By John H. Foote
William Hurt’s passing this year took me back to the period in the 80s when he towered over most other actors as the finest of his generation. Exploding into American cinema with Altered States (1980) after a solid Broadway career, he and Kathleen Turner burned up movie screens in Body Heat (1981), an extraordinary film noir that took something tried and true and made it brand new, and hotter than ever. Both actors deserved Academy Award nominations that did not come, but the reviews they received certainly made clear they were white hot.
Hurt followed Body Heat with an array of films and characters that were unforgettable. His cynical, funny performance as Vietnam veteran Nick in The Big Chill (1983) was yet snubbed by the Academy. Instead, they chose his haunting performance as a homosexual in prison in South America in Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985) to award him Best Actor. It was a superb performance, from the emotions, the physicality, the voice, every aspect was perfection. In his acceptance speech, he shared the award with co-star Raul Julia, who portrayed his cell mate, a revolutionary Hurt’s character falls in love with. Two more nominations for Best Actor followed in consecutive years, Children of a Lesser God (1986) for which he learned to sign, and Broadcast News (1987) as a dim anchor man who has a talent for reading the news on air.
Yet for the finest performance of his career, as Macon Leary in The Accidental Tourist (1988), he was ignored for Best Actor. The film received four Academy Award nominations, Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress (Geena Davis), Best Screenplay Adaptation and Best Score, with only Davis winning the Oscar for her loopy, delightful dog trainer. The New York Film Critics bestowed their Best Picture prize on the film, and reviews were excellent overall.
The first time I saw the film, I loved it, and have grown to love it more with each subsequent viewing. Watching it again recently, I have decided it is Hurt’s profoundly brilliant performance and the chemistry he shares with Davis that makes the film what it is.
As Macon Leary, Hurt portrays a man who writes travel books, the ones that make travelling easier, simpler, more like home. When we first meet Macon and his wife Sarah (Kathleen Turner), they both know their marriage is dying. Their son Ethan was murdered a year before in a robbery and they cannot find joy in their lives anymore. Whatever spark held them together is gone and living with the image of a man shooting the back of their 12-year-old son’s head is overwhelming to them. They are stuck and cannot get past it. Who could?
When Sarah makes the first move by moving into an apartment, Macon is left alone in their expansive old house with his dog. When the dog causes Macon to go tumbling down the basement stairs, he breaks a leg and is forced to move into his childhood home with his eccentric (strange) siblings who live there their mother-hen sister Rose (Amy Wright). While there, he meets Muriel (Geena Davis), a warm, loving but odd lady who trains dogs and works at the local animal hospital. He hires Muriel to train his dog and she falls head over heels for Macon. Her son is a sickly seven-year-old, bullied by his school mates. Macon takes a liking to the boy, which thrills Muriel. Macon begins to open up to her.
The first moment he does is a master class of listening from the actors. Macon turns up at her home and she comes to the door. He begins to tell her about his son, and how he died, and she senses the pain in him, the inner agony. Taking him by the arm, she silently pulls him into her home and then her bedroom. She takes off his clothes and eases him down on her bed and curls into him. They sleep, they rest, Macon has begun to heal.
His family considers his dalliance with Muriel to be some sort of joke, so arrogant and snobbish are they. It angers Macon and he demands they no longer speak of Muriel, or her son at all.
But Sarah returns to their home and asks for a fresh start. Macon, loyal to his wife, agrees, wounding Muriel deeply. She is right when she tells him, “You are going to miss me”.
When he heads off to Paris to research a book, so does Muriel, having borrowed money to go on a vacation. Though he is back with his wife, she is dissuaded, telling him, “Macon, we are in Paris together!” Macon hurts his back, so his publisher sends Sarah over to help him, and she sees Muriel. She asks him about her and finally Macon answers honestly, that they need to be honest with other, their marriage is over. He realizes that he and Muriel fulfill a mutual need in each other. She brought back some joy to his life, she made him laugh and he just cannot do that any longer with Sarah; she will always be a reminder of their lost son. And Sarah knows, she understands.
Macon painfully gathers his luggage and grabs a cab for the airport, helped by a young boy not much older than his own son would have been. On the corner trying to hail a cab is Muriel, who sees Macon in the back of the cab, and she smiles broadly, as he smiles at her.
Hurt is superb as the broken Macon, a man who is like a ghost wandering through his life, barely alive. The unspoken pain he feels over losing his son cannot be discussed, but everyone knows it is there. When he opens up to Muriel, for the first time he has hope. They have come to need each other; they are better with each other. Notably, it is Muriel, who is far from cerebral, who understands this far sooner than Macon does. And Macon has begun to need her son, Alexander. This sad broken man heals in front of our eyes in the most unlikely pairing.
Geena Davis is wonderful as Muriel, a tall, gawky lady with bizarre fashion sense and the ability to seemingly talk about every subject known to man. Yet she is much deeper, instinctive, and she understands Macon’s pain without him saying a word. She knows he does not seek sex, though they find their way too, but just needs a human connection, which she provides. She deserved and won the actress the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.
The siblings, still children really are well portrayed by David Ogden Stiers, Ed Begley Jr. and Amy Wright, each superb, each unique and broken in a different manner than Macon. Their arrogance is near comical because there is so much that could be said about them that is not.
I loved this film the first time I saw it back in 1988 and it means as much to me today as it did back then. Beautifully acted, directed and written, there is simply not a false note in it. Simplistic, but deceptively so because of the depths of the human spirit it explores.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.