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

William Hurt stars in Kiss of the Spider Woman in 1985

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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, who was 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.

Hurt took on the role of Luis Molina, in prison for raping an underage boy. He shares his cell with a political revolutionary, Valentin Arregui, played by Raul Julia. The film follows their budding relationship as Luis creates fantasy stories based on his favourite film 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.”

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.

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