DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, professor of television studies at Rowan University in New Jersey, in for Terry Gross.
Today we remember actor William Hurt, who died Sunday at the age of 71. The cause was complications from prostate cancer. With his blond, blue-eyed good looks, he found success as a leading man in the 1980s in the films "Body Heat," "The Big Chill" and "Broadcast News," delivering memorable performances in each. But Hurt thought of himself as a character actor trapped in a leading man's body. He was a four-time Oscar nominee and won for his role in "Kiss Of The Spider Woman," playing a drag queen sharing a prison cell with a political dissident.
In college, he studied theology before switching to drama and briefly went on to study at Juilliard. In New York, he performed with the Circle Repertory Company, winning an Obie Award in 1977. Hurt also starred in the films "Eyewitness," "Gorky Park" and "The Accidental Tourist." And his memorable cameo in the film "A History Of Violence" earned him an Oscar nomination. He also worked in television and was nominated for an Emmy for his recurring role in the FX drama series "Damages."
Hurt was married and divorced twice. He was accused of physical and emotional abuse by actress Marlee Matlin, who was in a relationship with him and starred opposite him in the film "Children Of A Lesser God." He also struggled with alcohol and drugs.
We're going to listen to Terry's 2010 interview with William Hurt. But first, let's listen to a clip from the modern film noir classic, 1981's "Body Heat." He plays a South Florida lawyer seduced by Kathleen Turner and duped into murdering her husband. Here he is meeting her for the first time on a hot, humid night on a Florida pier.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BODY HEAT")
WILLIAM HURT: (As Ned Racine) You can stand here with me if you want, but you'll have to agree not to talk about the heat.
KATHLEEN TURNER: (As Matty Walker) I'm a married woman.
HURT: (As Ned Racine) Meaning what?
TURNER: (As Matty Walker) Meaning I'm not looking for company.
HURT: (As Ned Racine) Then you should have said, I'm a happily married woman.
TURNER: (As Matty Walker) That's my business.
HURT: (As Ned Racine) What?
TURNER: (As Matty Walker) How happy I am.
HURT: (As Ned Racine) And how happy is that?
TURNER: (As Matty Walker) You're not too smart, are you?
HURT: (As Ned Racine, laughter).
TURNER: (As Matty Walker) I like that in a man.
HURT: (As Ned Racine) What else do you like? Lazy, ugly, horny - I got them all.
TURNER: (As Matty Walker) You don't look lazy (laughter). Tell me, does chat like this work with most women?
HURT: (As Ned Racine) Some, if they haven't been around much.
TURNER: (As Matty Walker) I wondered - thought maybe I was out of touch.
HURT: (As Ned Racine) Can I buy you a drink?
TURNER: (As Matty Walker) I told you, I've got a husband.
HURT: (As Ned Racine) I'll buy him one, too.
TURNER: (As Matty Walker) He's out of town.
HURT: (As Ned Racine) My favorite kind. We'll drink to him.
TURNER: (As Matty Walker) Only comes up on weekends.
HURT: (As Ned Racine, laughter) I'm liking him better all the time.
BIANCULLI: When Terry spoke with William Hurt, he played a man just released from prison in the film "The Yellow Handkerchief."
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
TERRY GROSS: Now, I read that you spent some time in a prison talking to inmates so that you could learn about what...
GROSS: ...Your character might be like. So what prison did you go to, and what did you want to know?
HURT: We were in Angola in northern Louisiana. And I spent one night in maximum security there. I think I'm the only person who electively has done that.
HURT: (Laughter) I think someone else tried to but screamed and gave up at midnight. I spoke with every member on that row who's incarcerated in an 8 foot by 4 foot cell 23 hours a day for the rest of their lives - those who would speak to me. Some wouldn't. I had four days basically on the grounds with many people asking them questions about their lives, what got them there, what it was like there, how they were now, what they thought. And I learned a lot.
GROSS: So what did you take away from the experience of being in Angola, in prison and speaking to prisoners who were in the maximum-security wing? What did you take away from that that you were able to use in the movie?
HURT: It's pretty limitless - primarily sorrow for them. Most of the time I would ask them, why are you here? And most of the time they would answer, second-degree murder. Of 5,108 inmates, 85% of the people in there are going to die there. So there's no compunction when you're talking to someone whose only desire on Earth is not to have their body buried on the grounds of that prison. There's no problem in being frank. There's no compunction about telling the truth. Conversations are wonderfully, refreshingly, brutally honest.
GROSS: Were you shocked by anything you heard?
HURT: No. I've been around. So, I mean, I've talked - I - this isn't the first time I've talked to prisoners. It isn't the first time I've talked to murderers.
GROSS: For movies or for other reasons?
