Kiss of the Spider Woman is a Brazilian film with American actors, directed by Hector Babenco, the gifted South American whose film Pixote was a controversial sensation.
Based on a book by the daring Argentine left-wing political dissident Manuel Puig, it tells the odd story of two prisoners who form an extraordinary bond of friendship in a horrifying confinement.
Hurt is a gay window-dresser thrown into a rotting jail in Rio, where he is forced to share a cell with a left-wing journalist (Raul Julia) imprisoned for supporting a revolutionary movement. In the outside world, neither man would befriend the other, but despite the revolutionary’s initial revulsion, he is drawn to the homosexual through fate and circumstance.
“Without power in this country, no man is a real man,” says the macho revolutionary, warming to his tragic comical cell mate, and the film follows the dramatic development of their relationship, questioning what constitutes real manhood, as each of them discovers nobility in the other and a different kind of self-respect.
The title, Kiss of the Spider Woman, comes from the fanciful plots of old movies the drag queen has either seen or imagined. As he passes the time between interrogations and tortures telling and retelling bizarre and romantic movie fantasies, the scenes from the movies themselves come alive with the erotic Sonia Braga as the glamorous Spider Woman.
As it switches hypnotically between fear and pride, day and night, fantasy and fatalism, Babenco forms cunning parallels between the B-movie plots and the intrigue-and-betrayal tale that is gradually unspooling in the prison cell.
Gradually, with irony and tenderness, the two men take a step into each other’s worlds, and the weak man is the one who ends up with power over the strong man in a stirring psychological twist that leaves the audience dazed. The relationship culminates in a brief, touching love affair, directed and acted with wonderful discretion.
Everything about Kiss of the Spider Woman is original and powerful, but the one smashing impact that towers above everything else is William Hurt’s magnificent, three-dimensional Oscar-winning performance as the pathetic homosexual with the heart of a woman trapped in the body of a man.
Creeping about the slimy perimeters of his black cell with his hair in a towel turban, his face aflame with red lipstick and blue mascara, and his big, bony feet protruding daintily from his rubber thongs, he minces, sighs, and flutters like a drunken butterfly on the verge of collapse.
This could have been a campy, hysterical parody, but Hurt has the creative genius to make you hurt, laugh, and feel repulsed at the same time. For an actor who is basically miscast, he elevates the art of make-believe to greatness.