Kiss of the Spider Woman (film)

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Kiss of the Spider Woman
Theatrical release poster
Directed byHéctor Babenco
Screenplay byLeonard Schrader
Based onKiss of the Spider Woman
by Manuel Puig
Produced byDavid Weisman
CinematographyRodolfo Sánchez
Edited byMauro Alice
Music by
  • FilmDallas Pictures
  • Sugarloaf Films
  • HB Filmes
Distributed by
Release dates
  • 13 May 1985 (1985-05-13) (Cannes)
  • 26 July 1985 (1985-07-26) (U.S.)
  • 13 March 1986 (1986-03-13) (Brazil)
Running time
121 minutes[1]
  • United States
  • Brazil
Budget$1–1.5 million
Box office$17 million[2]

Kiss of the Spider Woman (Portuguese: O Beijo da Mulher Aranha) is a 1985 drama film, based on the 1976 novel of the same title by Argentine writer Manuel Puig. It is directed by Argentine-Brazilian filmmaker Héctor Babenco from a screenplay by Leonard Schrader, and stars William Hurt, Raul Julia, and Sônia Braga. [3]

Set in Brazilian prison during the military dictatorship, the film centres on a dialogue between two very different cellmates, a hardened leftist revolutionary (Julia) and an apolitical transwoman (Hurt). The story utilizes metafictional and film-within-a-film elements, as the latter regales the former with retellings of an old movie, whose themes mirror those of the characters.

Independently produced by David Weisman and filmed in São Paulo between October 1983 and March 1984, the film premiered at the 1985 Cannes Film Festival, where Hurt won the Best Actor award and Babenco was nominated for the Palme d'Or. Released in the United States on July 26, 1985, it received widespread critical acclaim;[4] Hurt won the Academy Award and BAFTA Award for Best Actor, and the film received a further three Oscar nominations: for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay.


The film centres on a dialogue between two very different individuals who share a prison cell in Brazil during the Brazilian military dictatorship: Valentin Arregui, who is imprisoned (and has been tortured) due to his activities on behalf of a leftist revolutionary group, and Luis Molina, an effeminate homosexual in prison for "corrupting an underage youth."

Molina passes the time by recounting memories from one of his favorite films, a wartime romantic thriller that is also a Nazi propaganda film. He weaves the characters into a narrative meant to comfort Valentin and distract him from the harsh realities of political imprisonment and separation from his lover, Marta. Valentin encourages Molina to have self-respect and opens him up to political commitment. Despite Valentin's occasionally snapping at Molina over his shallow views of film-watching and unrealistic romance, an unlikely friendship develops between the two.

As the story develops, it becomes clear that Valentin is being poisoned by his jailers to provide Molina with a chance to befriend him, and that Molina is spying on Valentin on behalf of the secret police. Molina has apparently been promised parole if he succeeds in obtaining information that will allow the secret police to break up the revolutionary group.

When Molina declares himself in love with Valentin, a physical consummation of that love occurs on Molina's last night in prison. Molina is granted parole in a surprise move by the secret police. Valentin provides Molina with a telephone number and a message for his comrades. Molina at first refuses to take the number, fearing the consequences of treason, but he relents, bidding Valentin farewell with a kiss.

Now out of prison, Molina calls the telephone number, and a meeting is arranged with the revolutionary group. But the secret police have had Molina under surveillance, and at the rendezvous, a gun battle occurs, with the revolutionaries shooting Molina. As he wanders the streets wounded, the secret police catch him and demand the telephone number, but Molina refuses and dies. On the orders of the police chief, the policemen dump Molina's body in a rubbish pit and fabricate a story about his death and his presumed collaboration with the revolutionary group.

In the prison, Valentin is being treated after being tortured. After a sympathetic doctor risks his job by administering morphine to help him sleep, Valentin appears to succumb to his wounds and perhaps die, when he suddenly finds himself running out of prison with Marta and appearing on an idyllic tropical island with her. Valentin and Marta sail away on a boat into the distance.



The film is based on the 1976 novel El beso de la mujer araña (Kiss of the Spider Woman) by Manuel Puig. The Argentine author was the first to adapt his own novel as a stage play. A Broadway musical of the same name, also based on the novel, was produced in 1993.



