drip stretch of the second syllable in “evolved” when the questioner derisively lobs the subject’s language back at him), each of them tied to the character’s guarded expression of self, the ability to reveal his inner hurt and bruised vulnerability only through whip-smart clowning. It became more evident to me than before that an accomplished actor doesn’t play a scene, but instead plays a moment in a life, bound subtly but inextricably, to everything that has come before and will come after.
Hurt was as good of an actor as Hollywood had in the nineteen-eighties, and his accolades across the decade reflected that. Most impressively, Hurt collected leading actor Academy Award nominations in three consecutive years and likely just missed a fourth straight for Best Picture nominee The Accidental Tourist. The first of those three nominations, for refined work in Kiss of the Spider Woman, earned him the trophy, and his lauded efforts in Children of a Lesser God and Broadcast News were least the equal to the performance that put entertainment’s most celebrated trophy on his shelf. He probably deserved a couple more nominations, too, for his harrowing turn in Altered States and playing in-over-his-head lawyer Ned Racine in Body Heat at least. As certainly as Jack Nicholson in the nineteen-seventies, Hurt set the standard for great screen acting in his heyday.
Then the film business shifted, and it clearly grew increasing difficult for Hurt to find a place in it. Suddenly his skill set — simmering intellect, emotional acuity, tricky spin put on every shard of dialogue — was out of place in the pat entertainments preferred by the major studios. By the time Hurt was wedged into the movie adaptation of the nineteen-sixties sci-fi TV series Lost in Space, his scenes memorable only for the way he seemed to be utterly perplexed by the goofy props he had to handle as a star-trekking family’s patriarch, it was clear there was no longer a suitable home for him on filmdom’s firmament. There were still occasional opportunities for Hurt to show what he could do, notably in David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence (a true what-took-them-so-long pairing between director and actor), which earned him a fourth and final Oscar nod. That his last few professional years were largely spent in the losing battle of trying to inject personality into a clicking-cog supporting role in the Marvel movie machine is an indictment of the film industry as a whole. It shouldn’t take a side-trip episode of a geeky sitcom to give Hurt a chance to face off against other actors of his caliber in material designed to play to their strengths, but that’s where we are.
If Hurt deserved better in the long haul, it remains a gift — to him and to us — that he was given the space in front of a camera to prosper in the first place. The performances, and all the flinty invention they hold, are there for the viewing, ready to be discovered and rediscovered, to keep changing perceptions in the process.