HURT: For various reasons - I used to visit prisons. You'd call it charitable work. I had worked with some people who were involved in a prison program, and they periodically visited the prisons in Rockland County in New York state to take a program of hope and self-rehabilitation to them. And I would accompany them. This is a little hard to say rightly, but I've always been interested in people, and I've been interested in people who were off the track. I mean, I ran into problems - for instance, in Brazil 25 years ago, when by accident I was taken hostage on a dark night in a small village south of Sao Paulo and, you know, had a guy with a gun in my pocket. He was going to blow my genitals off. And then after an hour, he told us to face the wall, and we were sure he was going to shoot us. So I...
GROSS: Whoa. Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. Let's back up. What happened? Why were you taken hostage?
HURT: We were...
GROSS: Was this while you were making "Kiss Of The Spider Woman?"
HURT: Yes. And we had 36 hours off from filming. And me and my date at the time got into a car, and we drove south to a village where her parents had a small villa in a very modest town with dirt streets. And as we drove into the driveway at midnight, a car pulled up behind us and blocked our exit. The engine of that car was turned off. There were four people in it - two men and two women. One of the men had a ski mask on, a black ski mask. The other man just hid his face.
And the one man leaned out the window, and he said to us - we were standing outside our car just - we'd just arrived. They must have been following us. And he said something in Portuguese. And I asked my date, what did he say? And she turned white. And she said, he wants to - he wants - he wants directions. So she knew right away. And after that, the doors of the car opened, and they both got out with guns. And that's when it...
GROSS: How'd you get out of this?
HURT: Well - what do they say in Sanskrit? They say life is about creation, sustenance, dissolution, control and the bestowal of grace, right? Probably the bestowal of grace. We were in the house for an hour. And one man, the guy in the ski mask - his duty was to hold the gun on us in the corner and shift us around the house while the other guy carried everything out of the house and put it into our car. There were a couple of times when I thought the guy was ready to pull the trigger and you can see the bullets 'cause it wasn't fake. And then he and I were just looking at each other for about an hour, me at his eyes through the mask. Anyway, he told us to face the wall, and he was going to shoot us. And so I said, no, I can't do that. And my feeling was, if I'm going to die now, I want to be looking into another human being's eyes, even if it's yours.
GROSS: Did you say that to him?
HURT: I did eventually, yeah.
GROSS: And he said?
HURT: And he drove me to the ground. He put the gun in my forehead, and he leaned on it with all his might, and he was screaming at me. And we both went to the floor, his face a few inches from mine. He's screaming at me in Portuguese. My date was collapsing in the corner. And I just was looking at him very, very steadily. And I just kept saying, I just don't want to - I don't want to - I don't want it in the back of the head. And he backed away slowly and he said, don't call the police for 15 minutes or I will find a way to come back and kill you. And he left.
So I called the police pretty much right away, and eventually they showed up and they were almost worse than he was. I mean, really, there's a lot of violence in the world. So I've seen not just that, but I've seen it in other places as well. My father worked for - he was the head of AID in Lahore, Khartoum, Mogadishu. I lived in all those places with him when I was young. I grew up in the South Pacific, basically. My brothers were Guamanian. I spoke words of Guamanian long before I spoke words of English. And so I've seen a lot, you know. I've traveled in places where people don't have the benefits of American life and so I've seen a lot of stuff. So the prison was not new to me.
GROSS: Right. After hearing that story, we should hear what you were doing professionally as that was happening with you and listen to a clip from "Kiss Of The Spider Woman" because, I mean, now, in that movie, you're in prison. We've been talking about prison. You were nearly killed while making this movie.
HURT: Well, we weren't allowed to tell anybody about it at the time because we would have had to stop making the movie.
GROSS: Why? Because people would've been scared?
HURT: Because there would have been so much press - that's right - no, press attention and then people accusing the production of being irresponsible. And it would distract from the making of a film that we had - we were doing on spec anyway. The real problem was the press.
BIANCULLI: William Hurt speaking to Terry Gross in 2010. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSIONS IN THE SKY AND DAVID WINGO'S "SEND OFF")
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2010 interview with William Hurt. The Oscar-winning actor died last Sunday at age 71. When we left off, they were talking about making the film "Kiss Of The Spider Woman."
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
GROSS: The two stars of the film are you and Raul Julia. And you're both in a prison cell together. You're there - you play a drag queen who's had sex with an underage boy. That's why you're in prison. He's there - he's a political prisoner. He's in the resistance.
HURT: I didn't - not an underage boy.
GROSS: No. Who was it?
HURT: They said it was, but it was just for being homosexual.
GROSS: Just for being gay. Right.
HURT: Just for being gay.
HURT: And for being flagrant about it.
