Curtis Hanson dead at 71; ‘L.A. Confidential’ thrust him to the forefront of American directors
Curtis Hanson, who directed films such as “L.A. Confidential,” “The River Wild” and “8 Mile,” has died. He was 71.(Jon Kopaloff / Getty Images)
Legendary director Billy Wilder, left, is accompanied by Curtis Hanson at a tribute for Wilder at the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences in Beverly Hills in 2000. Hanson served as moderator for the evening’s discussions.(Kevork Djansezian / Associated Press)
Curtis Hanson pauses at the Frolic Room on Hollywood Boulevard in 1997, as he drove around to various locations for his film “L.A. Confidential” from that year. He won an Oscar with Brian Helgeland for writing the movie.(Ken Hively / Los Angeles Times)
Meryl Streep, who starred in Curtis Hanson’s “The River Wild” in 1994, is interviewed with the director that year.(Elena Seibert / For The Times)
Curtis Hanson, the director and Oscar-winning screenwriter whose eclectic body of work included the film noir “L.A. Confidential,” the rap-music drama “8 Mile” and the offbeat comedy “Wonder Boys,” died Tuesday in Los Angeles. He was 71.
Los Angeles police were called to a home in the Hollywood Hills just before 5 p.m. on reports of a medical emergency, LAPD Officer Tony Im said.
Hanson was pronounced dead at the scene, and police say he died of natural causes. His family was notified of his death, police said.
Hanson fell gravely ill in November 2011 while directing the Northern California surfing drama “Chasing Mavericks,” starring Jonny Weston, Gerard Butler and Elisabeth Shue.
Director Michael Apted reportedly completed the final 15 days of principal photography on the film, which was released in October 2012.
“L.A. Confidential” was the film that thrust Hanson into the forefront of American filmmakers in 1997. His critically acclaimed adaptation of James Ellroy’s intricately plotted novel about police corruption in 1950s Los Angeles earned him and co-writer Brian Helgeland an Oscar for adapted screenplay. Kim Basinger also won the supporting actress Oscar.
In all, the film received seven other Oscar nominations, including best picture and director for Hanson.
“L.A. Confidential,” Hanson told The Times in 1997, was his most personal movie because Ellroy is “telling a story set in the same city that I grew up in and dovetails with certain ambitions that I’ve had in terms of telling an L.A. story.”
For Hanson, “L.A. Confidential” was a high-profile milestone in what he called “a long, long, uphill struggle” as a filmmaker.
“I spent so long trying to get to a place where I could just be able to direct a movie, and then struggled so long to be able to direct movies that I felt had some potential,” he told Canada’s Globe and Mail in 2000.
“By the time ‘L.A. Confidential’ came around I was, naturally, extraordinarily gratified by the acceptance the picture received,” he said. “But to me, there was no mystery about what the picture was. It was a labor of love that, for the first time, I was able to do.”
A one-time film journalist, Hanson began his Hollywood career as a screenwriter on a 1970 low-budget horror movie and made his debut as a director on “Sweet Kill,” a 1972 thriller that he wrote starring Tab Hunter as a psychopathic killer.
He directed only two other films and a TV movie before writing and directing “The Bedroom Window,” a 1987 romantic thriller that Hanson once described as being “my first professional debut in terms of being on the map.”
But it was the clout he earned from directing the commercially successful thriller “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle” and “The River Wild” with Meryl Streep in the early `90s, Hanson later said, that allowed him to make “L.A. Confidential.”
Hanson, whose films as a director include the 1990 suspense thriller “Bad Influence” with Rob Lowe and James Spader, went on to direct “Wonder Boys,” “8 Mile,” “In Her Shoes,” “Lucky You” and the HBO drama “Too Big to Fail.”
You never got the feeling you were watching a retread. He was able to transform all that into something very much his own.
— Peter Rainer, film critic for the Christian Science Monitor
Peter Rainer, film critic for the Christian Science Monitor, said Hanson “was a student of film who worked his knowledge into his own movies in a really dynamic way. He had a real grasp of genre, not only of crime films but also of comedy with ‘Wonder Boys.’ He was extremely versatile.
“But there was nothing slavish about the movies that he made in their connection with older movies. You never got the feeling you were watching a retread. He was able to transform all that into something very much his own.”
Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan remembered Hanson having “a great and abiding passion for the history of film, a gift for making genre come alive for modern audiences and a restless and wide-ranging curiosity that meant that each of his films was a new adventure both for viewers and for himself.”
Indeed, Hanson’s filmography as a writer, director and producer extended across a diverse spectrum of genres.
“I have deliberately tried to mix it up in my movies, because I enjoy visiting different worlds,” Hanson told London’s Guardian newspaper in 2005. “However, thematically, I find that things keep coming up.
“Self-examination, to begin with. You know, who am I, how did I get here and how do I become a better version of myself. Self-destructiveness, because that is the beginning or negation of self-examination.… What I like doing is considering how a very binary, black-and-white vision of the world is overly simplistic. Contradictions are often no such thing.”
Hanson was born March 24, 1945, in Reno, where his schoolteacher father, a conscientious objector during World War II, was working on a construction crew doing road repair. Both of his parents were Angelenos, and they eventually settled in Reseda after returning to Los Angeles when the war ended.
Hanson dropped out of high school in his senior year. “My parents thought it was a phase, that I’d come to my senses,” he told the New York Times in 1994.
With a passion for films, Hanson offered to become the movie critic for the Cal State L.A. campus newspaper — despite not attending classes there — and soon was asked to become the paper’s entertainment editor.
Wong’s masterly touch brought a poetic quality to Disney’s “Bambi” that has helped it endure as a classic of animation. The pioneering Chinese American artist influenced later generations of animators. Full obituary(Peter Brenner / Handout)
After bursting onto the scene opposite Gene Kelly in the classic 1952 musical “Singin’ in the Rain,” Reynolds became America’s Sweetheart and a potent box office star for years. Her passing came only one day after her daughter, Carrie Fisher, died at the age of 60. Reynolds was 84. Full obituary(John Rooney / Associated Press)
George Michael, the English singer-songwriter who shot to stardom in the 1980s as half of the pop duo Wham!, went on to become one of the era’s biggest pop solo artists with hits such as “Faith” and “I Want Your Sex.” He was 53. Full obituary(Francois Mori / Associated Press)
The thoracic surgeon came up with an anti-choking technique in 1974. So simple it could be performed by children, the eponymous maneuver made Heimlich a household name. He was 96. Full obituary(Al Behrman / Associated Press)
The hugely popular south Indian actress later turned to politics and became the highest elected official in the state of Tamil Nadu. She was 68. Full obituary(AFP / Getty Images)
Best known for her portrayal of Carol Brady on “The Brady Bunch,” Henderson
portrayed an idealized mother figure for an entire generation. Her character was the center of the show, cheerfully mothering her brood in an era when divorce was becoming more common. She was 82. Full obituary
Dubbed “Dr. Wonderful” by the media, the Texas surgeon performed the first successful heart transplant in the United States and the world’s first implantation of a wholly artificial heart. He also founded the Texas Heart Institute in Houston. He was 96. Full obituary(David J. Phillip / Associated Press)
The prominent Los Angeles attorney went from defending his father, a powerful mob boss, to representing celebrities, corrupt businessmen, drug kingpins and the so-called Hollywood Madam, Heidi Fleiss. He was 70. Full obituary(Ken Hively / Los Angeles Times)
The award-winning journalist wrote for the Washington Post and the New York Times before becoming an anchor of public television news programs “PBS NewsHour” and “Washington Week.” Her career also included moderating the vice presidential debates in 2004 and 2008. She was 61. Full obituary(Brendan Smialowski / Getty Images)
Instantly recognizable for his long white mane and a rich, hearty voice, Russell sang, wrote and produced some of rock ‘n’ roll’s top records. His hits included “Delta Lady,” “Roll Away the Stone,” “A Song for You” and “Superstar.” He was 74. Full obituary(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
The singer-songwriter’s literary sensibility and elegant dissections of desire made him one of popular music’s most influential and admired figures for four decades. Cohen is best known for his songs such as “Hallelujah,” “Suzanne” and “Bird on the Wire.” He was 82. Full obituary(Joel Saget / AFP / Getty Images)
Reno was the first woman to serve as United States attorney general. Her unusually long tenure began with a disastrous assault on cultists in Texas and ended after the dramatic raid that returned Elian Gonzalez to his Cuban father. She was 78. Full obituary(Dennis Cook / Associated Press)
