The film community has suffered yet another loss this week. (The 2016 death train just won’t stop moving.) Curtis Hanson, the Oscar-winning screenwriter/director of ‘L.A. Confidential’, has passed away at age 71.
Hanson taught me to never underestimate a filmmaker’s ability to defy expectations. A high school dropout, the fledgling director worked his way into show business in the 1970s as the maker of B-movie horror flicks with titles like ‘Sweet Kill’ and ‘Evil Town’. In 1983, he helmed the sex comedy ‘Losin’ It’, which somehow lost money despite having a low budget and starring an up-and-coming young actor named Tom Cruise just a few months before he’d break out as a major star with ‘Risky Business’.
In 1990, Hanson was behind the camera for ‘Bad Influence‘, an intended comeback vehicle for Rob Lowe following the back-to-back humiliations of the actor’s Oscar telecast musical fiasco and a sex scandal. The film was a slick and stylish but disposable thriller, and didn’t do much business.
A couple years later, Hanson finally found commercial success with ‘The Hand That Rocks the Cradle‘, an unexpected sleeper hit that snuck into theaters in early January, which is traditionally a dumping ground for movies that studios have no faith in. The suspense thriller made big money despite featuring no major bankable stars. (Annabella Sciorra and Rebecca De Mornay were hardly box office draws, and Julianne Moore was virtually unknown at the time.) Hanson followed that with another hit, the white-water rafting thriller ‘The River Wild‘, which allowed him to work with a couple of A-List actors in Meryl Streep and Kevin Bacon.
With those two pictures under his belt, Hanson had established himself as a reliable journeyman director. His career could have easily continued on that track, cranking out undistinguished but profitable studio projects. He was more ambitious than that, however. Using whatever cachet he’d built in Hollywood, Hanson spent a few years developing his dream project while nobody paid much attention. The result of that effort was the period mystery ‘L.A. Confidential‘, based on the acclaimed crime novel by James Elroy. The film surprised the hell out of everyone when it was released in 1997, wowing critics who almost universally heaped praise on it. It also gave most American moviegoers their first taste of Russell Crowe’s commanding screen presence. A little known Australian actor whose only previous Hollywood credit of any significance was playing the villain in the sci-fi flop ‘Virtuosity’, Crowe’s performance proved instantly and irrefutably that he was a star.
I remember walking out of the theater floored by ‘L.A. Confidential’. I went back to see it two more times. It was easily my favorite movie of 1997. Countless critics likewise named it at or near the tops of their year-end Top 10 lists. The film was nominated for nine Oscars, including Best Picture, and might have won if only it didn’t have the misfortune of facing off against the unstoppable juggernaut of James Cameron’s ‘Titanic’. Ultimately, ‘L.A. Confidential’ took home trophies for Supporting Actress (Kim Basinger) and Adapted Screenplay. The latter prize Hanson shared with co-screenwriter Brian Helgeland, a richly deserved recognition of their hard work streamlining and condensing Elroy’s labyrinthine novel into a cracking piece of cinema entertainment without losing its rich character development or weighty dramatic themes.
Hanson followed that with another excellent literary adaptation. From a novel by Michael Chabon, ‘Wonder Boys’ may be far less flashy, but it’s a very nuanced, funny and emotionally powerful work with a terrific performance from Michael Douglas as a way-past-his-prime college professor who has made a mess of his personal life. The film was widely acclaimed, but sadly little seen and has been largely forgotten in the years since. (The studio hasn’t even released it on Blu-ray.)
The director left a lot of critics and fans scratching their heads by next making ‘8 Mile‘, a self-glorifying vanity project for rapper Eminem. Nonetheless, the movie turned out better than expected, scored solid reviews and was a big box office hit.
Curtis Hanson’s death this year is not totally unexpected. The filmmaker had health problems and was unable to complete his final movie on his own. Complications from heart surgery forced him to leave the 2012 surfing drama ‘Chasing Mavericks‘ to be finished by fellow director Michael Apted. Upon his death, it was also reported that Hanson suffered from Alzheimer’s.
His career may have had its ups and downs, but Curtis Hanson delivered at least one genuine masterpiece, which is far more than most filmmakers ever accomplish. That’s an impressive legacy to leave.
[Source: The Guardian]