William Hurt’s Role in ‘Altered States’ Is Sorely Underappreciated

William Hurt’s death this weekend has led fans and critics to revisit the numerous high points of his career: Broadcast News, Children of a Lesser God, Kiss of the Spider Woman. My favorite of his films, though, may be his first.

Right at the beginning of his career, the 1980 psychedelic sci-fi oddity Altered States is prime Hurt: a performance in which a wild-eyed, feral, weirdo character actor crawls out of his leading man good looks. It’s also a movie that, in its humanist and feminist message, speaks to the ugly accusations of sexual and domestic abuse against the actor, and to the ways in which powerful men can destroy other’s lives without accountability.

Directed by the idiosyncratic and brilliant director Ken Russell from a script by legendary screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky, Altered States is a verbose bizarre New Age riff on Frankenstein. Psychopathologist Edward Jessup (Hurt) is obsessed with the scientific roots of religious visions and altered states of consciousness. Abandoning his marriage to anthropologist Emily (Blair Brown), he uses drugs and sensory deprivation experiments to try to chase down primal experience. Eventually (and improbably!) he regresses himself to a Neanderthalesque early primate. If you want a movie in which William Hurt grows a lot of body hair and kills and eats a goat, this is your film.

Director Russell pursues this gloriously silly premise with his usual baroque sensuality. The camera lingers on Blair Brown in a number of Rubenesque nude scenes. But Russell is also the director who perhaps is most enraptured with Hurt’s physical beauty. The first time Emily sees Edward he’s at the end of a hallway, the light behind him—he stands there, blonde and radiant, as if entering the female gaze from some angelic realm outside time.

As a mad scientist, Hurt demonstrates his unique ability to chew up all the available scenery through the tactical deployment of underacting. Edward practically quivers with repressed enthusiasm, shifting from Hurt’s patented monotone earnest mumble into verbose blasts of extroverted psychobabble. When he’s down, his words feel like they’re being pulled out of him reluctantly, one by one. When he’s up, blocks of text race out in seamless streams of gonzo gab. “We're all trying to fulfill ourselves, understand ourselves, get in touch with ourselves, face the reality of ourselves, explore ourselves, expand ourselves,” he natters without taking a breath. “Ever since we dispensed with God we've got nothing but ourselves to explain this meaningless horror of life!”

If that makes Edward sound more than a little ridiculous—well, that’s the point. He wants to regress to an ape to avoid admitting that his family is important to him, which is more than a little pathetic. In the last third of the film, the point of view shifts towards Emily, as she watches her bizarre and ridiculous husband try to destroy himself, and steps in to save him. By the end, it’s clear this isn’t really Edward’s film at all. It’s not a story about a brave male scientist pursuing ultimate truths; it’s about a brave female scientist balancing her career and her love for this difficult, beautiful, “fascinating bastard.”

Altered States is, then, a fairly explicit criticism of the narcissism and implicit misogyny of male geniuses, and of narratives that center male genius narcissism. Such abusive male geniuses, unfortunately, include Hurt himself, according to actor Marlee Matlin and other women who were in relationships with him. Matlin has said that Hurt was physically and emotionally abusive and that on at least one occasion he raped her while she begged him to stop. Sandra Jennings, Hurt’s ex, also said Hurt physically beat her.

The Daily Beast notes that while Hurt pushed back against Jennings' accusations, he “barely disputed” Matlin’s description of their relationship. Hurt also didn’t have any trouble finding work, and faced basically no consequences for the abuse. Matlin’s account was mostly treated as gossip, an interesting shadow on the story of a major Hollywood actor.

Following Hurt’s death, critics and fans have been discussing Matlin’s accusations again. In the post #MeToo era, they seem less like a sidenote, and more like a central facet of the actor’s legacy.

Amidst all the psychedelic imagery and ape regression, the message of Altered States is surprisingly clear and sensible: How you treat the people closest to you is more important than how brilliant you fancy yourself. Like Edward, Hurt was very talented—a “whiz kid.” But that’s not the only thing, and maybe not the main thing, we should remember about him.

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Image Credit: Warner Bros.

Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer based in Chicago. His book, Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics was published by Rutgers University Press. He thinks the Adam West Batman is the best Batman, darn it.