GROSS: Yes. Because you're kind of a drag queen in it. And you have this real, like, romantic view of the world. You have a very romantic sensibility. And even though you're in prison, you're wearing this, like, flowered robe, and you've put a towel on your head as a turban. And because Raul Julia is in such pain, he's been tortured, he's bleeding, you're trying to divert him and entertain him by telling the story of a film that you saw that you think is a really, like, thrilling and romantic film. And you're kind of doing it as if you're narrating the film. You're telling him the whole story of the film. And he kind of figures out that it's a film - it's a Nazi propaganda film. But you don't realize that.
HURT: Yeah, but I didn't get that. But I interpret it as romantic sentimentalism.
GROSS: Yeah. So in this scene from the beginning of the film, you're narrating the movie, and Raul Julia keeps interrupting you with kind of cynical comments. He is not a romantic like you are, and you're defending the film before continuing the story of the film. Here's the scene.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN")
HURT: (As Luis Molina) I know it's nothing terribly intellectual like you must be used to. It's just a romance. But it's so beautiful. Now, suddenly, this military convoy rushes forward.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character, non-English language spoken).
(SOUNDBITE OF SIRENS, FOOTSTEPS)
HURT: (As Luis Molina) Marvelous German soldiers catch those weird smugglers in the act and arrest them all.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
HURT: (As Luis Molina) But watching nearby is this small truck with these two French thugs from the resistance who were spying on the Germans, this hulking clubfoot and his half-deaf flunky.
RAUL JULIA: (As Valentin Arregui) Wait a minute. Those weird guys the Germans arrested...
HURT: (As Luis Molina) Yes.
JULIA: (As Valentin Arregui) ...What do you mean they didn't look French?
HURT: (As Luis Molina) They didn't look French. They looked Turkish. I'm not sure, but they had these, like - like, these caps on their heads, like, these Turkish, like, fezes.
JULIA: (As Valentin Arregui) Those caps are yarmulkes. Can't you see this is a [expletive] anti-Semitic film?
HURT: (As Luis Molina) Oh, come on.
JULIA: (As Valentin Arregui) Wait. This must have been a German movie, right?
HURT: (As Luis Molina) I don't know. It was from years ago. Look, I don't explain my movies. It just ruins the emotion.
JULIA: (As Valentin Arregui) This must have been a Nazi propaganda film done during the war.
HURT: (As Luis Molina) I don't know. That's just the background. This is where the important part begins, the part about the lovers. It's divine.
GROSS: That's my guest, William Hurt, with Raul Julia in a scene from the film "Kiss Of The Spider Woman." It's such a good film. Your character in that is someone who sees life as theater, you know, life as - you know, he wants his life to be theater.
HURT: But he ends up sacrificing himself for his...
GROSS: That's right. Yeah. He ends up becoming quite political in the end.
HURT: Well, he ends up sacrificing himself for the person he loves.
GROSS: Now, in playing a drag queen in "Kiss Of The Spider Woman," what did you want to capture about the character's way of moving and speaking?
HURT: Capture isn't my word for anything. It's more like release. It was that there is something in that man, that human being. So I didn't play him, by the way, as gay. I played him as a woman. And it was a big point for me during the rehearsal we had. And by the way, rehearsal was key and is always key. And almost all the really good work I've ever done had a lot of rehearsal because it became a collaborative - a true collaboration rather than a false one, just showing up and jumping out of the box, which is what we're usually paid to do. It was that there was something in that being's heart that was searching for the truth that really went beyond politics, if you want to call it that. So this guy, this human being, goes beyond that and proves himself more of a man in many ways, ironically, than many men.
GROSS: When you say you played the character as a woman, not as a gay man...
HURT: The key for me as an artist - as I was researching the character, I had a wonderful teacher there, a dance teacher who was helping me try to figure out how to move, 'cause every character has different movement and physical life. And I would - you know, I spent time - for instance, in the same way I spent time in Angola asking prisoners, you know, about their lives, I spent a lot of time in gay bars and trying to, you know, soak that up too. I'm not gay myself, but many of my friends are. And I wasn't getting it. There was something that wasn't working. And I was walking in the street one day, and I was looking at a woman who was walking ahead of us. We were walking down the street in the same direction. And I said, you know, I don't think Molina is gay. I think he's a woman. I think he really is a woman. He's just caught in a man's body. Like, you know, sometimes I'm an actor caught in a movie star's body.
GROSS: You had mentioned years ago in an interview that when you were rehearsing with Raul Julia, you switched roles with him so that he played...