As noted in Puig's 2001 biography, Manuel Puig and the Spider Woman: His Life and Fictions, the novel was banned in Argentina, and the English translation edition preceded a widespread publication in Spanish. The novel was considered for a film adaptation by Rainer Werner Fassbinder and other directors. In 1981, Argentine-born director Héctor Babenco was in Los Angeles, to accept an award from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association for his breakout feature film, Pixote. At the reception, Los Angeles Times critic Kevin Thomas asked Babenco about his future projects, and the director mentioned his desire to adapt Puig's novel, starring Burt Lancaster. The actor was in attendance at the event, and Thomas introduced him to Babenco.

When Lancaster expressed interest, Babenco initially assumed he was disingenuous, but promised to send him a copy of the novel. Several days later, Lancaster's assistant telephoned Babenco to make sure Kiss of the Spider Woman was in the mail, and the director sent it right away. The two met in the coming weeks at the New York Critics’ award ceremony, and Lancaster committed to the role of Molina.[6][7]

Babenco met American producer David Weisman in early 1982 through a mutual friend to discuss bringing “Latin American magical realism” into the mainstream. Although Lancaster was attached, giving it built in marketability, the novel's untraditional narrative made it a challenge to adapt, and its homosexual theme was perceived as a detriment to attracting widespread audiences. Babenco, who was an expatriate in Brazil at that time, feared a xenophobic backlash against the production for casting American actors. Additional obstacles to the production included Manuel Puig's antagonism toward Babenco; he did not like Pixote, and suspected the director was an “opportunist.”


Babenco continued to develop the property despite the author's misgivings, and attracted potential investors, including German filmmaker Frank Ripploh. Richard Gere was set to play Valentin, giving the production further box-office credibility. New York City socialite Jane Holzer, who appeared in several Andy Warhol films and was an acquaintance of David Weisman, agreed to finance initial production costs, and Leonard Schrader, who had collaborated with his brother, Paul Schrader, on The Yakuza, was hired to write the script. However, Babenco remained wary of anglicizing the source material, and was relieved by the casting of Puerto Rican actor Raul Julia, who replaced Richard Gere.

Meanwhile, rumors circulated in the press that Lancaster had a penchant for cross-dressing, and Babenco attempted to dispel the scandal at the Cannes Film Festival by telling a French gay tabloid that he did not know Lancaster was homosexual when he was cast. Although Babenco intended to imply that Lancaster was not gay, and his sexual orientation had nothing to do with the actor's involvement with the film, his statement was taken out of context when it was published, and prompted further inquisition into Lancaster's personal life. This, along with Lancaster's advancing age, and a heart bypass operation in Apr 1983, caused the production to be delayed, and the filmmakers turned to William Hurt as a replacement. The morning after Hurt consented to the role, Weisman and Babenco met with independent producer Ray Stark, whose company, Rastar, had been acquired by Columbia Pictures. Stark agreed to take on the project at that time, but neither he nor Columbia are credited onscreen.

The picture's expected $1.5 million budget was financed in part by Brazil's Embrafilme, which purchased Brazilian distribution rights for $160,000. Below-the-line expenses were raised by Babenco's HB Filmes, and international production services were funded by Weisman's Sugarloaf Films, Inc. The crew was mainly Brazilian, accompanied by several Argentine-born craftsmen. Rehearsals took place in a São Paulo prison that had been vacated in the wake of riots, and sets were constructed at Vera Cruz Studios, which had been abandoned due to bankruptcy.


The film's setting was relocated from Argentina to Brazil, with the added political context of the then-current Brazilian military dictatorship.

The story features a "film within a film", featuring Luis Molina episodically telling Valentin Arregui the plot of a fictional film called Her Real Glory ostensibly produced in Germany during Second World War by the Nazis.

While the book alludes to five motion pictures, the film version focuses on a single Nazi propaganda movie. Puig biographer Suzanne Jill Levine identified the film as a compilation of various Third Reich productions with the American Paris Underground and Die große Liebe (The Great Love), a 1942 film starring Zarah Leander as a cabaret singer who falls in love with high-ranking German lieutenant. Leander was the model for the Kiss of the Spider Woman’s “Leni Lamaison,” who was named after propaganda filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl.


