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The elusive William Hurt

LOS ANGELES -- We were sitting in the corner of a hotel room, and the lights had been turned off, and the cold December twilight was sifting in through the window, and William Hurt was talking in that introspective way of his -- musing about his ideas as he explained them.

"Mood is the enemy of acting," he said.

I had just made an observation about the delicate control of mood in "The Accidental Tourist," his new movie.

"The enemies of acting are mood, and attitude, and other general homogenized disruptive entities. Whereas acting is about action -- doing -- and unless you can figure out a way to craft in an imaginative reality to which you don't submit, you're going to be out of control. You'll flip out. The job is to be surprised."

Are you still there? Hurt is the most intelligent of actors, and one of the best we have, but his sentences sometimes seem to read like philosophy lectures. He is the opposite of the actors who know how to fashion their statements into nice, concise sound bites: I loved working with everyone on this picture.... We were like a family.... We were actually crying on each other's shoulders on the last day of production. William Hurt doesn't talk like that. He talks more like a man who is working toward a general unified field theory of existence.

"You cut off the capacity for grief in your life," he told me, "and you cut off the joy at the same time. They both come up through the same tunnel. You don't have one without the other."

He was discussing the character he plays in "The Accidental Tourist" (opening Jan. 6 in Chicago). The man is a travel writer who never seems to speak spontaneously, who talks as if he were reading from words scrolling up the insides of his eyeballs. The books written by this man are filled with advice about how to visit other countries without ever feeling as if you've left home. He talks like he writes.

"We tried to get a stiltedness to the delivery," Hurt said. "Some people talk like that. You'd rather have it all written down beforehand, you'd rather have the whole scene written down that you're doing with your wife or your girlfriend or whoever, written down before you get there. We'd like to prearrange our life on all levels. We'd prefer it to be scripted. But it's not."

Yet the travel writer acts as if it is. The man has always been cut off emotionally, but now he has a reason. A year earlier, his son was killed during a maniac's shooting spree in a fast-food restaurant. After identifying the dead body ("Yes, that is my son," Hurt intones, while his face is filled with unspeakable grief), the character shuts himself up inside, a long way off. His wife (played by Kathleen Turner) finally tells him she wants a divorce, because she cannot stay married to a man who does not feel anything. A few days or weeks later, he meets a dog trainer (Geena Davis) who believes that she is the right woman for him. But for a long time the Hurt character cannot find a way to be interested in her, or in much of anything else.

"He cannot be happy until he can be sad," Hurt said, "and he cannot be sad if he shuts off all of his emotions. Sometimes you get the idea that the new ethic in America is that in the pursuit of happiness, we reject the sadness and the grief. But they're not mutually exclusive. In fact, they're kin. The funnel of deep feeling and profound satisfaction in life comes from the capacity to feel."

"The Accidental Tourist" is a movie about the man's journey back to that ability. It ends with a smile, and the smile has been a very long time coming. But perhaps I should mention, now that we are mired deep within gloom and depression, grief and the inability to feel, that "The Accidental Tourist" is one of the funniest serious movies ever made -- a film in which everyone on the screen has a long face, and many of the people in the audience are hugging themselves with delight.

The way that Hurt, Turner, Davis and the other members of the cast achieve this contrast between sadness and laughter is instructive. There is not a single line in the whole screenplay that seems deliberately intended as a laugh line. Instead, the director, Lawrence Kasdan ("Body Heat," "The Big Chill"), observes his characters in such specific and microscopic detail that we're not seeing behavior on the screen -- we're seeing human nature. The laughter comes from moments of recognition, in which we're forced to admit that, yes, people really are just like that.

Such a moment introduces the final movement of the movie, and it is one of Hurt's finest moments on the screen. It comes after a long period during which the travel writer has been unable to stir himself about anything. He has separated from his wife, he has conducted a joyless affair with the dog trainer, and he has remained impassive while Julian, his publisher, fell in love with Rose, his sister, and married her. Now the sister has moved back home, to tend to Hurt's two bachelor brothers, who had taken to eating nothing but cereal.