HURT: It's a very rare technique to use between actors because actors should never comment on each other. But Raul and I had a great friendship, and we respected each other very much as artists. So I suggested it to him one day because we were feeling rushed about rehearsal, and we weren't getting to places I thought we could get to. And he took it on, and we went - we used to sneak to the Quonset hut when we were making "Spider Woman" on Sundays, unbeknownst to the producers. We weren't allowed to go there 'cause it was a dangerous city. And we would work under a naked lightbulb on the platform, and we reversed roles. I played Valentin, and he played Molina. And we made all these incredible discoveries very, very quickly, but only because we trusted each other immensely as people and as artists were we able to use those discoveries. Otherwise, we would have seen them as invasion and commentary.
GROSS: Did you change anything about your performance after that exercise?
HURT: I enhanced it. He was so much better than I was, in my view, at what we were doing that I went - we went running back, and I said - I knocked, I hammered on the director's door, and I said, we have to change roles, we have to change roles. And the director panicked and said, no, no, no, no, we have to have a talk, and...
HURT: So we weren't posing. And we were talked out of it, but it did - we were inspired by each other's discoveries, and it basically gave us each immense amounts of permission to go further into the choices we'd already made, but just freed up.
BIANCULLI: William Hurt speaking to Terry Gross in 2010. The Oscar-winning actor died last Sunday. He was 71 years old. We'll hear more of their conversation after a break. Also coming up, John Powers reviews Amy Schumer's new series for Hulu called "Life & Beth," and Justin Chang reviews the new Ben Affleck movie, "Deep Water." I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross. We're listening back to Terry's 2010 interview with actor William Hurt. He died Sunday at the age of 71. In the 1980s, he became famous for his leading roles in "Body Heat," "Broadcast News" and The Big Chill. And he won an Academy Award for his role in "Kiss Of The Spider Woman."
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
GROSS: Now, earlier, you mentioned that you're very interested in people who've gone off the track. So I thought I'd play an example of one of your roles - the character has gone off the track.
HURT: (Laughter) Oh, no.
GROSS: And this is another great film, "A History" - it's called "History Of Violence."
GROSS: And your - it's a movie that's directed by David Cronenberg. You're only in one scene in this. But you are so good that, you know, when you leave the movie, you're thinking (laughter) - you're thinking about this scene. So the main character in the movie - you're the brother of the main character in the movie. The main character in the movie is played by Viggo Mortensen. He used to be a gangster, but he wanted out of that life. So he's moved to a small town. He's changed his name. He's renounced violence. He now owns a diner that he runs with his wife. He has a - he has, I think, two children and then, just to - I won't complicate things, but he gets dragged into violence after the diner is robbed. And then his past starts coming up to haunt him. And he knows that you, his brother, who's still in crime, is in part to blame for this.
So he goes to pay you a call at your fancy home. And first, you have him frisked, even though he's not carrying. And then you pour yourself a drink. You give him a big kiss and a big hug. And he's just, like, wincing because he doesn't even want to be in your presence. He just wants out. And then you explain why you can't let him off the hook. Here's the scene.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE")
HURT: (As Richie Cusack) You know, you cost me a lot of time and money. Before you pull that [expletive] with Fogarty, I was a shoe-in to take over when the boss croaked, a shoe-in. It was made very clear to me, Joey, I had to clean up your mess, or nothing was ever going to happen for me. You got no idea how much [expletive] I had to pull to get back in with those guys. You cost me a hell of a lot, Joey, a hell of a lot.
VIGGO MORTENSEN: (As Tom Stall) Looks like you're doing all right over here.
HURT: (As Richie Cusack) Yeah, I am. Yeah, I am. I'm still behind the eight ball. Because of you, there's a certain lack of respect, a certain lack of trust. The boys in Boston are just waiting for me to go down. (Laughter) You always were a problem for me, Joey. When Mom brought you home from the hospital, I tried to strangle you in your crib. I guess all kids try to do that. She caught me, whacked the daylights out of me.
MORTENSEN: (As Tom Stall) I've heard that story.
HURT: (As Richie Cusack) Well, what do you think? Better late than never?
MORTENSEN: (As Tom Stall) Richie, I'm here to make peace. Tell me what I got to do to make things right.
HURT: (As Richie Cusack) You could do something, I guess. You could die, Joey.
GROSS: And that's the sounds of one of your henchmen trying to (laughter) kill Viggo Mortensen. It's such a good scene. And this character - you play him, and he sounds like an overgrown child. He sounds like...
GROSS: ...Like a child who has a lot of...
HURT: That's exactly right. He never got out of it.
GROSS: ...Like, a lot of power and a lot of guns.
HURT: He's right back there in the room where his mother's whacking him down for doing exactly what she told him to do, which is win. Be your little man. Be the guy. Be the macho boy, beat all comers, including your brother. And when he does it, she whacks him down, so he gets polarized (ph). He lives in a trauma for the rest of his life.
