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Art, Commerce and Hurt : William Hurt, once one of the hottest actors in film, has cooled considerably. : What happened and why? Such answers are hard to come by in Hollywood, but if you ask Hurt, things are fine.

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A decade ago, life was looking pretty good for William Hurt. In 1984, any filmmaker who wanted an ex plosive, sexy and thoroughly believable leading man thought first of Hurt, who had blasted onto the scene four years earlier with an attention-grabbing debut as the obsessed scientist in “Altered States.”

His steamy role opposite Kathleen Turner in “Body Heat” (1981) and his brooding presence in “The Big Chill” (1983), along with his strong theater background at New York’s Circle Repertory, secured his place as one of the most promising young actors of his generation. Janet Maslin, in a New York Times review of “Body Heat,” wrote: “Once again, Mr. Hurt establishes himself as an instantly affable screen star . . . He seems thoughtful and funny, yet he has a comfortable physical presence, too . . . As played by Mr. Hurt, Ned . . . is a likable enough leading character to hold the film together.”

But by 1985, when he won his first and only Academy Award for his bold performance as the flamboyant transvestite cellmate to Raul Julia’s political prisoner in “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” he was already becoming wary of the way the movie business operated. The honors, he found, were mitigated by doubts.

“It was very isolating,” Hurt says now of winning the Oscar. “The instant they gave it to me, I thought, God, what do I do now? How am I going to walk into a room and have any other actor trust me?”

Nevertheless, his next two movies, “Children of a Lesser God” (1986) and “Broadcast News” (1987), both earned him Oscar nominations and an estimated $1 million per role. It seemed, through much of the ‘80s, that he was unstoppable.

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But then, inexplicably, his career did stop--or just seemed to. Though he worked almost every year after playing the brilliantly dense TV newsman in “Broadcast News,” Hurt, as a movie presence, simply evaporated.

Off the screen, he’d already divorced his first wife, actress Mary Beth Hurt, in 1975, and in 1989, around the time of his breakup with Hollywood, Hurt was embroiled in a bitter palimony suit with dancer Sandra Jennings, with whom he’d had a son, Alex, now 11. It was also the year he met his second wife, Heidi Henderson, while they were undergoing alcohol and drug rehabilitation at the Hazelden center in Center City, Minn.

Starting in 1990, he was choosing roles in films like Wim Wenders’ overly ambitious “Until the End of the World,” the limp “Mr. Wonderful” and Camus’ “The Plague,” which flew straight to video. Even 1991’s “The Doctor,” which was made by a major studio (Disney) and starred Hurt, was largely forgettable. The films became so obscure, not only his fans but the studio executives who made him a star all but forgot about him. Moving to Paris, which he did after the breakup of his four-year marriage to Henderson, only worsened his alienation from Hollywood.

At age 44, William Hurt is at something of a career crossroads. He actually has two new movies out next month, “Trial by Jury,” from Morgan Creek, in which he plays a crooked ex-cop, and “Second Best,” from Warner Bros., a quiet tale set in Wales, but both are small films, far from the blockbusters he so badly needs to catapult him back to his mid-'80s glory.

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“He has no draw whatsoever,” says a baffled senior executive at a major studio, who nonetheless says he could still pull off a comeback. "(Hurt’s) name means nothing right now to studio people. He’s done a bunch of weird cameos, and no one can understand why. I think his managers and agents have done him a disservice by encouraging him to be off-the-wall.”

But Hurt, who says he makes his own decisions about work, sees it differently.

“Being ‘well-received’ is not what I want,” snaps Hurt, who looks at once benign and strangely debonair in his worn work shirt during a recent visit to New York. Born in Washington, D.C., and raised in the South Pacific and Manhattan, Hurt is now temporarily apart from his girlfriend, French actress Sandrine Bonnaire, the mother of their 6-month-old daughter (and his fourth child), Jeanne, both of whom are back in France. His beard, which creeps down his neck to just below his Adam’s apple, has grown in a few shades darker than his sandy hair, concealing most of his face.

Contrary to warnings that personal questions might inspire a “punch-up” with the private actor, Hurt is gracious and relaxed when he receives a guest for the first time. He pads across the carpet in socks and nylon sandals to offer a choice of tea bags from a plastic sack he’s smuggled into the hotel. But almost immediately after sinking comfortably into an overstuffed sofa, he unleashes a stream of articulate, though wildly manic, theories about what happened to Hollywood--a place, he says, where an artistic temperament is “casually bludgeoned on a daily basis"--and why his career has sputtered the way it has.

He addresses the system which made him a star with a bitterness that might be more appropriate for one of his many love affairs gone bad--the same ones that were making headlines even when his movies were not.

In Hurt’s version, anyway, he has been betrayed by a commercially minded studio system he says values personality over the process he studied at Juilliard and has used for years in roughly 70 theatrical productions, including his Tony award-winning performance in David Rabe’s “Hurlyburly.” Bluntly stating his irreconcilable differences with Hollywood, he says: “I’m coming from the notion that acting is an art. It is not a business. It is about building characters, not about selling personalities.”

It would be easy to dismiss Hurt’s early movie success as a bad match for the actor who stubbornly lists his occupation on his passport as “theater” even after making 16 movies and pocketing an Oscar.

The perverse fact--and problem with the theory--is that Hurt likes making movies. And while his two new movies may not be the high-profile commercial successes Hollywood is looking for, he says he really couldn’t care less.

So what does William Hurt care about?

