Actor William Hurt did a rather incredible thing about 20 years ago. After more than a decade as a dashing leading man, he took a sharp turn into character acting. He wasn’t too old to play a lead; he hadn’t lost his box office stature. He simply went in another direction. Here’s a little gallery of some of his more remarkable supporting roles.
A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE (2005)
Hurt earned an Oscar nomination for this role, playing a menacing, yet oddly engaging, gangster who confronts his estranged brother, played by Viggo Mortensen. The amazing thing is how effective he is despite the fact that he doesn’t appear until the end of the movie. I love seeing Hurt in more demonstrative parts, because it’s such a contrast to his subdued characters.
DARK CITY (1998)
Here’s a case where Hurt’s star stature works subtly to elevate a small role and add a new dimension. This is a sprawling, weird, engrossing sci-fi movie with constantly-altered realities and manipulation. Hurt wisely doesn’t try to amplify his role – a detective – but his mere presence is like a welcome anchor of sanity for the audience.
MR. BROOKS (2007)
Kevin Costner is a successful businessman who also happens to be a serial killer. He’s trying to tamp down his homicidal urges, but there’s one problem. Those urges constantly talk to him, in the form of William Hurt! It’s brilliant casting. Hurt is sarcastic, confident, critical and persistent.
In the Nora Ephron fantasy, “Michael,” Hurt is at the center of the story, playing a jaded tabloid reporter. Yet there’s never any doubt the star of the movie is John Travolta’s angel. This is perfect, because it allows Hurt to smolder and slowly unspool a bunch of emotions, big and small.
The challenge in a complex, political ensemble piece is to be believable and memorable without distracting the audience from following the story. In “Syriana,” Hurt deftly blends in as George Clooney’s CIA buddy. It’s a crucial role, in that Hurt fills in some important info to propel Clooney through the rest of the movie.
ONE TRUE THING (1998)
Complicated, distant characters are a Hurt specialty. This is one of his best, playing the scholarly husband of Meryl Streep, whose character is dying of cancer. We see his fear, his anger, his conceit and his aloofness, but also his concern and his own self-loathing at his failings.
This could have devolved into simple stunt casting, having Hurt guest star in a show headlined by his co-star from “The Big Chill,” Glenn Close. Instead, Hurt invested himself in a meaty, intricate part as a scheming scientist.
A quirky little movie, to be sure, but one with a very good performance by Hurt. He’s one of the customers of a Brooklyn cigar shop owned by Harvey Keitel. As the story unfolds, each character gets a chance for emotional healing, by virtue of slowing down, seeing the simple beauty of human interaction and understanding that life is as fleeting as a wisp of smoke.
INTO THE WILD (2007)
What a thankless job, playing the conflicted, controlling, stern father of a young man who tragically wanders out west and up to Alaska to find the meaning of life. And yet, Hurt is remarkable. In particular, he has an emotional scene in the middle of a street which is powerful and intelligent.
Mr. Hurt, we salute you.