GROSS: So tell us more about, like, just the way you play the role, like, what you did to prepare for it.
HURT: Well, that was - you know, David was so kind with me.
GROSS: David Cronenberg, the director.
HURT: Yes, yes, yes. I went - I arrived ten days early. I filmed only for a couple days. I'm of the belief there are no small roles, only small actors. You know that old phrase?
GROSS: Yeah. Well, I was going to ask you - this is such a - this is literally...
HURT: Yeah, but then that...
GROSS: In terms of time, it's a small role. In terms of impact, it's big.
HURT: But that framework doesn't work for me, you know?
HURT: Who cares? You know, if your life - some people have - you know, I've met 8-year-olds that have more wisdom than 80-year-olds. So. So my mom died young, and she had a great life. So, you know, you can't measure things in terms of time, at least the quality. And so-called main characters - what's that? We're all main characters. We're all main characters in our life.
GROSS: OK. So getting back to playing the role and preparing for it.
HURT: Yeah. I arrived 10 days early, and I asked him if he'd pay for a hotel room and get me a dialect coach. And he did. And then the key was Viggo's generosity, because even though he was at the end of a very long shoot and therefore just whacko tired - he must have been exhausted - he would give me evenings. We would have dinner almost every night. And we would talk about the basics of the character, where they were from, given circumstances. He and Maria had developed this incredible array of wonderful given circumstances for their characters. And he shared that with me. In fact, though I only met Maria just one time on that film...
GROSS: This is Maria Bello. Yeah.
HURT: Yeah. She was the one who actually filled us all in because she came from Philadelphia. She knew all about it. And she and Viggo had done all this research together. So Viggo passed it on to me, and I just based the character on their given circumstances, so I could make them all come from the same world. That's what I was doing. And from there came the character. That to me - that was not somebody waltzing in, dropped in by helicopter, jumping out of a box and doing a great cameo.
GROSS: And what did you want the dialect coach for?
HURT: The sound, his speech - (imitating accent) talking like this. You know, Richie, you talking in there like that.
You know, but I also thought of it as a farce and a grandiose farce and very, very funny. So I saw him as trapped between these images of himself, as, you know, half Italian mafia, half Irish mafia (laughter) and half John Wayne (laughter). So I thought it was so funny. And that's what I basically did with him - was create these bigger-than-thou, bigger-than-himself images so that he could bluster his way through life and pretend that he was strong enough to stand up to his mom.
GROSS: (Laughter) Right.
HURT: ...Because she was the one who trounced him for being - for doing exactly what he - what she and his dad had told him to do, which is be No. 1 and pounce on everybody else.
GROSS: You were telling me before the interview started that you actually live in Oregon in a unpopulated area.
HURT: I live in the county where my mother was born and buried.
GROSS: Is that why you live there?
HURT: That's basically it. I took my two middle boys there after we had troubles, you know, relating to their mom, who was sick. And after I got them back into my permanent custody, I was looking for a place to put a foundation under their feet. And I sent up a little prayer by a balloon, and I said, Mom, what the heck do I do to save our lives? And she said, bring them home. So I put them in a VW bus, and I took them to, you know, the place where she was born and buried in eastern Oregon. And I put them in a one-room schoolhouse...
HURT: ...Where there was a lady who knew the difference between a math grade and a human being. And we're doing great.
GROSS: It sounds like...
GROSS: ...Your mother came from a background of small town and poverty. Your father came from a family with a Supreme Court justice in it. It sounds like...
GROSS: ...Two very different places they came from.
HURT: They were very different. They met in China. I was conceived in China. I was conceived in Shanghai, China in '49. My...
GROSS: Your father was in the State Department or something?
HURT: He became a member of the State - the State Department didn't exist at that time.
HURT: But the Department of the Interior did, and State evolved out of that. My mom, during the war, had gotten pregnant by - with her husband, an American soldier, in New York City, having come, you know, to New York from what some people would call a cultural backwater - I don't call it that. And he went off to the war before she came to term. He was so badly battle-damaged that he came back with mental damage and couldn't function. And his parents said, we'll take him if you'll take yours. And so she had a pair of high heels and a kid in New York during the war.
She was such a brilliant woman that she managed to work herself up from below the bottom rung of the Time Inc. ladder to become an assistant and an essential member of a team. She was asked by Charlie Stillman, who was one of the appointees of Henry R. Luce, to go to Shanghai to help Chiang Kai-shek consolidate the retreat to Formosa and establish nationalist China. So she went. She met my dad there, who was liaising between the communists and the nationalists for the Department of the Interior. And then when State and AID were being established in the early '50s, he became a prominent chief of AID eventually.
