Tag Archives: William Hurt

Kiss of the Spider Woman

kissofthespiderwoman 3
Kiss of the Spider Woman

Format: Blu-ray, DVD, VOD

Release date: 25 January 2016

Distributor: Curzon Artificial Eye

Director: Hector Babenco

Writer: Leonard Schrader

Cast: William Hurt, Raúl Juliá, Sonia Braga, José Lewgoy, Milton Gonçalves

Brazil, USA 1985

118 mins

The story of the friendship between a political prisoner and his gay cellmate remains as potent and provocative as it was in 1985.

Thirty years on from its Cannes-feted debut, Hector Babenco’s adaptation of Manuel Puig’s 1976 prison-based novel has lost none of its dramatic power. Beautifully restored, this anniversary release, complete with a disc of extras (interviews, commentaries, etc), offers a timely reminder of a bold and brassy classic that challenged social and political norms in a magnificent manner.

The plot centres on a pair of seemingly mismatched prisoners: political activist Valentin (Raúl Juliá) and his gay cellmate, Molina (William Hurt). The latter recounts a tale of forbidden love, set during World War II, between a French chanteuse and a Nazi officer – a postmodern device, typical of the time, that offers a noir film within a film, and which also helps emphasise the poignancy of the film’s title. Molina’s real motives for his flamboyant storytelling soon become apparent as the action shifts beyond the pair’s cell into the wider prison complex. The authorities are determined to extract information from Valentin via his cellmate and Molina’s charms are their unconventional weapon.

Hurt’s electrifying performance as the camp Molina came at a time when the actor was hot property in Hollywood (his star shone brightly throughout the 1980s, before being resurrected in the early 2000s). Always one to challenge himself on screen and on stage, his Best Actor prize at Cannes was deservedly followed by a Best Actor Oscar and BAFTA the following year. It remains, in many ways, a career-defining performance for the thoughtful, bookish East Coast star.

Hurt’s co-star, the great Puerto Rican actor Raúl Juliá – whose career was cut tragically short in 1994, following a stroke – similarly offers an intense and sensitive portrayal of the politically engaged Valentin, who forms an unlikely bond with Molina before the two must part. The eventual love scene is relayed with a playful nod to the studios’ infamous Hays Code censorship.

The film appeared at a timely juncture for America, with Ronald Reagan’s right-wing grip on US domestic and foreign policy compounded by his administration’s attitude to the emergence of AIDS. Such was its resonance with audiences, the source material was further adapted for a stage musical in the decade that followed (although it received mixed reviews, it won a Tony Award in 1993).

Today, this much-praised film feels as relevant and provocative as ever, particularly in light of recent developments with LGBT and immigrants’ rights, as well as the sharp rise in inequality in many parts of the West. It’s a theatrical work that defies expectation, offering up a series of very fine set pieces (and performances) that feel as urgent today as they did in 1985.

Ed Gibbs

Watch the trailer:

Altered States

Altered States

Format: Screening presented by Filmbar 70

Part of Ken Russell Forever

Date: 13 March 2012

Time: 7pm

Venue: Roxy Bar and Screen

Director: Ken Russell

Writer: Paddy Chayefsky

Based on the novel by: Paddy Chayefsky

Cast: William Hurt, Blair Brown, Bob Balaban, Charles Haid

USA 1980

102 mins

Altered States is Ken Russell’s most Hollywood film in a career that for the most part eschewed conventional and commercial cinema. As such it is an interesting case, an indicator of what Russell could have done had he toed the line. In fact, Richard Bancroft in his review of Lisztomania sees the film as a kind of penance, paid as compensation for Ken Russelling everyone to death in his earlier film.

Based on a novel and screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky of Network fame, Russell got the directing job after Arthur Penn bailed on the project. Russell claimed later to have been the twenty-seventh-choice director. Of course, Russell had in the past turned his hand to more conventional fare, the Harry Palmer entry Billion Dollar Brain (1967) for instance, but on the surface at least the subject matter had a wackiness that must have been appealing.

William Hurt, in his motion picture debut, plays Eddie Jessup, a scientist researching the links between schizophrenia and religious experience. A wild-eyed visionary and, like other Russell heroes such as Father Grandier and Tchaikovsky, a devotee to unconventional truth, Jessup answers a post-coital ‘What are you thinking?’ with the ludicrous ‘God … Jesus … crucifixions’. ‘I feel like I’m being harpooned by a monk,’ his lover Emily (Blair Brown) understandably complains. As part of his research, Jessup uses an isolation tank to try and regress to a more primal state of being. With the collaboration of his colleague Arthur (Bob Balaban) and against the opposition of Mason (Charles Haid, famous later for Hill Street Blues), Jessup begins experimenting with drugs to intensify the experience, but with increasingly dangerous consequences, especially when he begins to physically change under the influence of the altered state of his mind.

For the most part the film is conventionally shot by Jordan Cronenweth, who would go on to film Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. Russell gets to have some fun with the hallucinations, taking advantage of the lingering influence of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) to produce suitably ‘mind-bending’ visuals, multicoloured blobbing paint stuff, along with Cecil B. DeMille-like scenes of Hell (actually taken from Harry Lachman’s 1935 film Dante’s Inferno) and a whiff of religious controversy. The appalling pretentiousness of the whole film and the mumbo jumbo of the dialogue, taken verbatim from Chayesky’s book - he has to be one of the few screenwriters who took his name off a project because they kept his dialogue intact - is weirdly made into something almost clever by the way the performers rush headlong through it without any winking and Russell holds his camp in check, perhaps with the exception of a ludicrous monkey man escape/dog chase/zoo invasion section. When Jessup finally goes too far with his experiment and basically becomes a whirlpool, it is tempting to think that Russell is presenting us with a visual metaphor of the film disappearing literally up its own hole. With Jessup saved from being a Mugwump for life via the love of a good woman and a sequence that would go on to inspire an A-ha video, the film ends with the kind of conventional sentiment (love conquers all) that seems so clichéd and ridiculous that it might actually be true.

Filmbar 70 will screen Altered States on March 13 at the Roxy Bar and Screen as part of Ken Russell Forever.

John Bleasdale