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10 Best William Hurt Movies of All Time

July 23, 2017
10 min read

“How’s your soul man” he asked me. He shook my hand and sat down, leaned in touched my legs, his hands on each knee, and repeated his question, staring intently into my eyes.

Great I thought, one of those.

My soul is fine I told him, how is yours I asked?

Struggling he asked, always struggling. He had obviously been told by his PR people about my accident and my ever present cane was close by.

He kept his hands on my legs and told me he could feel my pain, see it in my face, feel it in my legs. Great, I thought, a mystic. I just wanted to interview an actor, nothing more.

For a few short years in the eighties William Hurt was the top actor in Hollywood, adored by his peers, appreciated by his critics, no question he was an artist. Though he had the ability to keep his audience at a distance and could come across as cold, he had the gifts to slip into characters with the ease of pulling on a sock. When he dropped his wall, audiences warmed to him, seeing him as one of us. Very few actors have dominated a decade as a Hurt did the eighties, but when it stopped it was as though he was gone.

He won the Academy Award for Best Actor for Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985) after stunning with a debut performance in Altered States (1980) and surpassing that in the superb noir Body Heat (1981). For two consecutive years after winning his Oscar he was again nominated, and then after a fine performance in The Accidental Tourist (1988) and The Doctor (1991) he slipped from view.

He made a startling comeback in A History of Violence (2006) as an evil gangster and earned a nomination for supporting actor. He shows up now in supporting roles in big movies, no longer the leading man, still the gifted actor.

Said to be often pretentious or off the wall depending on how you take it, he is without question out there, yet sublimely gifted as an actor. How was he just left behind? He so dominated the eighties!

Here is the list of top 10 William Hurt movies. You can watch some of these best William Hurt movies on Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon Prime.

1. Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985)

Hurt won the Academy Award for his brilliant, transformative work here as a jailed homosexual, partnered with a militant warrior, acting out movie scenes for the fellow, superbly played by Raul Julia. When Hurt won his Oscar he stated, “I share this with Raul” who had incredibly not been nominated! Giving himself over to the character, he falls in love with his cell mate, who sees the beauty and goodness in him too, and they become lovers. Awakened to the state of the city, to the savagery of the regime in power, Luis (Hurt) agrees to help his lover without an awareness of the danger. His devotion to his friend is borne out of genuine love which is not reciprocated. Nonetheless with his wide, innocent eyes he does what is asked of him, which costs him his life. A superb performance, one of the times an acclaimed, major actor had portrayed a homosexual and created such a sensitive, vulnerable character.

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2. The Accidental Tourist (1988)

I love this film and Hurt in it. He portrays a broken writer of travel books, shattered by the murder of his son during a robbery, and neither he nor his wife, portrayed by Kathleen Turner can get by it. They separate, and he meets a kooky woman with a young son who works in a vets clinic. Unlike his wife in every way he is attracted to her and she has already set her sights on him. However the overwhelming grief he holds threatens to ruin what they have, and he runs back to what is familiar, his wife. Yet he realizes the young woman gave him something he and his wife have lost, joy and a will to live. Whether he likes it or not, he loves her and needs her. After three consecutive Oscar nominations, the Academy snubs him for this, one of his finest performances. Watch carefully the scene where he goes to the young woman to tell her about his son, his body language, the deep pain he still feels, that he will carry with him the rest of his life. But watch Davis too…two great actors beautifully in synch with one another, feeling for the other and listening.

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3. Body Heat (1981)

“You’re not to smart are you” she asks sizing him up, “I like that.” The moment Ned (Hurt) heard those words he should have run far away from her. The moment he first sees Maggie Kathleen Turner) he is smitten or at least sexually intrigued, he must have her. And he gets her without ever realizing she set him up from the very first meeting to kill her husband so she could inherit millions. She seduces zoned, gives to him mind blowing sex, and convinces him they will run off together. Only when he is in jail, believing her to be dead, does he put the pieces together that he was used and set up. Hurt is terrific here, his mind doing a slow burn, putting it all together. The sad part is he knows she is no good, he senses it, and listens to know one telling him to drop it all and run. His major breakthrough.

