screen gems

Let us salute William Hurt and a breathtaking queer character

Kiss of the Spider Woman

Welcome to Screen Gems, our weekend dive into queer and queer-adjacent titles of the past that deserve a watch or a re-watch.

The Tribute: Kiss of the Spider Woman

The world lost a great actor with the passing of William Hurt last week. Hurt, known for his roles in The Big Chill, Children of a Lesser God, Body Heat, and Broadcast News had proven himself one of America’s most reliable talents. He also made history as one of the few actors to score a trifecta of Best Actor Oscar nominations in three consecutive years.

For Hurt at his best, and for one of the most debated queer characters in the history of movies, we look toward his Oscar-winning performance in 1985’s Kiss of the Spider Woman. The film, based on Manuel Puig’s novel, details the relationship between cellmates in a Brazillian prison. Valentin (the great Raul Julia, another actor gone too soon) lands himself in jail for his work as a Marxist insurrectionist. Luis (Hurt) had sex with an underage boy.

Much of the plot focuses on the conflict between the pair. Valentin despises Luis’ effeminacy and flamboyance, as well as his apolitical attitudes. Luis, by contrast, finds Valentin boorish and culturally ignorant. The two find an odd way to bond: Valentin pines for his girlfriend Marta, and Luis uses knowledge of the movies to spin tales of Valentin & Marta on romantic adventures together. The fantasies of Marta come to sustain the prisoners as their imaginations give them hope for life outside the prison walls.

Critics, and even the original novelist Manuel Puig (who was gay) identified Luis Molina as a homosexual; Puig spent long passages of the book defending homosexuality as a healthy sexual orientation.

We have to wonder if Puig also stumbled onto something more complicated. Throughout the film, Luis uses she/her pronouns to self-describe. Moreover, the character’s use of make-up and feminine clothing suggest Luis might actually be better described as a transgender woman. That elusive question only adds a layer of interest to the character today. Indeed, it seems that the imaginary character of Marta represents different ideals to Valentin and Luis. Valentin sees her as an ideal mate. Luis sees her as an ideal self. No wonder the two prisoners fall in love.

Audiences today might wish Kiss of the Spider Woman had a more specific, modern take on Luis’ gender identity and sexuality. For our part, we like the vagueries. The character of Luis reminds gay and trans viewers of their common history as queer people. The film itself also begs questions about Valentin’s sexual fluidity; has he fallen in love with Luis, or just an idea the pair have created? If Hurt gets all the praise for his work in Kiss of the Spider Woman, Julia doesn’t get enough. Both actors give sensational performances here.

Kiss of the Spider Woman raises all these questions and more, as well as features two remarkable performances at its center. To understand its place in queer cinema history, and to understand what the world lost with the passing of Hurt and Julia, give it a watch. Prepare to get stuck in this spiderweb.

Streams on YouTube.