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When Marlee Matlin Accused William Hurt of Rape

The Daily Beast logo The Daily Beast 2017-11-11 Amy Zimmerman


On March 30, 1987, Marlee Matlin won a Best Actress Academy Award for her debut turn in Children of a Lesser God.

At just 21, Matlin had achieved the seemingly impossible, breaking ground for an entire community as the first-ever deaf actress to win an Oscar. Furthering the fairytale, Matlin’s category was presented by her then-boyfriend and Lesser God co-star, William Hurt (who was also nominated for Best Actor that year). Hurt read out the nominees, opened the envelope, announced and then signed Matlin’s name. A visibly emotional Matlin ascended to the podium, where she and Hurt kissed to thunderous applause.

But according to Matlin, her relationship with Hurt, which began when she was 19 and he was 35, was far from picture perfect.

In her 2010 memoir, I’ll Scream Later, the actress describes the two years she spent with Hurt in vivid, disturbing detail, outlining a pattern of physical and emotional abuse.

On what ought to have been one of the happiest nights of her life, Matlin recalls sitting next to Hurt in their limo with the Academy Award statuette by her side, only to be berated by the actor. According to Matlin, Hurt, who had been dreading the possibility of Matlin winning the prestigious award, turned to her and asked, “What makes you think you deserve it?” He continued, “There are hundreds of actors who have worked for years for the recognition you just got handed to you. Think about that.”

Matlin’s memoir alleges that the Oscar-winning actor physically abused and sexually assaulted her. In one particularly horrific passage, Matlin remembers an incident that took place while Hurt was filming Broadcast News (he would later be nominated for an Academy Award for his performance). Hurt “finally came home around 4:30 A.M. drunk and woke me up,” Matlin writes. “The next thing I knew he’d pulled me out of the bed, screaming at me, shaking me. I was scared, I was sobbing. Then he threw me on the bed, started ripping off his clothes and mine. I was crying. ‘No, no, no. Please Bill, no.’ The next thing I remember is Bill ramming himself inside me as I sobbed.”

At the time when Matlin’s memoir was published, the media seemed largely unwilling to call William Hurt what he was: a man accused of physically abusing and raping his girlfriend. Instead, his and Matlin’s time together was described as passionate and “volatile”; even Simon & Schuster’s description of the memoir evaded direct language, instead teasing tales of her “tumultuous relationship with Oscar winner William Hurt.”

During an appearance on Larry King Live to discuss the book, guest host Joy Behar opened the discussion by asking Matlin, “All right, let’s talk about William Hurt. What’s the deal between the two of you? Was it love? Was it lust?” later adding, “And you said in the book that the sex with him was spectacular. Now you’ve piqued my interest. Can we have a few details here?” (Hurt could not be reached for comment for this story; Matlin, through her representative, released a statement saying, “It’s all in her book.”)

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The manner in which Matlin’s accusations were discussed and then more or less ignored—a piece of gossip rather than a career-ending revelation—stands in direct contrast to the current cultural climate.

These days, in the wake of Harvey Weinstein’s previously unfathomable ousting, actresses are coming forward with their stories of sexual harassment and assault and actually being heard. Accusations are suddenly sticking, with men like Brett Ratner and James Toback finally being held responsible for decades of alleged misconduct. And while it’s still too soon to know what tangible effects the #MeToo movement will have, in Hollywood and beyond, it’s safe to say Matlin’s story would have been taken far more seriously today and may have resulted in real consequences for the accused. 

Of course, the accusations in Matlin’s book speak for themselves. She and Hurt immediately connected during the initial screen test for Children of a Lesser God. Matlin recalls the way Hurt would manipulate her emotionally both on and offset. Director “Randa [Haines] came to believe that it was all just a part of Bill’s process, that he needed conflict, some kind of resistance to fight through before he could get to the place he needed to. She said later that she thought about pulling me aside, telling me not to take it personally. She never did, but I was too emotionally drawn into Bill’s world than to have listened anyway.”

As with that Oscar night, Hurt left a mark on what should have been an ecstatic, once-in-a-lifetime experience. “Many of the scenes I’m in are defined in my memory by whether Bill and I were fighting that day,” Matlin writes. Describing a particular sex scene, she shows how her critically acclaimed performance is forever tied up in that abusive relationship: “In that scene after we’ve made love, we’re on the floor and I roll away from him. My dress is pushed above my knees, and down my left leg are a series of fresh bruises. You can see them if you watch that scene now. I never said anything that day, wondering if the makeup crew would notice, would try to cover them… But no one did. It’s as if no one sees.”

a woman sitting in a room: A scene from ‘Children of a Lesser God’ that shows actress Marlee Matlin with bruises on her legs. © Provided by The Daily Beast A scene from ‘Children of a Lesser God’ that shows actress Marlee Matlin with bruises on her legs.

In a 2009 Access Hollywood interview, Nancy O’Dell asked Matlin about the abuse. “I always had fresh bruises every day,” the actress replied. “And if I had a split lip, or if… I mean, there were a lot of things that happened that were not pleasant.” 

Matlin’s memoir contains an anecdote from a trip to Europe, where she flew to visit Hurt while he was working on 1988’s A Time of Destiny. She includes her translator Jack’s recollections of a particularly brutal fight: “Just as I came out of my room Marlee came out of theirs. She had bruises on her face and the start of a black eye. I could see Bill behind her, and he had a split lip. Marlee wanted to go home or to call the police. I didn’t see how we could do either. Bill had the tickets, none of us had any money, and I didn’t know how to contact the police in Yugoslavia.”  

