Hector Babenco, Director of ‘Kiss of the Spider Woman,’ Dies at 70


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Director Hector Babenco with Meryl Streep on the set of “Ironweed” in 1987.

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Joel Warren

Hector Babenco, the Argentine-born Brazilian director whose low-budget 1985 film, “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” became an unlikely hit that challenged conventions of masculinity and stunned the Hollywood establishment, died on Wednesday in São Paulo. He was 70.

His death was confirmed by Denise Winther, an employee of his film company, who told The Associated Press that he had a heart attack.

With “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” an adaptation of Manuel Puig’s 1976 novel of the same name, Mr. Babenco established himself as a filmmaker unafraid to push the boundaries of what Hollywood’s old guard deemed appropriate or bankable.

The setting for the film, which cost $1.8 million, was an Argentine jail cell shared by two men. Molina, played by William Hurt, is a gay man jailed for soliciting minors; Valentin, played by Raul Julia, is a political prisoner. The film, set during Argentina’s so-called dirty war of the 1970s, traces the evolution of a relationship between cellmates who at first seem ideologically incompatible.

“These two people, in their confined environment, simply have to talk all the time,” Mr. Babenco said in an interview with The New York Times in 1984. “My task was to make it fresh and open, dynamic.”

He was successful. The film, made in an era when gay characters were rare onscreen, earned critical accolades for the actors, who agreed to forgo their salaries in exchange for a share of the film’s profits. Mr. Hurt won the Oscar for best actor, and Mr. Babenco was nominated for best director. “Kiss of the Spider Woman” was later a Tony Award-winning Broadway musical, with music by John Kander and Fred Ebb and a book by Terrence McNally.

Mr. Babenco went on to direct the film adaptation of “Ironweed,” William Kennedy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel set during the Depression. The movie, starring Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep, was released in 1987.

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Raul Julia as Valentin, left, and William Hurt as Molina, in a scene from the 1985 film “Kiss of the Spider Woman.”

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Strand Releasing

Though those films established Mr. Babenco in Hollywood, he did not stray far from his roots. Many of his later films, like “Foolish Heart” (1998) and “Carandiru” (2003), hinted at his own passions or had personal meaning to him. “Pixote” (1981), his best-known film before “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” depicted the grim lives of boys growing up on the streets of São Paulo and was told through the eyes of a boy who encounters rape, blackmail and murder.

Hector Babenco was born on Feb. 7, 1946, in Mar del Plata, Argentina. He grew up a timid boy who loved the movies, watching up to 10 a week. He told The Times in 1981 that he left home shortly after he turned 18 when his father, with whom he had a tumultuous relationship, expressed hostility to his interest in the arts.

Moving to Spain, he found work as a film extra, married, had a daughter and divorced.

Mr. Babenco sensed that there would be more opportunity for filmmaking in South America, so in the early 1970s he settled in Brazil, where he became a citizen. His survivors include his wife, the Brazilian actress Barbara Paz, and a daughter, Janka.

The first of his films to attract wide notice was “Pixote,” which was rooted in true stories and featured a young cast plucked from the streets. (Fernando Ramos, who played the title role, was fatally shot by the police in 1996.)

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Hector Babenco in 2007.

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Tiziana Fabi/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

“A lot of the details are tough to take,” Vincent Canby of The Times wrote in his review, “but it is neither exploitative nor pretentious. Mr. Babenco shows us rock-bottom, and because he is an artist, he makes us believe it as well all of the possibilities that have been lost.” The film was nominated for a Golden Globe and received awards from critics associations in New York and Los Angeles.

Mr. Babenco said in an interview with The Times that he hoped “Pixote” could bring back innocence to young people hardened by street life. But, he said, he also wanted to show viewers “how you destroy the innocence of a 10-year-old child.”

Mr. Babenco took a break from filming for much of the 1990s to undergo treatment for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He had received chemotherapy as far back as 1986, when he was working on “Ironweed.”

His first major project after resurfacing in 2002 was a movie based on “Carandiru,” a best-selling Brazilian novel about the filthy conditions at the largest prison in Latin America. The book was written by Dr. Dráuzio Varella, who had helped treat Mr. Babenco’s cancer.

“He was my guide in the jungle,” Mr. Babenco said in 2002 of Dr. Dráuzio’s work to treat his illness. “So I am trying to pay him back by making a movie even more beautiful than his book.”

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