The 1960s radical was in the vanguard of the movement to stop the Vietnam War and became one of the nation’s best-known champions of liberal causes. He was 76. Full obituary(George Brich / Associated Press)
Tabei was the first woman to climb Mount Everest in 1975. In 1992, she also became the first woman to complete the “Seven Summits,” reaching the highest peaks of the seven continents. She was 77. Full obituary(AFP / Getty Images)
Nixon was the creative force behind the popular soap operas “One Life to Live” and “All My Children.” She was a pioneer in bringing serious social issues, like racism, AIDS and prostitution, to daytime television. She was 93. Full obituary(Chris Pizzello / Associated Press)
The former Israeli president was one of the founding fathers of Israel. The Nobel peace prize laureate was an early advocate of the idea that Israel’s survival depended on territorial compromise with the Palestinians. He was 93. Full obituary(AFP / Getty Images)
A seven-time professional major tournament champion, Palmer revolutionized sports marketing as it is known today, and his success contributed to increased incomes for athletes across the sporting spectrum. He was 87. Full obituary(David J. Phillip / Associated Press)
Known as the Vatican’s exorcist, Amorth, a Roman Catholic priest, helped promote the ritual of banishing the devil from people or places. He was 91. Full obituary(AFP / Getty Images)
The American playwright was known for works such as “The Zoo Story,” “The Sandbox,” “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and “A Delicate Balance.” He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for drama three times. He was 88. Full obituary(Jennifer S. Altman / For the Times)
The ska pioneer and Jamaican music legend recorded thousands of records, including such hits as “Al Capone” and “Judge Dread.” He helped ignite the ska movement in England, and later helped carry it into the rock-steady era in the mid-1960s. He was 78. Full obituary(Larry Ellis / Getty Images)
Known as “the first lady of anti-feminism,” Schlafly was a political activist who galvanized grass-roots conservatives to help defeat the Equal Rights Amendment and, in ensuing decades, effectively push the Republican Party to the right. She was 92. Full obituary(Christine Cotter / Los Angeles Times)
O’Brian helped tame the Wild West as the star of TV’s “The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp” and was the founder of a long-running youth leadership development organization. “Wyatt Earp” became a top 10-rated series and made O’Brian a household name. He was 91. Full obituary(Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)
Jerry Heller, the early manager of N.W.A, was an important and colorful personality in the emerging West Coast rap scene in the 1980s. Heller was 75. Full obituary(Lori Shepler / Los Angeles Times)
Two-time Oscar nominee Gene Wilder brought a unique blend of manic energy and world-weary melancholy to films as varied as 1971’s children’s movie “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory” and the 1980 comedy “Stir Crazy.” He was 83. Full obituary(AFP / Getty Images)
The beloved top-selling Mexican singer wooed crowds on both sides of the border with ballads of love and heartbreak for more than four decades. He was 66. Full obituary(Wilfredo Lee / Associated Press)
Known as the “queen of knitwear,” Sonia Rykiel became a fixture of Paris’ fashion scene, starting in 1968. French President Francois Hollande praised her as “a pioneer” who “offered women freedom of movement.” She was 86. Full obituary(Thibault Camus / Associated Press)
The conservative political commentator hosted the long-running weekly public television show “The McLaughlin Group” that helped alter the shape of political discourse since its debut in 1982. He was 89. Full obituary(Kevin Wolf / Associated Press)
Best-known for his post-bop recordings for Blue Note Records in the 1960s and 1970s, the inventive jazz vibraphonist played with a litany of jazz greats as both bandleader and sideman during a career spanning more than 50 years. He was 75. Full obituary(Scott Chernis / Associated Press)
The British actor, who was 3-foot-8, gave life to the “Star Wars” droid R2-D2, one of the most beloved characters in the space-opera franchise and among the most iconic robots in pop culture history. He was 81. Full obituary(Reed Saxon / Associated Press)
For many in L.A., Folsom was the face of the Parent Teacher Student Assn., better known as the PTSA or PTA. He served as the official and unofficial watchdog over the Los Angeles Unified School District and wrote about his experiences in his blog. He was 69. Full obituary(Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)