Later on in the memoir, Jack recalls yet another incident. This time, Hurt had called him to come and get Matlin. “When I got to their floor, I saw Marlee sobbing on the floor in the hallway, her clothes thrown in heaps around her. Bill came out in the hall, angry, and just kept saying, ‘Don’t believe anything she tells you.’”

The relationship allegedly took both a physical and an emotional toll on Matlin. An excerpt from her writing at the time explains that “Bill and I had a terrible fight on the phone last night. My heart hurts… I’m tired of fighting. I love Bill, but he emotionally drains me. I’m scared of him.” At one of the many low points in their relationship, Matlin describes feeling hopeless: “One evening, after we’d fought through lunch and as the argument raged on, I felt my will to live just slip away. I felt lost, helpless. I realized I didn’t care whether I lived or died. As we walked away from the restaurant, I walked out into the street, dazed.”

Many of Hurt’s described tactics are typical of an abusive relationship. Matlin recalled a letter that Hurt wrote to her attempting to end their relationship: “He said in that letter that he was guilt-ridden about what he called his ‘physical anger.’ But he blamed me for doing things that made him crazy angry.”

Matlin also recounted finally leaving Hurt after a brutal fight. “I don’t remember when or how the fight started; what I know is that I have never been so scared in my life before or after that day,” she writes. “The struggle turned violent. I was afraid I might not survive. I pulled myself free and ran to the phone… Before I could say anything, Bill yanked the phone out of my hand and slammed it down.” The actress quotes the doctor who examined her afterward as saying, “There were fresh bruises on her arms and her face.” “I knew I couldn’t let myself go back—ever,” Matlin continues. “I was terrified for two reasons: we would in all likelihood fight again, or just as bad, I might not have had the strength to leave.”

Marlee Matlin holding a sign © Provided by The Daily Beast

In 1989, the actor was engulfed in a minor scandal due to a palimony trial. According to reports at the time, Hurt’s ex Sandra Jennings alleged that she and the actor had lived together as common-law husband and wife, which therefore entitled her to half of his estimated $10 million in assets. The Chicago Tribune reported that Jennings, who met the actor in 1981, alleged that Hurt employed “violent physical and verbal” abuse against her. She also claimed that he “smashed her across the face” only five days after the birth of their child. She was allegedly holding their son at the time of the beating. Jennings also cited Hurt’s abuse of Marlee Matlin, which she reportedly learned about from her son. Jennings alleged that during visits, her son witnessed Hurt kicking his live-in girlfriend. Hurt denied ever hitting Jennings.  

“He’d have one drink and he’d have a personality change,” said Jennings. “Then when he didn’t drink for a couple of days, he’d get violent. I started seeing it, and that’s why I started going to Al-Anon meetings. But he was absolutely refusing to talk about it at that time, or consider it.”

Jennings’ attorney alleged that she had two abortions over the course of her relationship with Hurt, the second because the actor “was beating her up so much.” Hurt was supported in the trial by some of his famous friends, who cited the actor’s heroic struggle to deal with his substance abuse. “The important thing,” said Glenn Close, “is that Bill is really doing something about it. He’s seeking support, and he’s passionate about it, and for that reason, he has my deepest respect. He’s in great shape, the best he’s ever been in. I think he’s actually quite a different person.”

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Despite the allegations against him, Hurt never appeared to have difficulty finding work. In a 1989 New York Times interview, Hurt discussed his return to the Circle Repertory Company in the wake of the trial. “This is the best thing I could be doing right now,” the then 39-year-old shared. “This is the place that’s easiest for me… I have a lot of old friends here. I can relax the most. My guard doesn’t have to be up.” He also expressed dismay at how the press covered the case, bemoaning, “It’s not right that my privacy is invaded to the extent that it is. I’m a very private man, and I have the right to be. I never said that because I was an actor you can have my privacy, you can steal my soul. You can’t.”

If Hurt was seen as a controversial figure during the Jennings trial, the accusations against him seem to have been largely forgotten. In 2005, he received his fourth Oscar nomination for A History of Violence. In the wake of Matlin’s allegations, he’s starred in Robin Hood and Captain America: Civil War. In total, his IMDb page boasts 100 acting credits.

And while Hurt denied Jennings’ accusations of abuse, he barely disputed Matlin’s scathing account. In response to the actress’ memoir, Hurt released a statement to Access Hollywood: “My own recollection is that we both apologized and both did a great deal to heal our lives. Of course, I did and do apologize for any pain I caused. And I know we both have grown. I wish Marlee and her family nothing but good.”

In a telling passage from her memoir, Matlin described running into Hurt unexpectedly “about three years ago.”

“It had been so long since we’d had any contact,” she wrote, “but I realized my feelings about him remained so unresolved, I freaked out when I saw him across the room.” When asked by O’Dell if she discussed the book with her ex before it was published, Matlin countered, “I had no contact with him. Really, I had nothing to say to him. He knows what happened, I know what happened. We both were there.”

In Pics: This week in entertainment history: Nov. 12-18

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American actor William Holden (1918 - 1981), circa 1965. (Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images) This week in entertainment history: Nov. 12-18

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