I met Curtis Hanson through a mutual friend some 25 years ago, before his major successes like the Oscar-winning “L.A. Confidential.” He lived on one of those walking streets in Venice, to be near the ocean he loved, and it was his physical presence, the light in his eye and his nimble physical grace, that struck me first.
More than that, Hanson — who died Tuesday at age 71 — had a gracious, open quality that is precious in any business, but especially so in Hollywood. I would run into him sporadically over the years, and he was always alive to the moment, asking how things were with the innate decency that must have served him well as a director. And he was always enthusiastic but clear-eyed about what we had just seen.
Because it wasn’t at glamorous parties that I would bump into Hanson but often as not at repertory screenings of classic films. He was that rare director who not only paid lip service to what had come before but actually went out and saw the old films when they lighted up the big screen. So much so that the UCLA Film and Television Archive made him their first-ever honorary chairman.
That honor was especially appropriate because Hanson was also one of the small group of directors who came to making movies out of a background in both film criticism and film history. Born in Reno of Angeleno parents who actually met as students at Hollywood High, Hanson started writing about film at Cal State L.A., but his real break came when he started to work for a local publication called Cinema.
Beginning as a go-fer and soon becoming both editor and art director, Hanson had the opportunity to interview and often photograph legendary filmmakers like John Ford, William Wellman, William Wyler, Vincente Minnelli, Don Siegel, John Cassavetes and a man who became a close friend, Sam Fuller.
“It was my film school,” he told UCLA Magazine in a 2006 interview with Anne Burke. “It was kind of magical. I don’t think it could happen in the same way again.”
This great and abiding passion for the history of film helped inform another of the traits that made Hanson’s movies distinctive, a gift for making genre come alive for modern audiences through great narrative skill.
The plots, and even the titles, of films like “The Bedroom Window,” “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle” and even “The River Wild” could open themselves up to generic treatment. But for a director of Hanson’s skill and commitment, this kind of material was always to be taken seriously, always to be seen as an appropriate vehicle for great acting and potent insight into character and behavior. For the kind of satisfactions, frankly, that the best of Hollywood movies have always been about.
Hanson’s belief in this kind of material reached its apogee with his work on “L.A. Confidential,” the one novel by James Ellroy, the author told the director, he thought would never, ever make a film.
But Hanson and fellow Oscar-winning screenwriter Brian Helgeland persevered and made what is without doubt the definitive noir for its particular time and place. A dark, dangerous and intoxicating tale of big trouble in paradise, smartly done with the blackest possible sense of humor, this film’s clean, relentless storytelling sense, its ability to draw us in while always playing fair with plot details, is irresistible.
Another trait that made Hanson distinctive as a director was a restless and wide-ranging curiosity that meant each of his films was a new adventure both for audiences and for himself.
Just three years after “L.A. Confidential,” he directed a film that couldn’t have appeared more different, the droll, picaresque adaptation of the Michael Chabon novel “Wonder Boys,” starring Michael Douglas as a writer with all kinds of problems. This venture may have seemed miles from the mean streets of Los Angeles, but it shared Hanson’s thoroughgoing classicism, his ability to give every on-screen element just the weight it deserves.
When the great director Ernst Lubitsch died in 1947, so the story goes, fellow filmmakers Billy Wilder and Wyler left the funeral together. “No more Lubitsch,” Wilder said, to which Wyler replied, “Worse than that. No more Lubitsch films.”
With his great knowledge and passion for cinema, Curtis Hanson appreciated that story more than most. How unutterably sad it is to have to tell it again with his own life and work in mind.