“If a director tells me to make the audience think or feel a certain thing, I am instantaneously in revolt,” he says, enunciating this thought clearly and opening his blue eyes wide behind wire-framed glasses. “I’m not there to make anyone else think or feel anything specific. I have agreed to something the whole piece says. Beyond that it is my only obligation to solve the truth of the piece. I don’t owe anybody anything--including the director.”

This position is easy for Hurt, who says he is wary of most directors’ knowledge of acting. By escaping what he calls the corrupting Hollywood studio system, he is trying, he says, to rediscover joy in making movies. Hollywood, he claims, took that away from him. “It’s part of the plot that was concocted in the foundations of the studio system to separate the collaborators,” his conspiracy theory begins.

“The director is no longer the director--the port authority of ideas--he’s the hirer and firer, the bossman. They turned us all against each other. And by falsely glorifying the actor’s personality, you turn him into his worst trap--his own vanity, his ego.”

Which is where Hurt’s problems with so-called A-list actors, begins. “Are they A-list, or are they actors?” he asks with deadpan contempt. “For a lot of them, that’s not what I would call acting.”

Not surprisingly, directors are just as wary of him. His reputation for being difficult has caused every director to pause before professionally jumping into bed with Hurt. In fact, Hurt’s famous temper is often a result of his complex, sometimes close to insane need to inhabit his character.

“I think I give more by solving the truth than by pandering to expectations and facile hopes,” Hurt says of his methods, which for “Second Best” included spending several weeks with a Welsh farmer during lambing season. “I try not to give directors the easy stuff. I try to give them the stuff that’s true. That’s a gift. Some of them don’t perceive honesty as generous, and I find that very sad.”

According to Randa Haines, who directed Hurt in “Children of a Lesser God” and “The Doctor,” Hurt puts out so much raw emotion, it takes an especially attentive director to wade through it all to find the art.

“I never backed off,” says Haines, who says it was worth it. “But he’s had the experience where directors have abandoned him--because they’re not sensitive enough or they’re tired, or they just don’t understand what this person needs, and it’s worn Bill into the ground. He is a complicated man with a lot of demons. That was very clear when we were filming ‘Children,’ ” she says.

Sometimes, she says, in order to get at certain emotional content for a scene in that movie, she would provoke Hurt to violent outbursts. “It was almost as if that would free him to get to emotions that were not volatile--like some of the sweeter moments or the humor. People in the crew thought we were fighting with each other, but we were never in disagreement about the work; it was simply the process, which was difficult for people outside that to understand. Some actors need love and gentleness and support. Others need conflict--that was Bill, at that time.”

“The Doctor,” which they made together five years later, was a different story. “He was in a much better place emotionally,” notes Haines. “As a result, the process was much less painful.”

Even with Haines, whom he grew to trust, commercial concerns somehow tainted his memories of filming “The Doctor.”

“I’ve made a couple of films that were a little too wide and non-specific--like ‘The Doctor,’ ” says Hurt, adding that he was forced to shoot four endings for that film. “That’s a little humiliating. They had to drag me to work--ball and chain. That’s not right.” (Haines recalls pressure from the studio to shoot the final scenes in two, not four, subtly different ways.)

To avoid such problems in the future, Hurt is choosing his projects carefully. If “the play,” as he calls the script, appeals to his personal vision, a lengthy interview with the director will tell him whether he’ll be given the support--and environment--he needs to develop his character. If not, he simply won’t do it.

Director Wayne Wang (“The Joy Luck Club”), who is directing Hurt in “Smoke,” in which he plays a writer whose wife dies leaving him with a crippling writer’s block, says the actor’s rehearsal demands took precious time from the $5-million film, which is due out next year. But in the end, he was glad for the pressure Hurt applied.

“Every actor is difficult in his own way,” says Wang. “I respect Bill--he has such incredible passion for his craft. You can see it take to take. He would never stop. He’d keep finding different ways to do a scene, which is really rare.”

Heywood Gould, the director of “Trial by Jury,” the more commercial of his two imminent films, also gave Hurt the time he needed. He asked Hurt to play a supporting role of a corrupt ex-cop who works for a mob boss, he says, because he knew Hurt could raise the character beyond cliche.

“I wanted another side of that cop,” says Gould, who introduced Hurt to his character’s real-life counterparts. “Bill showed me the vulnerability of the character. I always knew he existed on some level, but I don’t think I could have explained it. Bill has something intangible. That’s why you ask Bill Hurt to be in your movie.”

And though Hurt brings enormous power to the roles he takes--he simply doesn’t have the eye, or the inclination, for making decisions based on career.

Not even director Chris Menges (“A World Apart”) foresees a box-office hit for “Second Best,” a character-driven story with a heavy moral undercurrent. “It doesn’t have enough violence or sex,” he says of his film. “But all one can do in the end is go for what moves you, and hope people can respond.”

Hurt did.

The screenplay, about a repressed man who finds himself through his love for a boy he adopts, hit a nerve for Hurt. “I made this movie as an ode to my own sons--especially my oldest son, Alex,” he says in a rare reference to his often-tumultuous personal life, as his voice drops to a whisper. “I’m never happier than when I’m with my family.” (His other sons are Samuel and William.)

But these days, living abroad, Hurt doesn’t see much of his sons, due to court rulings giving their mothers custody.

That’s why the work he’s choosing meticulously these days is so important. “I don’t want my children to have to wade through the crap to get to the cream, you know,” he says. “I want them to be aware that I struggled to live with and tell my truth, and that it was a decent thing."*


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