July 18, 1917– Hurd Hatfield
Poor Hurd Hatfield, throughout his career in film, television and stage productions, he was always associated with The Picture Of Dorian Gray (1945), after playing the title role in Oscar Wilde‘s tale of a vain young man who trades his soul to retain his youthful appearance. The role made Hatfield a star, but that fame was a double-edged sword because he was unable to shake the notoriety of the role, and just five years later, he was appearing in a string of B-movies.
One of the most unintentionally funny lines in film history is in The Portrait Of Dorian Gray (1945) when Dorian (Hatfield), who is supposed to be going to a ball, comes downstairs in his dressing gown. His surprised fiancée, already in evening dress says: “But Dorian, you haven’t changed”.
Oddly, like his famous role, Hatfield retained his youthful features into old age.
In The Diary Of A Chambermaid (1946), directed by Jean Renoir, Hatfield was rather perfect as the indolent, tubercular son of the French bourgeois family that employs Celestine (Paulette Goddard), the chambermaid of the title. Hatfield complained that Goddard was all wrong for her role because of her “brassy American accent”. His own American accent was slight, and his voice mellifluous, which he used to effect in several classic plays on stage, and in some of his better film roles.
He was born William Rukard Hurd Hatfield in New York City, and at 19-years-old, he won a scholarship to study in England at the Michael Chekhov Theatre and Drama School. While working in Chekhov’s company in 1938, he began an affair with fellow cast member Yul Brynner. Unlike Brynner, however, Hatfield remained exclusively gay his entire life. Hatfield also enjoyed an affair with Sir Michael Redgrave, but then, who didn’t?
When the company toured the USA in 1939, he played Sir Andrew Aguecheek in Twelfth Night, Gloucester in King Lear and Kirolov in The Possessed, based on the Dostoevsky novel. Quite the homecoming. While on tour in Los Angeles, the very Anglo-Saxon Hatfield was offered a contract with MGM and was cast as a Chinese peasant, the younger brother of the very Asian-looking Katharine Hepburn, in the film adaptation of Pearl S. Buck‘s Dragon Seed (1944).
Audiences who saw him in “oriental” makeup could have recognized him in The Picture Of Dorian Gray the following year. The Picture of Dorian Gray was directed by Albert Lewin and along with Hatfield, it stars George Sanders, Donna Reed, Peter Lawford and Angela Lansbury. Shot primarily in black-and-white, the film is unusual in that it features four inserts in Technicolor of Dorian Gray’s portrait as a special effect. It’s a good film with an excellent cast. The cinematography by Harry Stradling and Lansbury were both nominated for Academy Awards. Trivia: Lansbury lost the Oscar to Anne Revere for playing Lansbury’s stalwart mother in National Velvet .
Variety, the showbiz daily, wrote:
Hatfield, as pretty boy Gray, is singularly narcissistic all the way and plays it with little feeling, as apparently intended.
Really, he is particularly impressive in an almost impossible role.
Years later, a friend of Hatfield’s bought the Henrique Medina painting of young Dorian Gray that was used in the film at the MGM auction, and gave it to Hatfield. In 2015 the portrait was put up for auction at Christie’s in New York (from the collection of his Hatfield’s cousin Robert Hatfield Ellsworth, another tale worth telling) with a pre-auction estimate of $8,000. It sold for $149,000.
After The Picture of Dorian Gray, Hatfield played mostly decadent, troubled characters. In Michael Curtiz‘s The Unsuspected (1947), he plays an alcoholic married to a nymphomaniac; in The Checkered Coat (1948), he plays a psychopathic killer; and killer on the loose in Chinatown At Midnight (1949).
By 1950 Hatfield gave up on Hollywood and decided to return to the stage. In 1952 he appeared on Broadway in Christopher Fry‘s Venus Observed with Rex Harrison, directed by Laurence Olivier, and the following year he played Lord Byron in Tennessee Williams‘ Camino Real, directed by Elia Kazan. He was in the Broadway production of Anastasia (1954), played the title role in Julius Caesar in the inaugural season of the American Shakespeare Festival at Stratford (1955) and appeared as Don John in John Gielgud‘s legendary production of Much Ado About Nothing on Broadway (1959). Still, he couldn’t shake the specter of Dorian Gray.
He returned to the screen in Arthur Penn‘s first film The Left-Handed Gun (1958), brilliantly sly as the partner of outlaw Billy the Kid, played by Paul Newman. He was really good as Pontius Pilate, brightening up Nicholas Ray‘s interminable Biblical epic King Of Kings (1961).
In Penn’s arty Mickey One (1961), Hatfield is intriguing as the nightclub owner with an insidious sexual hold over a singer played by Warren Beatty. Exploit his effete persona, Hatfield was cast as Paul Bern, Jean Harlow‘s impotent husband, who committed suicide, in Harlow (1965), opposite Carol Lynley.
After a few more films, Hatfield moved Ireland in 1972, where he spent his time working on his estate. In the 1980s, he toured in his own solo play, The Son Of Whistler’s Mother, portraying artist James McNeill Whistler. There were some films in his later years, including two directed by Bruce Beresford, Crimes Of The Heart (1986) and Her Alibi (1989). But because of his most famous role, whatever he did or wherever he went, people could not refrain from making some comment on his looks.
I have been haunted by ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’, New York, London, anywhere I’m making a personal appearance, people will talk about other things, but they always get back to Dorian Gray.
As the painter says in Wilde’s story:
We suffer for what the gods give us, and I’m afraid Dorian Gray will pay for his good looks…
The film didn’t make me popular in Hollywood. It was too odd, too avant- garde, too ahead of its time. The decadence, the bisexuality and so on, made me a leper! Nobody knew I had a sense of humor, and people wouldn’t even have lunch with me.
Angela Lansbury had taken him to Ireland in the late 1940s, and by 1970s Hatfield was commuting between a 17th century estate in County Cork and his house on Long Island. His home in Ireland was filled with the antiques and art he loved to collect. It was there in 1998 that Hatfield died in his sleep at 81-years-old. The house was sold in late 2006, and the entire contents were sold at an auction in 2007. But, you can stay there, it is now a luxury boutique hotel. Oddly, the promotional materials make no mention of Hatfield.