So there was my dad on the one hand, but my dad - my parents divorced in '60, which is why I then went to live in sort of Spanish Harlem, Yorkville in New York with my mom for a few years. But I spent a year and a half in Lahore during that time during the coup d'etat - '58, '59. So I've seen a lot of stuff. And then my mom remarried, in '60, the son of the founder of Time Inc., the son of Henry R. Luce, Henry Luce III, who became my stepfather. I moved from 3 1/2 rooms on the Upper East Side to a 22-room duplex on Madison Avenue in the Carlyle and sitting on Louis XV with Vuillard, Vlaminck, Corot on the walls and Ming and Deng to talk about.
HURT: And so it's been a - it's been quite a journey. And from all that, I have had three amazing parents - my father, my stepfather and my mother. And they bestowed on me amazing privileges of education and experience that - from which I refer for my work. And that's one of the reasons why people sometimes say that I'm variegated in my work choices.
GROSS: Well, William Hurt, thank you so much for talking with us.
HURT: You're welcome. All right.
GROSS: It's been great to talk with you. Thank you again.
HURT: Same here.
HURT: Thank you, Terry.
BIANCULLI: William Hurt speaking to Terry Gross in 2010. The Oscar-winning actor died Sunday at age 71. His recent acting appearances included recurring roles on TV's "Goliath" and "Humans" and as a politician in the last two "Avengers" films. Coming up, John Powers reviews "Life & Beth," the new Amy Schumer series that begins streaming today in its entirety on Hulu. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF DEEP BLUE ORGAN TRIO'S "TELL ME SOMETHING GOOD")
DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. In her new TV show "Life & Beth," Amy Schumer plays a woman nearing 40 who realizes that she's living a life she didn't really choose, and she decides to start again. Our critic-at-large, John Powers, has seen the whole series, which drops in its entirety today on Hulu. He says that for all its occasional bumps, "Life & Beth" finds Schumer still pushing hard in new directions.
JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: With really brilliant comedians, there's nearly always a moment when they want to stop being only funny, to move beyond gags and skits and seek out new emotional, thematic or stylistic territory. Sometimes, this turns out magnificently, as when Charlie Chaplin began making feature films far richer than his comic shorts. At others, the results can be downright embarrassing. Think of Woody Allen's ghastly attempts to be Ingmar Bergman. But such are the perils of ambition, and I admire those willing to risk them.
Take one of my favorites, Amy Schumer. Her series "Inside Amy Schumer" was one of the indispensable shows of the last decade, a hilarious, raunchy, take-no-prisoners program with a steely, feminist core. Yet rather than keep making that series forever, she pushed herself in new directions, writing and starring in the hit film "Trainwreck," braving dramatic movie roles, even doing a cooking show with her husband.
Now she's created and stars in an enjoyable new Hulu series, "Life & Beth," about a woman in her late 30s trying to get back in touch with who she really is. She plays Beth Jones, a hard-drinking wine rep in New York who doesn't really like her job or her gung-ho jerk of a boyfriend. Then something happens that shakes her like a personal earthquake. Deciding to stop being, as she puts it, the passive passenger in the car of her life, she begins a voyage of self-discovery. This takes her home to the Long Island boonies and into flashback memories of the teenage Beth who had to deal with the difficult mother she resented - that's Laura Benanti - and the feckless father she adored, winningly played by Michael Rapaport. Back then, the one truly happy thing in Beth's life was playing volleyball.
Over the course of 10 episodes, Beth has all manner of mini adventures. She goes to bars and funerals and farmer's markets. She makes dirty jokes with her friends, many of them funny, and goes boating while high on mushrooms. She gets involved with a dim, hunky trainer played by Jonathan Groff and a socially awkward farmer named John, played by Michael Cera with a charming dryness. Here, her past and present merge when she and her long-estranged father have drinks after he's helped her woo some wine buyers.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LIFE AND BETH")
MICHAEL RAPAPORT: (As Leonard) You got to find that thing that gives you that charge. Why don't you do something with...
AMY SCHUMER: (As Beth) Don't say volleyball.
RAPAPORT: (As Leonard) ...Volleyball?
SCHUMER: (As Beth) Oh, my God. Come on, Dad.
RAPAPORT: (As Leonard) You love volleyball.
SCHUMER: (As Beth) I'm almost 40. What am I doing with volleyball?
RAPAPORT: (As Leonard) You could coach. They got the leagues at the YMCA. You're good at it. Did I tell you that I'm going to quit drinking?
SCHUMER: (As Beth) Oh, that's great. Good for you. Me too.
RAPAPORT: (As Leonard) Good.
SCHUMER: (As Beth) Yeah, I'm quitting.
RAPAPORT: (As Leonard) But not tonight.
SCHUMER: (As Beth) No, not tonight.
