William Hurt’s 10 best films

William Hurt, best-known for portraying thoughtful and, at times, morose characters, has died of prostate cancer at age 71. A classically trained actor, he had an extensive background in stage plays. Not content to be typecast, Hurt took a variety of different roles, and was a darling of film critics. Today we reflect on the man and a career of surprising choices. These are the 10 agreed-upon best of his films, in no particular order.

Altered States

Altered States, loosely based on the experimentations of John C. Lilly, is a 1980 film masterpiece directed by Ken Russell. William Hurt plays Dr. Edward Jessup, whose experiments with LSD and sensory deprivation technology would bring him to the absolute verge of sanity and, ultimately, humanity. John Lilly developed isolation tanks in the 1950s, which are still used today. The film is a fascinating portrait of a man driven to prove his scientific theories and break new ground in the area of anthropology by any means necessary. William Hurt delivers a gut-wrenching performance the likes of which are sure to be analyzed for years to come.

The Big Chill

A crowd-pleaser in every sense of the word, The Big Chill is one of those unforgettable ensemble cast ’80s films we simply never get tired of watching. Hurt plays psychologist Nick Carlton, part of a group of college pals of Alex Marshall, who recently committed suicide. The group congregates at the home of two of the friends and spend the weekend reminiscing, crying, and confessing, all to a spectacular soundtrack.

Kiss of the Spider Woman

Kiss of the Spider Woman is an important film, in that it portrays the love between two men at a time when the severe phobia of such a romance was at an all-time high due to the aids epidemic. Hurt plays Luis Molina, a man imprisoned in Brazil in the 1960s. A difficult role, he was said to have worked for SAG scale. The result is a fantastic marriage of actor and role, with a surprising, tragic ending.

Children of a Lesser God

In Children of a Lesser God, Hurt plays James Leeds, a new teacher at a school for the deaf. The film plays out as a portrayal of the gap between hearing and deaf culture. Hurt pursues a young, deaf janitor, Sarah, played by Marlee Matlin. James seems incapable of minding that gap, and ends up with a broken heart. All that is needed is a little bit of patience and understanding, as James helps Sarah work through past wounds.

Broadcast News

Holly Hunter as Jane Craig is a news producer whose network hires news anchor Tom, played by Hurt. The two, accompanied by Albert Brooks as Aaron Altman, form a tenuous love triangle in Broadcast News. This much-loved film showcases Hurt’s talent of playing the clueless leading man.

Body Heat

As hot as it gets (for the ’80s, at least) Body Heat introduced audiences to the feral Kathleen Turner as Matty Walker. Hurt, as Ned Racine, is beguiled by Matty and wishes to help her give up her vows. This is the first time we see Hurt play a character we don’t actually like, but he’s still achingly handsome, and the finale of the film is something to behold. Hitting all the marks, the movie is a William Hurt fan favorite.

The Accidental Tourist

In The Accidental Tourist, Macon Leary (Hurt) has made a career of avoiding pitfalls while traveling. It’s a metaphor for his life, seemingly, and his marriage is crumbling under the weight of his inability to waiver from his routines and rituals. We see him soften up substantially as he meets and falls in love with Muriel, played by Geena Davis, and we realize that maybe there’s hope for him after all.

I Love You to Death (1990)

Playing a tertiary character in this film, Harlan James, brother of Marlon James, it barely made it to the list due to the brief amount of time Hurt is actually on screen. We’re used to seeing him as a leading man, after all. But such a departure it is from his usual roles, and so hilarious, we had no choice! I Love You to Death is supposedly based on the true story of a woman who decides to kill her unfaithful husband, and enlists the help of various friends and acquaintances. Hurt’s performance is nothing short of brilliant.


In Smoke, written by Paul Auster, the main character is actually a cigar store, Brooklyn Cigar Co. Hurt plays Paul Benjamin, a grieving widower who frequents said cigar store. A true Gift of the Magi, this is a tale of sacrifice, for all involved.

A History of Violence

With A History of Violence, you’ve got David Cronenberg, you’ve got William Hurt, Ed Harris, and Viggo Mortensen, what more could you possibly ask for? And a fabulous story by John Wagner and Vincent Locke, to boot. Perhaps the best film and the best Hurt performance on our list, watching this movie is like trying to cross a busy highway on foot. William Hurt was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor that year.