William Hurt explains why his groundbreaking role in 'Kiss of the Spider Woman' was 'one of the proudest things of my life'

·Senior Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
·7 min read
William Hurt and Raul Julia in Kiss of the Spider Woman (Photo: © Island Alive/courtesy Everett Collection)
William Hurt and Raul Julia in the landmark 1985 indie film, Kiss of the Spider Woman. (Photo: © Island Alive/courtesy Everett Collection)

Editor's Note: This story was originally published in 2015. It has been updated to reflect William Hurt's passing.

From Body Heat to Broadcast News, William Hurt was one of the defining faces of '80s-era Hollywood hits. But the late actor, who died on Mar. 13 at age 71, played an equally important role in that decade's nascent independent film movement. In 1985, Hurt starred alongside Raul Julia in the groundbreaking indie film, Kiss of the Spider Woman. "I’m proud we did it," the actor told Yahoo Movies in an emotional 2015 interview ahead of the film's 30th anniversary. "It’s hard to describe how grateful an artist would be to have an experience like that. It’s one of the proudest things of my life."

An immediate art-hour sensation, Kiss of the Spider Woman grossed $17 million during its theatrical run — a then-astronomical sum in the independent film world. The film went on to receive four Oscar nominations including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay. Hurt himself was nominated for, and won, a Best Actor statue, beating out such nominees as Harrison Ford in Witness and Jack Nicholson in Prizzi’s Honor. He also became the first Hollywood star to win an Oscar for playing an out gay character, just four years after Harry Hamlin found himself ostracized for doing the same in the 20th Century Fox film, Making Love.

Adapted from Argentine author Manuel Puig’s 1976 novel and directed by Brazilian filmmaker Hector Babenco on location in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Kiss of the Spider Woman depicts the intense bond that forms between two men imprisoned in a Brazilian jail during the country’s three-decade military dictatorship. Julia plays political activist, Valentin, while Hurt portrays gay movie lover Luis, who regales his cellmate with vivid descriptions of his favorite films. (The Spider Woman of the title, played by Sonia Braga, is one such cinematic creation.) Initially antagonistic, Valentin comes to respect and care for Luis, who in turn falls in love with the revolutionary, even as he’s being pressured into betraying him by the secret police.

Given the difficult subject matter and the lack of an established indie film community in the early ‘80s, getting the movie made was a Herculean challenge. As producer David Weisman told Indiewire in a 2010 interview, he and Babenco spent years trying to raise the funds to make the film and lost various collaborators — including Hollywood legend Burt Lancaster, who originally intended to play Luis — along the way. The producer also recalls early cuts of the film as being problematic, forcing significant post-production work.

When Kiss of the Spider Woman finally premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May 1985, though, the reaction proved universally positive. Scooped up by the new distributor, Island Alive, and released domestically on July 26, the movie won instant acclaim from critics — as well as from the LGBTQ community — for Hurt’s sensitive portrayal of a man whose sexuality makes him a criminal in society’s eyes.

The AIDS crisis and the still-widespread discrimination against gay men only made Kiss of the Spider Woman all the more timely and relevant. "We had to say something about not just gay rights, but about feminine and masculine relationships, and the nature of courage and what it means to speak truth to a power so much greater than you are," Hurt observed in 2015. "We didn’t make any money while we were shooting, so there was no angling for gratuitous reward. This was just a glorious opportunity to do the right thing."

Despite reports that he and Babenco clashed during production due to their language barrier, Hurt described the shoot as being filled with "miracles [that] littered our entire experience." One particular miracle that stands out in his mind occurred while he and Julia swung by the set to rehearse during what was supposed to be their day off.

"The set was just this simple platform with breakaway walls in a warehouse-type location," Hurt recalled. "I noticed a glint in a faraway corner and climbed off the platform to look more carefully. I saw one of the film’s construction workers, who was amazed that these two American actors would take time out of their day to come to that warehouse and work so hard. He was standing there with tears rolling down his face and that was the glint I saw. He didn’t even speak our language. I thought, 'Okay, I’m doing this for him.'"

Hurt won a Best Actor Oscar for his role in 1985's Kiss of the Spider Woman (Photo: Island Alive/courtesy Everett Collection)
Hurt won a Best Actor Oscar for his role in 1985's Kiss of the Spider Woman. The actor described his role as "one of the produest things of my life." (Photo: Island Alive/courtesy Everett Collection)

While Hurt received the lion’s share of acclaim and awards for taking on what at the time was a risky role, Julia’s carefully modulated performance as Valentin is also essential to Spider Woman’s success. It was the role that launched the Puerto Rican-born stage actor to such high-profile films as Tequila Sunrise, Presumed Innocent and The Addams Family.

Speaking of his co-star — who passed away in 1994 after suffering a stroke — Hurt sounded genuinely moved by their time together. "I miss him. I miss a lot of people nowadays. It was way too early." The two stayed friends in the years after Kiss of the Spider Woman, often calling each other to play chess over the phone from wherever in the world they happened to be shooting a film. "The rule was, ‘He who loses the last piece pays for the next phone call,'" Hurt recalled. "Of course, he was a much better chess player than I was, so I was paying exorbitant rates! Then one day, he didn’t call, and that was the day he died."

Hurt and Julia play two very different Brazilian prisoners who find common ground in Kiss of the Spider Woman. (Photo: Strand Releasing/Courtesy Everett Collection)
Hurt and Julia play two very different Brazilian prisoners who find common ground in Kiss of the Spider Woman. (Photo: Strand Releasing/Courtesy Everett Collection)

Despite its importance to indie film history, Kiss of the Spider Woman has never been an easy film for viewers to find. A thorny legal dispute kept it out circulation for years, until it was re-released theatrically in 2001 courtesy of Strand Releasing. Spider Woman later debuted on DVD and Blu-ray in 2008, but those discs are now out of print and the film is unavailable to stream. Now that Hurt's passing has renewed interest in the film, fans on Twitter are hoping that might finally change.