RAPAPORT: (As Leonard) Very soon.
SCHUMER: (As Beth) Oh, yeah. It's at the top of my list.
RAPAPORT: (As Leonard) The tippy top.
POWERS: Now, as much as I like watching "Life & Beth," it's quite uneven. Beth's story starts a tad slowly, and its many tones never quite mesh. I kept thinking Schumer's trying to weave together two different strands of groundbreaking women's television. One is the strand that includes "Fleabag" and "Somebody Somewhere," whose heroines grapple with the past in order to move into the future. The other is found in "Girls" and "Better Things," which are looser in form and built less around a clear, overarching narrative than around capturing privileged moments and scenes that often don't add up to anything bigger and don't need to.
I must admit that I never got fully invested in the grand arc of Beth's attempts to let the past go. Schumer's performance is plenty good. Her acting keeps getting deeper. Yet the whole healing narrative, complete with new boyfriend, feels tame and formulaic, especially coming from someone as original as Schumer. Beth's story lacks the emotional and verbal pop of "Fleabag" or the deep body pain of "Somebody Somewhere" whose heroine's wounds feel much more profound than Beth's.
The show is at its strongest when it's less on point, giving freer range to Schumer's capacity for catching life on the wing - a spiky scene involving the Plan B morning after pill, funny sex talk with a Black girlfriend who now chases white Jewish men, sardonic banter with her equally screwed up sister, an explosion of post-coital rage at John, a lovely scene of Beth's dad teaching his daughters to eat oysters, not to mention all manner of good lines. Do you have any preexisting conditions, a doctor asks her before an MRI, and Beth replies, I'm a woman.
Of course, one great danger of cutting-edge comics expanding their range is that they can wind up having their ferocious brilliance smothered by safely conventional material, as happened to Richard Pryor, a certified genius who literally wound up playing a toy. Happily, Schumer escapes that fate in "Life & Beth." Although the cornball punchiness of its title, may give you pause, the show's best moments prove that inside Amy Schumer, the hell-raising spirit lives on.
BIANCULLI: John Powers reviewed Amy Schumer's new series, "Life & Beth," now streaming in its entirety on Hulu. Coming up, Justin Chang reviews the new Ben Affleck movie "Deep Water." This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF BILL FRISELL ET AL.'S "MESSIN' WITH THE KID")
DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. It's been 20 years since we've had a new movie from Adrian Lyne, the director known for such erotic thrillers as "9 1/2 Weeks," "Fatal Attraction" and "Indecent Proposal." Now Lyne is back with another tale of adulterous desire. It's called "Deep Water" and stars Ben Affleck. The movie is adapted from a Patricia Highsmith novel and begins streaming today on Hulu. Our film critic Justin Chang has this review.
JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: The 81-year-old English director Adrian Lyne made his mark in Hollywood decades ago with movies like "Fatal Attraction," "Indecent Proposal" and "Unfaithful" - slick, ridiculous and generally irresistible tales of wayward spouses and reckless desires. His comeback after a 20-year absence is one of the selling points of "Deep Water," his new adaptation of a 1957 Patricia Highsmith novel. Another is that the movie stars Ben Affleck and Ana de Armas, who began dating while working on the film back in 2019. As you may have heard, they've since broken up. And the movie, which was made for theaters but delayed multiple times by the pandemic, is finally being released on Hulu with a conspicuous lack of fanfare. And so like "Eyes Wide Shut" with Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman or "By The Sea" with Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, "Deep Water" offers the titillating spectacle of a real-life ill-fated couple playing a fictional ill-fated couple.
For what it's worth, Affleck and de Armas don't have much on-screen chemistry, which seems somewhat intentional. They play Vic and Melinda Van Allen, a fabulously wealthy couple who live with their young daughter in New Orleans. They have an open marriage, at least where Melinda's concerned. She spends most of her time chasing dreamy, mostly dull-witted young men around town and sometimes inviting them over to the house for dinner. Vic is good at hiding his jealousy up to a point. Part of the fun of the movie is the way he manages to express his contempt for Melinda and her many lovers without losing his cool.
In an early scene, Melinda brings over her latest boyfriend for dinner, and Vic makes him a grilled cheese sandwich, from which Melinda takes a bite.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DEEP WATER")
BEN AFFLECK: (As Vic Van Allen) How's the grilled cheese?
BRENDAN MILLER: (As Joel Dash) Actually, it's amazing.
AFFLECK: (As Vic Van Allen) Oh, good.
ANA DE ARMAS: (As Melinda Van Allen) Can I have some - a bite? (Whispering) I don't like lobster bisque.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEWING)
DE ARMAS: (As Melinda Van Allen) Oh, my God.
