Oscar-winning actor William Hurt died yesterday at the age of 71. “He passed away peacefully, among his family, of natural causes,” a statement read.
Hurt was probably best known for his work in the 1980s, when he was both a bona fide movie star and one of the era’s leading actors. He was nominated for three consecutive Best Actor Oscars for his work in Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985), Children of a lesser God (1986) and News broadcast (1987). He won for To kissplaying a made-up homosexual locked in a Brazilian prison with a fiery revolutionary (played by Raúl Juliá).
In the 2000s, he became one of Hollywood’s top supporting actors, landing another Oscar nomination for his work in David Cronenberg’s film. A history of violence (2005). And, of course, fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe will remember him as Thaddeus Ross, the no-nonsense general who made life difficult for many of the Avengers (but especially Bruce Banner’s Hulk).
Most people probably don’t know that he also appeared in a 2018 Christian film. The season of miracles, released just a month before he announced his terminal cancer diagnosis. And his turn as grieving father Ernie Found was the film’s spiritual core.
In the film (based on a true story), Ernie loses his daughter, Caroline, in a terrible traffic accident. When the police come knocking on his door in the middle of the night to tell him, he collapses into one of the officer’s arms. This tragedy is compounded when his wife dies of cancer the day after Caroline’s funeral.
Before, Ernie was a committed Christian. But the double tragedy almost destroys his faith. When a friend calls to console him and wish him God’s blessings, Ernie snaps, “God hasn’t really shown up for me lately,” hanging up the handset.
But later, we find Ernie in church, sitting on a bench with this same friend. Still grieving, he expresses his gratitude for the time he spent with his wife and daughter.
“I can’t blame [God] to want [Caroline] back,” he said. “She’s a keeper.”
The season of miracles, which also stars fellow Oscar winner Helen Hunt, is not a preacher. In fact, I’ve pretty much covered the film’s explicit Christian content here. Director Sean McNamara (who also helmed this year The King’s Daughter), focuses on Carolina’s beloved volleyball team, and how they take their heartbreak and anger and turn it into a winning season. But Hurt’s powerful portrayal of Ernie gives The season of miracles depth and size required.
Interestingly, throughout Hurt’s career, he brought a certain spiritual intensity to his roles. He studied theology at Tufts University before turning to acting. (“I had a legitimate spontaneous interest in theology, in trying to arrive at a faith,” he said. The Washington Post in 1989.) In his first film, Modified States, his girlfriend Emily (Blair Brown) asks his character (Dr. Edward Jessup) what he’s thinking. “God. Jesus. Crucifixion,” he says. In News broadcastwhere he plays a smooth but superficial news anchor, rival reporter Aaron Altman (Albert Brooks) calls him “the devil”.
“What do you think the devil will look like if he’s around?” Aaron said. “No one will be fooled if he has a long, red, pointy tail. …He will look attractive and he will be kind and helpful and he will get a job where he will influence a great God-fearing nation and he will never do anything wrong He’s just going to gradually lower the standards where they matter.
Wounded was no devil. But I think the power of his portrayals often came not from what he showed on screen, but from what he hid. Beneath his chiseled face and oily voice seemed to lurk a sense of spiritual tension — perhaps a tension that, if we’re being honest, we all feel.
William Hurt was one of the most acclaimed actors of the late 20and century, and one of the most underrated at the start of the 21st. I won’t say its turn The season of miracles is his best performance. But it helps make it one of the best religious films of the past decade. He’s still worth watching, but especially when his character grapples so seriously with grief, God, and meaning.