Oscar-winner Curtis Hanson has died of at the age of 71. TMZ reports that the cause of death was a heart attack; the LAPD released a statement that he perished due to “natural causes.” Hanson has been retired from filmmaking due to his battle with Alzheimers since 2011. His last credit was for the surfing biopic Chasing Mavericks, which he had to bow out of before production ended due to complications from heart surgery. Michael Apted shared a co-directing credit on that film.
Hanson won his Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for L.A. Confidential (which he co-wrote with Brian Helgeland). The gritty 1950s-set film noir was a passion project that was originally set for television before Hanson got the go ahead at Warner Brothers. Under Hanson’s careful direction, Confidential was a resounding financial and critical success, which confirmed an immense gamble on the part of the studio when Hanson assembled an amazing group of character actors for a period detective genre that Hollywood had long ignored. The biggest “star” was Kevin Spacey, who was not yet widely known to the public (despite an Oscar win for The Usual Suspects). Hanson’s film was not only responsible for casting Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce in their first major Hollywood roles, as detectives Bud White and Ed Exley, but the immensely textured story of corruption in the LAPD—and how it intersected with both Hollywood coverups and mobster drug trafficking—also revived Hollywood’s long dormant interest in the labyrinth plotting of classic film noirs such as The Big Sleep.
Although most known for that beloved film, Hanson had a very interesting career. A high school dropout who started as a photographer before becoming an editor at Cinema Magazine, Hanson wrote a few potboiler scripts in the 1970s before getting more steady work in the 1980s. As a screenwriter—aside from Confidential—his most recognizable scripts involved communication with dogs. For Samuel Fuller‘s White Dog, it concerned a dog that was trained to attack black men and who is tamed by a black dog trainer—very patiently and with awareness that racism is taught and not innate. The next year, in 1983, Hanson was one of several screenwriters who contributed to the adaptation of the popular adventure story Never Cry Wolf, for Disney. Again this film concerned the communication between a man and a wild animal; here, a pack of wolves in the Great White North.
Communication was a major theme throughout Hanson’s work. In L.A. Confidential it was the trail of information that various policemen find but need each other to fully put together, as the web of corruption is so large it stretched across both vice and homicide departments. And Hanson’s follow up, Wonder Boys, concerns a novelist (Michael Douglas), his students (including Tobey Maguire and Katie Holmes), his publisher (Robert Downey, Jr.) and his mistress (Frances McDormand) and all the ways he keeps them away from his follow-up novel because he’s too embarrassed to admit that he’s overthinking everything and just writing and writing and writing without making any choices for any of his characters. It’s one of the best films set on a college campus; a somber comedy and an underrated gem.
Hanson’s most profitable film, 8 Mile, continued the communication theme, following a high school dropout/factory worker (Eminem) who engages in rap battles to temporarily escape his barren existence of trailer park living, writing lyrics on his hand and crumpled pieces of paper. And in 2005, Hanson directed In Her Shoes, a sitcom-like comedy starring Cameron Diaz and Toni Collette that morphed into a much deeper relationship drama involving grandmothers, mothers, sisters, and the truth in the words of the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop and e.e. Cummings.
Hanson, whose breakout hits pre-Confidential included the femme thrillers The Hand That Rocks the Cradle and the Meryl Streep vs. Kevin Bacon vs. whitewater rapids thriller, The River Wild, purposefully chose distinctly different genres. He hopped from a pregnancy thriller (Cradle), to a white knuckle adventure (River Wild), to a film noir (Confidential), to a liberal arts comedy (Wonder Boys), to a Detroit rap battle (8 Mile), to a retirement home dramedy (In Her Shoes), to a gambling film (Lucky You), to the 2008 financial crisis (Too Big To Fail) to the surfing film that closed his career (Mavericks). And that’s not even going backward to his early Tom Cruise sex comedy, Losin’ It.
Because he hopped around genres, Hanson didn’t have an identifiable director’s flair that easily lent itself to auteur discussions. But he really hit his stride for a decade of great films, in many different genres. In a way, his career recalls another undervalued American director, Hal Ashby (Harold and Maude, Coming Home) who put together an enviable decade-long resume in different genres. Like Ashby, in addition to working his way up through production and dabbling in many genres, Hanson routinely got career best work from his actors. Whether it was Rebecca DeMornay in Hand That Rocks the Cradle, or the most popular musician of that time period (Eminem) or the entire casts of L.A. Confidential and Wonder Boys. Because those two casts in particular are each so deep, that marks an incredible achievement. Hanson wasn’t showy, but he was very giving. He fought against studio wishes to get the Hollywood untested Aussies Crowe and Pearce in Confidential and he fought against the idea that Downey Jr was too risky (in 2000) to hire because he was on parole. All actors were entrusted by Hanson and delivered some of their most layered work under his direction.
Personally, Hanson will always mean a lot to me. L.A. Confidential was released when I was 15 years old. I’d never seen a detective story like it. It was released at a time that I was hungry for cinema, but Confidential did something amazing for me. It so enraptured me from the opening credit narration (by Danny DeVito) on the promise of Los Angeles— before Hanson revealed its ugly (but still glamorous) underbelly—that it made me look backward and watch the films that critics very favorably compared it to. First to The Big Sleep and then to Chinatown for their meticulously layered mysteries amidst broken dreams, empty glasses of booze, and complex femme fatales. In essence, Hanson’s film was so rich, smoky and beguiling, he was able to push me to Fritz Lang, Roman Polanski, Humphrey Bogart, Otto Preminger, John Huston and the list goes on and on. What a gift to a young burgeoning cinephile. And then, in Wonder Boys, he followed it with something completely different, but so full of such quiet charm and warmth.
But was it really entirely different? Wonder Boys, L.A. Confidential, In Her Shoes and 8 Mile are so literary. This is a man who had a love of words and how they can direct you onto many different paths. He even appeared as Meryl Streep’s husband (briefly) in one of the most beautifully literate works of all time, Spike Jonze‘s Adaptation. about Charlie Kaufman‘s difficulty of turning someone else’s beautiful prose into words of his own. In retrospect, his casting makes absolute perfect sense (in addition to how delightful he looks and sounds at a dinner party with Streep’s Susan Orlean).
Our condolences go out to Hanson’s family and I hope that my own words fully express the level of gratitude that I have for his work. He’s made films that will stand the test of time (L.A. Confidential was enshrined in the National Film Registry last year). And for me, he also kicked off my journey into the wonderful world of film’s past. Rest in peace.
RIP Curtis Hansen . Thank you for believing in me & standing your ground. In reality you made my job a career. Love & respect my friend.
— Russell Crowe (@russellcrowe) September 21, 2016
Obviously distracted & upset…RIP to Curtis Hanson… this correction because he would have asked for another take…”in technicolor sir”
— Russell Crowe (@russellcrowe) September 21, 2016
RIP Curtis Hanson. Thanks for Silent Partner, Hand That Rocks The Cradle, Wonder Boys & others. But especially for the epic LA Confidential.
— edgarwright (@edgarwright) September 21, 2016