Hurt knows his sister inside out, and knows in particular that she is a compulsive organizer, a woman who delights in creating order out of chaos. So he makes a suggestion to the publisher. He speaks in a low, almost emotionless voice, rather slowly: "Call her up and tell her your business is going to pieces. Ask if she could just come in and get things organized, get things under control. Put it that way. Use those words. Get things under control, tell her."

He knows, of course, that this is an offer his sister will be unable to refuse. But the scene is important for another reason. "It is," Hurt said, "the first moment in the movie where he becomes willing to help someone else. That moment is the first time he gives something to another person. By accepting his own limitations, as they are reflected by his sister, he can speak from personal knowledge. He helps another person and gives of himself."

The moment is important, but it is also funny -- one of the most delightful moments in the movie -- because it gives the audience credit for having arrived at its own ideas about the sister. Her nature has not been underlined, or spelled out in words of one syllable. We've seen her mostly at the edges of the screen, but we've recognized the type, and when Hurt makes his little speech, we laugh because the movie is letting us know that it knows we both think the same things about the sister.

Those sorts of moments have become trademarks for William Hurt, who in less than a decade has become one of the two or three best actors in American movies. He has played a variety of roles, picking up an Oscar and a couple of nominations in the process: He was an obsessed scientist in "Altered States," a film noir victim in "Body Heat," a yuppie in "The Big Chill," a drag queen in "Kiss of the Spider Woman," a teacher of the deaf in "Children of a Lesser God," a dim but likable anchorman in "Broadcast News," a jealous and insecure son in "A Time of Destiny."

To almost all of his roles, he brings along a sense of the ordinary, the sense that this is simply a person who happens to find himself in this place at this time. That almost bland exterior in the opening scenes is what sets up the later emotional explosions, especially in movies like "Altered States" and "Body Heat." When Hurt goes over the top, he appears to have started from a quieter place, and so he seems to have traveled a greater distance than a Mickey Rourke or a Robert De Niro. Only Jack Nicholson is his equal at seeming utterly ordinary.

And that was how I worked around to the question we were discussing earlier, about the control of tone in "The Accidental Tourist." When you start with a character who is demoralized and emotionless and speaks in a flat, lifeless voice, how do you modulate that voice to betray even limited emotions?

"I listened real carefully," he said. "A lot of the movie is shot in closeups and two shots, and I felt nailed not just to the wall, but microscopically. We were going for intimacy and delicacy and consistency. But I didn't have to work at it so hard because Larry Kasdan gave me the parameters. He knew the range that was permissible. Sometimes it seemed like he was giving me a very small place, but within that place, I had complete freedom. In some movies I have to make those discipline choices myself and stick to them. Here I had some help."

Kasdan, the director, has built his career out of collaborations with Hurt, working with him in "Body Heat" and "The Big Chill" ("Silverado" is the only Kasdan film without Hurt). He told me he believes Hurt can modulate within a small range better than anyone else around: "His talent is to trust that less is more. I don't think anyone does that better in American acting. It's to trust that the camera sees everything if you are feeling it and if you're true -- and Bill is true."

"Acting is building the tip of the iceberg," Hurt said. "You have to build what isn't seen and then play the tip. Only a little bit of the iceberg is ever seen, but it is massive. That's sometimes hard to do in American movies, where the philosophy is to show the whole iceberg. We're not used to having passive heroes, we're used to the active, go get 'em guy. The character in this movie is the opposite of what we're used to. Even the people around him are frustrated by his passivity, and finally his wife makes him take a step -- and he does, as we all do, into darkness. We risk, not knowing what is going to happen next. I oppose this idea that we have to vicariously live in the images of movie heroes who always know what's going to happen next. That's just not how life is.

"What's wrong with heroism being a man who has traveled 2 inches? That 2 inches is very profound. The real heroes are people who walk and talk in streets and in homes and in the air. Why is it that in the movies we have to spend so much time escaping rather than being freed by accepting?"

Why is it, indeed? And so in "The Accidental Tourist," William Hurt gives us a man who accepts that he cannot blame himself for the death of his son. That he cannot be responsible for the lives of others. That he can be responsible for his own life. That it is permitted for him to be happy. And so, by the end of the movie, he is able to smile. It's quite a performance. I wouldn't be at all surprised if he gets another Academy Award nomination for it. Of course, if he wins, we'll have to listen to another one of those speeches.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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