Principal photography began October 13, 1983 in São Paulo, Brazil. Since Babenco "rarely" spoke English, Hurt took direction from him via an assistant director.[7] Hurt and Julia had agreed to work for the Screen Actors Guild pay scale, and deferred the greater portion of their salaries for a profit-share in the sale of the film's distribution rights, as well as its box-office gross. While Babenco and Weisman were also working for the same “deferred investment plan,” other players, including actress Sônia Braga, opted to be paid upfront. During filming in Brazil, Hurt and a friend were threatened at gunpoint but were let go several hours later.[8]


Critical response[edit]

The film received positive reviews. Review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes gives it a rating of 86% based on reviews from 35 critics. The site's consensus states; "Kiss of the Spider Woman weaves an alluring exploration of sexual and societal norms that's further elevated by strong work from William Hurt and Raul Julia."[4]

Roger Ebert gave the film three and a half stars out of four, calling it a "film of insights and surprises" and remarking that "the performances are wonderful."[9] James Berardinelli gave Kiss of the Spider Woman three stars out of four, calling it "a fascinating character study." Reviewing the film in 2009, Berardinelli claimed that it "has lost none of its power over the years," and felt that while it was not the best film of 1985, it was more deserving of the Best Picture Academy Award than Out of Africa.[10]

Home media[edit]

The DVD version contains a bonus disc with a 108-minute documentary (accessible in English via subtitles) Tangled Web: Making 'Kiss of the Spider Woman' (2008). The documentary treats the making of the film, the careers of the writers, actors and producers, and the post-production history of the film.[11]


William Hurt won the Academy Award for Best Actor. The film was also nominated for Best Picture (the first independently produced film that was), Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay. Hurt also won Best Actor at the BAFTA Awards, the 1985 Cannes Film Festival[12] and several other festivals. The film was awarded the inaugural Golden Space Needle award from the Seattle International Film Festival.[13] Hurt and Julia won a joint award for Best Actor from the National Board of Review.[14]

Award Category Recipient Result
58th Academy Awards Best Picture David Weisman Nominated
Best Director Héctor Babenco Nominated
Best Actor William Hurt Won
Best Adapted Screenplay Leonard Schrader Nominated
39th British Academy Film Awards Best Actor in a Leading Role William Hurt Won
43rd Golden Globe Awards Best Motion Picture – Drama Nominated
Best Actor in a Motion Picture – Drama William Hurt Nominated
Raul Julia Nominated
Best Supporting Actress – Motion Picture Sônia Braga Nominated
1st Independent Spirit Awards Special Distinction Award Won
1986 David di Donatello Awards Best Foreign Actor William Hurt Won

Film festival[edit]

Award Category Recipient Result
1985 Cannes Film Festival Best Actor William Hurt Won
Palme d'Or Héctor Babenco Nominated
1985 Seattle International Film Festival Golden Space Needle Won
1st Tokyo International Film Festival Special Jury Distinguished Award Héctor Babenco Won
1987 SESC Film Festival Audience Award for Best Film Won

Critics awards[edit]

Award Category Recipient Result
National Board of Review Best Actor William Hurt Won
Raul Julia Won
Top Ten Films Won
National Society of Film Critics Best Actor William Hurt Nominated
Los Angeles Film Critics Association Best Actor Won
New York Film Critics Circle Best Actor Nominated
London Film Critics' Circle Actor of the Year Won


  1. ^ "KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN (15)". British Board of Film Classification. 1985-10-21. Retrieved 2013-07-16.
  2. ^ Kiss of the Spider Woman at Box Office Mojo Retrieved July 16, 2013
  3. ^ New York Times
  4. ^ a b "Kiss of the Spider Woman". Rotten Tomatoes. Flixster.
  6. ^ "William Hurt Looks Back at 'Kiss of the Spider Woman,' the Groundbreaking, Oscar-Winning Drama Turning 30 This Month". Yahoo! Movies. 27 July 2015. Retrieved 27 July 2017.
  7. ^ a b Brooks, Brian (13 May 2010). "A Trailblazer, "Kiss of the Spider Woman" Set to Hit Cannes 25 Years Later". IndieWire. Retrieved 27 July 2017.
  8. ^ "William Hurt: In Every Role, A New Life To Inhabit". NPR. 25 February 2010. Retrieved 27 July 2017.
  9. ^ Roger Ebert. "Kiss of the Spider Woman Movie Review (1985)".
  10. ^ Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985) - Reelviews Movie Reviews
  11. ^ Kiss of the Spider Woman (DVD). New York: City Lights Home Entertainment. 2008. ISBN 9780979360756. OCLC 233603497. Includes Tangled Web: Making 'Kiss of the Spider Woman' , as do later DVD/Blu-Ray releases.
  12. ^ "Festival de Cannes: Kiss of the Spider Woman". Retrieved 2009-06-28.
  13. ^ IMDb
  14. ^ Cohn, Lawrence (January 29, 1986). "Nat'l Board of Review Names Winners of Griffiths Awards". Daily Variety. p. 6.

External links[edit]