MILLER: (As Joel Dash) Right (laughter)?
DE ARMAS: (As Melinda Van Allen) This is amazing.
AFFLECK: (As Vic Van Allen) Melinda kind of has the palate of a 12-year-old. Our first date, I took her to the best restaurant in the city, and she ordered mac and cheese.
DE ARMAS: (As Melinda Van Allen) Yes. It's like he was ashamed to be with me.
AFFLECK: (As Vic Van Allen) No. I just realized you were ordering off the children's menu to save room for alcohol.
DE ARMAS: (As Melinda Van Allen) You see, Vic never drinks.
AFFLECK: (As Vic Van Allen, softly) I drink sometimes.
DE ARMAS: (As Melinda Van Allen) Sometimes I think he's not normal 'cause normal people can let go.
AFFLECK: (As Vic Van Allen) Do you wish that I were normal, Melinda?
DE ARMAS: (As Melinda Van Allen) My God, all the time.
AFFLECK: (As Vic Van Allen) 'Cause if I were normal, I don't think Joel would be over here having dinner with us.
DE ARMAS: (As Melinda Van Allen) You don't have to be rude.
AFFLECK: (As Vic Van Allen) I'm not being rude. I made lobster bisque.
CHANG: Highsmith's icy cynicism makes for an intriguing but far-from-seamless fit with Lyne's soapy style. He and his writers, Zach Helm and Sam Levinson, have moved the story up to the present day and given the plot a few tweaks. But the general premise is the same. When Melinda's lovers start turning up dead, rumors begin to spread around town that Vic was responsible. The writers have also retained some of Highsmith's more eccentric flourishes, including Vic's prized snail collection. If you've ever wanted to see Ben Affleck look on affectionately while snails slither across his open palm, this is the movie for you.
At times, "Deep Water" seems to move as slowly as those snails. Sometimes it's a self-aware hoot, and sometimes it's a disjointed drag. Significant chunks of the story seem to have wound up on the cutting room floor, particularly as it speeds toward an almost comically abrupt ending. Meanwhile, the director keeps piling on his signature touches, from the Architectural Digest furnishings to the tasteful nudity. It wouldn't be an Adrian Lyne movie if the female lead didn't sit around soaking in an antique bathtub. The story does raise the intriguing possibility that Melinda and Vic might be engaging in some kinky, extended role play. But whatever game these two are up to isn't, in the end, terribly interesting.
De Armas, who was terrific in movies like "Knives Out" and "No Time To Die" seems to have been directed mainly to flirt, drink and scream at the top of her lungs. Affleck, always an underrated actor, fares better. As in "Gone Girl," another potboiler about a loveless marriage, he excels at playing the golden boy gone to seed. Even before we learn how Vic earned his millions - he invented a microchip now used in drone warfare - there's something ominous and inscrutable beneath his calm surface. It's enough to trigger the suspicions of a nosy neighbor played by a typically sharp Tracy Letts.
What's refreshing about "Deep Water," especially in contrast to "Fatal Attraction" and "Unfaithful," is that it lacks the moralistic streak that has often marred Lyne's work, where characters stray from happy marriages and wind up paying the price in a flurry of horrific violence. This movie slyly inverts that setup, partly by making the Van Allens' marriage so unhappy to begin with. Like Highsmith, the director seems to harbor no illusions about how truly appalling people can be. And his honesty is bracing. I can't call "Deep Water" a good movie exactly, but I can't deny that there's something good about having Adrian Lyne back.
BIANCULLI: Justin Chang is film critic for the LA Times. He reviewed the new film "Deep Water," now streaming on Hulu.
(SOUNDBITE OF JEREMY DENK PERFORMANCE OF WOLFGANG MOZART'S "PIANO CONCERTO NO. 20 IN D MINOR, K. 466: II. ROMANCE")
BIANCULLI: On Monday's show, classical pianist Jeremy Denk. He has a new memoir, which he describes as a story of piano lessons, what he learned from his teachers and the music he learned to interpret. It's also about his pivotal artistic moments, as well as the failures and frustrations along the way. His new memoir is called "Every Good Boy Does Fine: A Love Story, In Music Lessons." Hope you can join us.
(SOUNDBITE OF JEREMY DENK PERFORMANCE OF WOLFGANG MOZART'S "PIANO CONCERTO NO. 20 IN D MINOR, K. 466: II. ROMANCE")
BIANCULLI: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Roberta Shorrock. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support by Joyce Lieberman, Julian Herzfeld and Al Banks. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Joel Wolfram. Our producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.
(SOUNDBITE OF JEREMY DENK PERFORMANCE OF WOLFGANG MOZART'S "PIANO CONCERTO NO. 20 IN D MINOR, K. 466: II. ROMANCE")
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