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4. Broadcast News (1987)

Being an actor who projects great intelligence, his role here as a dumb network news man on the rise proved quite a challenge for him. Making dumb believable is hard, especially when the actor is anything but. Surrounded by smart people who write what he says, he understands his role in the news, look good, dress well and speak directly into the camera as though he was talking to just one person. He has also learned how to manipulate what the camera sees. When he falls hard for a tough, tiny and brilliant news producer their life is complicated by honesty, she lives for it, he will manipulate it for his own good. Very aware of his own limitations intellectually, this is a guy who knows how to present himself even when he may not understand the news he reports.

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5. A History of Violence (2006)

Portraying a vicious gangster, boiling in rage at being passed over because of the actions of his brother, Hurt is quietly terrifying as Richie. Speaking with an odd yet arresting speech pattern, he does not turn up to the final half hour of the film, but when he does he all but steals the movie. Looking at his brother, who has come to make peace, asking Rivhie what it is he can do to amend the pass? Without hesitation Richie answers coldly, “You could die Joey…you could die” turning his back so his men can murder his brother where he stands. Chilling.

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6. The Big Chill (1983)

Nick, portrayed drolly by Hurt, went to Vietnam Nam after college and returned without his equipment or as he so poetically puts it, “they shot my balls off”. When his college friends gather for the funeral of one of their own, they get a chance to see what life has done to them. Hurt is the problem child, with no respect for authority or his close friends home. But he sees them all with biting clarity, as the best of our friends do. The film spoke to a lost generation, the hippy culture who believe they were never people than they were together in the sixties. Both very funny, yet wounded, Hurt gives the films best performance, and finds love, or at least love…not that can do much about it. Beautifully directed, written and especially acted.

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7. Altered States (1980)

This was Hurt’s first major role, working with visualistic wild-man Ken Russell in bringing the crazy Paddy Chayefsky script to the screen. As a scientist he uses an isolation tank to revert to primordial man, at first hallucinating, enabled by the mushrooms he acquired in Mexico but finally transforming, emerging from the tank having reverted to pre-man as a hairy ape/ man. Yet it goes further, eventually turning him into a mass of pre creation energy threatening to swallow he and His up. His love for her saves them, corny, but it works. The beauty of the performance is the amount of language Hurt speaks that makes sense to us as much of it is science speak.

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8. Into the Wild (2007)

Hurt is heartbreaking here, which might surprise some because he portrays such an arrogant, narcissistic person. A gifted scientist, he is father and husband, but we learn has walked away from another family he had entirely. Obsessed with how things look, he cannot handle it when his son just disappears, burns his ID, gives the rest of his college fund to Oxfam, abandons his car and heads into the wild to find himself. Fraught with guilt, devastated that his son could just walk away from him, it tears him apart. Watch the scene where Hurts walks into the street and collapses, sobbing, unable to hold it in anymore, knowing in some way he has contributed to his son’s doom. We dislike first, how can we not, but then see him as one of us, a parent pushed away, whose love runs deep, but he will not ever get the chance to tell him so. So much regret.

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9. The Doctor (1991)

Well cast as an arrogant, self-absorbed yet gifted surgeon suddenly afflicted with cancer, Hurt is outstanding and had it not been such a great year for leading actor, he would have been nominated. Cold though remarkable in the Operating Room he does not get close with his patients, choosing to keep a distance. Once diagnoses with cancer he experiences treatment from the other side and it will forever alter the manner in which he practices medicine. Oddly he closes his wife out choosing instead to let in a terminally ill young woman, who understands their plight. She dies, he lives and he honours her spirit by bringing all he has learned to his life and work. He emerges a very different doctor, kinder, gentler and very close with his patients. He discovers love.

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10. A. I. – Artificial Intelligence (2001)

Listen close and you can feel, hear, experience the pain in the voice of the scientist portrayed by Hurt. He has lost his son, and in portraying God brought David back a million times over as a robot, a near perfect replica of a human, with the ability to love. This is a haunted man, forever surrounded by hundreds of photos of David, and more, thousands of robots just like him. Is his life better or worse for it?

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