Obituary: Curtis Hanson
Film-maker who won an Oscar for 'LA Confidential' and directed Eminem in '8 Mile'
Published 25/09/2016 | 02:30
Curtis Hanson, the screenwriter and director, who died on Tuesday aged 71, was a Hollywood also-ran - best known as the journeyman director-for-hire of hit thrillers such as The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (1992) and The River Wild (1994) - until he made LA Confidential (1997), a film noir adapted from James Ellroy's labyrinthine novel set in the sun-drenched streets of 1950s Hollywood.
The book boasted "100 characters, 10 plotlines and 16,000 sub-plots and back stories" and many, including its author, said it would be impossible to film. Yet Hanson's movie, albeit with a pared-down plot, was universally hailed as the best thriller since Chinatown, providing a dazzlingly stylish, kaleidoscopic portrait of a city where everyone is for sale.
Starring, among others, Danny DeVito, James Cromwell and Kevin Spacey, the film helped to launch the careers of two relatively unknown Australian actors, Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce, and revived the flagging fortunes of Kim Basinger, who won an Oscar for her turn as a jaded prostitute.
LA Confidential grossed $126 million worldwide, winning Hanson, along with Brian Helgeland, an Oscar for best writing for their adapted screenplay.
Hanson also shared the nomination for best picture and was nominated for best director, while the film itself won nominations for cinematography, art direction, sound, editing and score. Even Ellroy conceded that Hanson's treatment of his "movie-adaptation-proof" novel had managed to convey the book's helter-skelter depth.
Hanson's follow-up, Wonder Boys (2000), adapted from Michael Chabon's novel, was in a very different genre. A campus comedy, it starred Michael Douglas as a shambling, dope-smoking, college professor and former wonder-boy author of a bestselling first novel, whose well of inspiration has run dry and whose life is slowly unravelling.
A work of considerable directorial assurance, it confirmed Hanson's status as an A-list talent, though it was a failure at the box office.
He had better luck with his next offering, 8 Mile (2002), a biopic of sorts, starring Eminem and loosely based around the notorious rapper's own beginnings in one of the tougher districts of Detroit. A critical and financial success, it won Eminem the Oscar for best original song, for Lose Yourself, and was later described by Vibe magazine as a "rap movie masterpiece".
But after a little over five years at the top of his game, Hanson's luck seemed to run out and his later films were generally seen as something of a disappointment.
The son of a schoolmaster, Curtis Lee Hanson was born in Reno, Nevada, on March 24 1945, and grew up in Los Angeles. Film-mad from a young age, he dropped out of high school and worked as a freelance photographer and editor for Cinema magazine.
Using his day job as cover, he would ring his idols and request interviews with the likes of John Ford, Vincente Minnelli and Samuel Fuller. Gradually, he picked up screenwriting and some directing work.
He co-scripted The Dunwich Horror (1970), an adaptation of the short story by HP Lovecraft, and two years later made his directorial debut with the horror film Sweet Kill, starring Tab Hunter, followed by the zombie movie Evil Town (1977) and the action comedy Little Dragons (1979).
He wrote White Dog (1982) for Sam Fuller (who took up the baton after the original director, Roman Polanski, skipped bail and fled the country after being charged with having sex with an underage girl), and Never Cry Wolf (1983) for Carroll Ballard. The same year, he directed the sex comedy Losin' It, providing Tom Cruise with his first starring role.
It was not until the neo-noir psychological thriller The Bedroom Window (1987), starring Steve Guttenberg, Elizabeth McGovern and Isabelle Huppert, that he managed to persuade a studio to allow him to both write and direct a film. It was followed by the stylish thriller Bad Influence (1990), which won some positive reviews.
Hanson was nearly 50 when, in 1992, his The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, a low-budget, two-dimensional suspense movie starring Rebecca de Mornay as a psychopathic nanny, emerged as an unexpected blockbuster, bringing him to the notice of the big Hollywood studios. It was followed by The River Wild (1994), an adventure crime-thriller starring Meryl Streep, about a family on a whitewater rafting trip who encounter two violent criminals in the wilderness.
Then came LA Confidential.
After the success of 8 Mile, however, Hanson's later films made little impact. The slushy Cameron Diaz "chick flick" In Her Shoes (2005) won mixed reviews, while his last film, Lucky You (2007), a Las Vegas poker movie starring Eric Bana, Drew Barrymore and Robert Duvall, was mauled by the critics, one observing: "It's a bit like watching those late-night poker shows on television: you'll need a whisky or a smoke to get through it."
Hanson, who had been suffering in recent years from Alzheimer's disease, died at his Hollywood home from natural causes.
He is survived by a son, born in 2004 with his companion, the producer Rebecca Yeldham.