December 23, 1985 12:00 PM

Lips rouged, eyes shadowed, a pale figure in a shabby pink peignoir floats like a fragment of a dream through a dim prison cell. Words flutter out of the figure’s mouth like big soft moths and magically become huge radiant images, a film within a film that peoples the cell with passion, horror, life.

In Kiss of the Spider Woman, one of 1985’s strangest and most beautiful movies, the world of a homosexual prisoner is transfigured by the power of imagination, and the player who embodies that power delivers a daring, fascinating performance. His name is William Hurt, and many reviewers insist he is the actor of the year.

Not what you might expect from the look of him. At 34, he has a routinely perfect body of the kind you see in underwear ads and a routinely handsome face that was obviously fished from the same gene pool as Robert Redford’s. In Body Heat (1981), his rippling youth and tawny intensity made him an international sex object. But as the groin-damaged veteran in The Big Chill (1983), he sloughed off his glamour like a gleaming plastic wrapper and let the world glimpse the talent it had masked. To watch that talent explode as delicately as a paper flower in a bowl of water, customers have rushed to see Kiss, a $3-million gamble that has earned almost $15 million and become the year’s most successful cult film. At Cannes, Hurt was voted Best Actor, and smart money is betting that he will edge Jack (Prizzi’s Honor) Nicholson in the Oscar derby. If he wants to be a superstar, says screenwriter Steve Tesich, “it’s there for him to achieve.”

Not a chance, says Hurt. He finds fame and power a chore and a bore, and he loves the stage too much to pursue a full-time screen career. Mad about his craft, he studied at Juilliard under John Houseman and moved on to swift success at Manhattan’s Circle Rep (The Fifth of July) and on Broadway (Hurlyburly).

“I’m a character actor in a leading-man’s body,” he says. “I want more mask than, say, Spencer Tracy did. But I don’t ‘pretend’ to be somebody else. Acting isn’t schizoid like that. Acting is about telling the truth. And it’s an adventure. It isn’t about what I know before I do it. It’s about what I can discover while it’s happening.” To discover how to be a man who felt like a woman, Hurt tidied his character’s cell. Assembled a makeup kit, sewing box and trinket case. Brewed tea with rainwater caught in a cup. Even switched roles while rehearsing with co-star Raul Julia. “He was better than I was, and I could see what I was missing. I offered him the part, but the director said no.”

Hurt has explored in private life, too. Divorced from Mary Beth Hurt after a seven-year marriage, he has a 2-year-old son named Alexander with ballerina Sandra Jennings. They are no longer together, but Hurt dotes on his son. “Alex is my dearest friend,” he says. “My heart for the future.” A 20-year-old actress from Chicago named Marlee Matlin, who co-stars in Hurt’s next movie, Children of a Lesser God, has just moved into his pleasantly unpretentious Manhattan West Side flat. She is deaf, so they often talk in sign language. “It’s too early to speak about us,” he says, but in order to be with her he has refused all work until April. Hurt’s cat, a yellow female named Otis, is delighted. Now she has two laps to sleep on.

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