NEW YORK — 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.
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.
"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.