Curtis Hanson, Director and Oscar-Winning Writer on ‘L.A. Confidential,’ Dies at 71
Curtis Hanson, whose sterling adaptation of the noir classic L.A. Confidential earned him an Oscar and vaulted him to A-list status as a screenwriter and director, has died. He was 71.
Hanson, who also helmed such box-office hits as the Rebecca De Mornay horror thriller The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (1992) and the Eminem hip-hop drama 8 Mile (2002), died Tuesday afternoon in a home in the Hollywood Hills, according to the LAPD. Paramedics had been called to the scene and found him dead.
He most recently directed the 2012 surfing movie Chasing Mavericks but left the production because of an undisclosed illness. Michael Apted completed the picture, and Hanson never directed a film again.
A skilled technician and former magazine journalist who worked with Roger Corman and Sam Fuller early in his career, the versatile Hanson was proficient in a wide array of genres and styles.
He also helmed Losin’ It (1983), the teen comedy starring Tom Cruise; The River Wild (1994), the rafting action adventure starring Meryl Streep; the off-center Wonder Boys (2000), starring Michael Douglas as a Pittsburgh professor struggling to complete his second novel; and the frothy In Her Shoes (2005), a comedy starring Cameron Diaz and Toni Collette as opposite-minded sisters.
Earlier in his career, Hanson directed the Hitchcockian homages The Bedroom Window (1987), which he also scripted, and Bad Influence (1990).
Hanson worked closely with Brian Helgeland over many months to adapt James Ellroy’s complex novel for the screen for their Oscar, and he also received noms for producing and directing L.A. Confidential (1997), considered by many to be the best Hollywood noir-style film since 1974’s Chinatown.
The crime drama, which starred Kevin Spacey, Russell Crowe, Guy Pearce, Kim Basinger (who won an Oscar for her role) and Danny De Vito, also played in competition at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival and was nominated for a Palme d’Or.
“I had always wanted to tell a story that was set in Los Angeles in the ’50s, because that’s where I grew up, and it was the city of my childhood memories,” he said in a 2001 interview. “I wanted to deal with that and also pursue this theme that interested me, which is the difference between illusion and reality, the way people and things appear to be versus how they really are. And Hollywood, of course, is the city of illusion. So that was near and dear to me, and extremely personal.”
Curtis Lee Hanson was born on March 24, 1945, in Reno, Nev., but grew up in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley. His father taught English at Portola Junior High School in Tarzana, and Hanson was one of his sixth-grade students.
A movie buff who was a fan of True Detective magazine, Hanson and high-school classmate Willard Huyck (a future screenplay Oscar nominee for American Graffiti) collaborated on an 8mm movie and charged 50 cents admission to friends who came to the Hanson home to see it.
Hanson dropped out of high school and worked as a gofer for Cinema magazine, which was in dire financial straights. The publication was revived by Hanson’s uncle, who owned a chain of clothing stores, and he installed Hanson as editor. That enabled him to interview major directors, including John Ford and Vincente Minnelli, and he learned more about the art of filmmaking.
“In a sense, it was my film school,” he said. “After doing it for a few years, I decided that the time had come to get it together and do some work of my own.”
Not surprisingly given his journalistic background, Hanson began as a writer. He co-wrote The Dunwich Horror (1970), an adaptation of an H.P. Lovecraft short story, for executive producer Corman and American International Pictures.
He then wrote and directed the Corman-distributed thriller Sweet Kill (1972), starring Tab Hunter.
Hanson penned the screenplay for The Silent Partner (1978), which he adapted from an Anders Bodelsen novel. The Canadian film, on which he also served as an associate producer, starred Elliott Gould as a nebbish teller who engages in a battle of wits with a bank thief (Christopher Plummer).
With a writers strike looming, Hanson holed up with Fuller in the writer-director’s garage, and they pulled together the adapted screenplay for White Dog (1982) in less than three weeks. The story of a dog handler (Paul Winfield) out to re-train a German shepherd taught by white supremacists to attack blacks, it was not released in the U.S. for years after the NAACP threatened to boycott Paramount.
Hanson’s other credits include The Little Dragons (1979), which he directed and executive produced; the Alaskan wilderness family adventure Never Cry Wolf (1983), which he co-wrote; the coming-of-age saga Lucky You (2007), which he wrote and directed; and, years before The Big Short, the 2011 HBO film Too Big to Fail, which he directed and exec produced on the way to two Emmy noms.