Kiss of the Spider Woman, The (1985): Babenco’s Adaptation of Manuel Puig Novel, Starring William Hurt in Oscar-Winning Performance

This independently made film, which world-premiered at the 1985 Cannes Film Festival, won great acclaim and became a favorite on the international arthouse circuit, particularly after being Oscar-nominated for Best Picture and William Hurts win of the Best Actor Oscar.

Based on Manuel Puig’s acclaimed novel, which was published in 1976, the film was penned by Leonard Schrader (brother of director Paul) and directed by Brazilian-born, Argentinean-based Hector Babenco, right after his international hit about childrens poverty, Pixote (1981).

Like the book, the movie centers on the unlikely friendship that evolves between a mincing homosexual whos a window-dresser (Hurt) and a macho Marxist (Raul Julia), while spending time in an unnamed Latin American prison. The schematic story follows step-by-step the mellowing of a macho and the camaraderie that develops between initially incompatible cellmates, culminating in acts of sacrifice and redemption that do not always ring true.

Hurt, then riding high due to breakout performances in Body Heat and The Big Chill, was not the obvious choice to play a Latin drag queen; physically, he looks too much like a WASP. He was cast against type as the effeminate, towel-turbaned, Hollywood-worshipping Molina, and was rewarded for that with an Oscar.

The movie became a sensation, and as a result of critical acclaim and Oscar kudos, managed to crossover into the mainstream. At the time of release, there were heated debated about the films politics and sexual politics. Some thought the political discourse was shallow and stereotypical, reducing issues to the level of interpersonal melodrama. Perhaps, the movie should have been made closer to the time in which the book was published, at the height of gay liberation and pre-AIDS, when, for a brief time, gay, feminist, and radical politics intersected.

“Kiss of the Spider Woman” was the first film to bring attention to the thoughtful actor Raul Julia, then mostly known as stage actor (he did Brechts Three Penny Opera at the Public Theater), as the political prisoner Valentin. Many people in the industry felt that he, too, deserved an Oscar nomination for a film that was really a two-handler. Julias later films, before his sudden death from stroke in 1994 (age 44), were the Addams Family comedies, co-starring Anjelica Huston and Christina Ricci.

Playing the flashier role, Hurt is good as the self-dramatizing Molina, who entertains himself and Valentin with descriptions of old glamorous movies, one of them a Nazi propaganda flick, related in terms of romantic melodrama rather than ideology or politics.

The recreations of these B-grade movies, which help Molina survive the day, are uneven in style, perhaps reflecting the limited imagination of Babenco as a director. The whole point is to show how even the straightest guy can be seduced and talked into believing in movie glamour and fantasies. Its not a particularly tough task, when the sensual Brazilian actress Sonia Brago embodies Hollywoods femme fatales; she also plays a surprise role at the end.

You can fault the film (and book) for employing too many stereotypes. Hence, Molina is thrown into prison for molesting a boy, and in one of the films climactic moments, he succeeds in personally seducing Valentin into intercourse. By todays standards, the text, particularly of Molina, is also full of clichs, such as monologues about whats male sensitivity and tender human behavior. But its important to remember that the 1976 novel basically reflected gay politics of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Indeed, released at the height of Reagans conservative regime and reactionary ideology vis–vis gay and lesbian rights, Kiss of the Spider Woman represented an anomaly, a breath of fresh air as an indie art film and political statement