Performance of the week: William Hurt in Kiss Of The Spider Woman (1985)

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William Hurt received his first (out of four) Oscar nomination and won his only Oscar to date for playing Luis Molina, a convicted homosexual pedophile who shares the same prison cell with Valentin Arregui (Raul Julia, who should have been nominated here), a political prisoner. Hurt went on to receive 2 more consecutive nominations in 1986 and 1987, for Children of a Lesser God and Broadcast News.

Kiss Of The Spider Woman is a wonderful but very sad film about the relationship between the two prisoners. Luis Molina is a flamboyant guy who sees himself as a woman rather than a man and enjoys sharing stories about the movies he watched. On the other hand, Valentin Arregui is an angst-ridden political prisoner who is frequently tortured for information. The film starts off a little slow in the first half, mainly focusing on introducing the 2 leads to the audience. However, things change in the second half when you realise the true nature of Hurt’s character and that this pairing is not just a mere coincidence (aka spoilers ahead). The film captures the claustrophobic interiors of the prison cell very well, and this gloomy atmosphere is very well-contrasted with the magical atmosphere of Molina’s stories. The relationship between the two characters is incredibly well-depicted, from their intense dislike of one another in the beginning to the moving friendship that you know is not going to end well. Many people are saying that this film should have won the Best Picture title in 1985 over Out of Africa. It would have been a worthy winner, although I can’t say I’m sure as it has been a while since I watched Out of Africa (given that I’m more mature now, I’m hoping that I will find it less boring if I were to watch it again). I’m also crazy about The Color Purple by the way.

Luis Molina is one incredibly difficult character to handle, but William Hurt (such a great, but under-appreciated actor) proved that he was up for the challenge. Firstly, he nails the physical aspects of the character – the feminine way of walking and talking – without making it offensive and over-the-top. Many actors who play feminine characters tend to overdo the gestures and mannerisms, turning these characters into nothing more but gross caricatures. Thankfully, Hurt avoids these traps and instead make them seem extremely natural and believable. Hurt himself said that he didn’t want to consciously portray Molina as a homosexual but a woman trapped in a man’s body, and this worked as all of his actions seem like a result of the character’s natural instincts.

What is even more impressive, however, is Hurt’s detailed characterisation of Molina. When it is later revealed that Molina is spying on Arregui on behalf of the prison guards, you realise how his earlier actions all seem to make sense and how his character is more complex than he seems. You also get to see how manipulative the character actually is, capable of twisting his words and planning his actions to get what he wants out of Arregui. At the same time, Hurt reveals the vulnerability behind the character extremely well, like his constant worrying over his mother’s health and his immense hurt when the prison guard and Arregui insults him. The monologues about his loneliness in life and his friendship with a waiter in a restaurant are pretty heart-wrenching as well. At the end, what seems like an attempt to get closer to Arregui becomes more than it seems when Molina finds himself falling in love with him. However, you also can’t help but wonder whether these feelings are genuine or he is merely trying to corner Arregui into feeling sorry for him with his breakdowns.

Still, this is a terrific performance by a great actor and it has slowly become one of my favourite best actor winning performances over the past few days. The characterization, the physical details and the emotional subtlety in the part makes it a worthy winner.

p.s. Yes, my midterms are next week and I am blogging. Clearly you can see how motivated I am haha. I’m kidding, I need a break after 6 weeks of studying. Looking forward to midterm break…Hopefully I can discuss more performances during that one week break.

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