Fountain combined the Swing Era sensibility of jazz clarinetist Benny Goodman with the down-home, freewheeling style characteristic of traditional New Orleans jazz to become a national star in the 1950s as a featured soloist on the “The Lawrence Welk Show.” He was 86. Full obituary(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Lowery was a pioneer in efforts to help people suffering from poverty, addiction and mental illness move out of tents and cardboard boxes on Los Angeles’ sidewalks and into supportive housing. She was 70. Full obituary(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)
Nixon, a Hollywood voice double, can be heard in place of the leading actresses in such classic movie musicals as “West Side Story,” “The King and I” and “My Fair Lady.” She was 86. Full obituary(Rob Kim / AFP/Getty Images)
The department store heir’s widow was a socialite and philanthropist who hobnobbed with the world’s elite, epitomized high fashion and was best friends with former first lady Nancy Reagan. She was 93. Full obituary(Evan Agostini / Associated Press)
The author and teacher was long established as a leading literary figure of Southern California. Her works include “Golden Days,” “There Will Never Be Another You” and her memoir “Dreaming, Hard Luck and Good Times in America.” She was 82. Full obituary(Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)
The Nazi concentration camp survivor won the Nobel in 1986 for his message “of peace, atonement and human dignity.” “Night,” his account of his year in death camps, is regarded as one of the most powerful achievements in Holocaust literature. He was 87. Full obituary(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
One of the greatest basketball coaches of any gender or generation, Summitt spent 38 years as coach of the University of Tennessee women’s basketball team before dementia forced her early retirement. She was 64. Full obituary(Wade Payne / Associated Press)
The iconic New York Times fashion photographer darted around New York on a humble bicycle to cover the style of high society grand dames and downtown punks with equal verve. He was 87. Full obituary(Mark Lennihan / Associated Press)
Aguirre was best known for his portrayal of the towering “Profesor Jirafales,” the likable and often disrespected giraffe teacher on the 1970s-era hit show “El Chavo del Ocho.” The screwball comedy helped usher in an era of edgier comedy in Mexico and elsewhere. Aguirre was 82. Full obituary(AFP / Getty Images)
The three-time heavyweight boxing champion’s brilliance in the ring and bravado outside it made his face one of the most recognizable in the world. He was 74. Full obituary(John Rooney / Associated Press)
Like Walter Cronkite and Edward R. Murrow, the CBS newsman became part of a group of journalists who set the tone for storytelling on television. He was on “60 Minutes” for 46 years, holding the longest tenure on prime-time television of anyone in history. He was 84. Full obituary(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
The first African American chief of the Los Angeles Police Department, Williams steadied the agency in the tumultuous wake of the 1992 riots but was distrusted as an outsider by many officers and politicians. He was 72. Full obituary(Nick Ut / Associated Press)
Best known for her role as Marie Barone on “Everybody Loves Raymond,” Roberts won four Emmys for her work on that show and one for her work on “St. Elsewhere.” She was 90. Full obituary(Ken Hively / Los Angeles Times)
The country music legend sang of his law-breaking Bakersfield youth and penned a stream of No. 1 hits. He owed some of his fame to conservative anthems, including the combative 1969 release “Okie from Muskogee,” which seemed to mock San Francisco’s anti-war hippies. He was 79. Full obituary(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
The acclaimed Native American historian was the last surviving war chief of Montana’s Crow Tribe. President Obama awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009. He was 102. Full obituary(J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press)
Germany’s longest-serving foreign minister brokered an end to the painful 40-year division of his homeland in 1990, but only after persevering for decades through the most tragic and destructive phases of Germany’s 20th century history. He was 89. Full obituary(Martin Meissner / Associated Press)
The Iraqi-born British architect was the first woman to win the Pritzker Prize, architecture’s highest honor. She made her mark with buildings such as the London Aquatics Centre, the MAXXI museum for contemporary art in Rome and the innovative Bridge Pavilion in Zaragoza, Spain. She was 65. Full obituary(Kevork Djansezian / Associated Press)
The former television talk show host became the first openly gay man to serve on the Los Angeles City Council. He advocated for the homeless, gays and lesbians and other liberal causes. He was 70. Full obituary(Christina House / For The Times)
Garry Shandling’s comedic career spanned decades, but he is best known for his role as Larry Sanders, the host of a fictional talk show. His sitcom pushed the boundaries of TV, influencing shows such as “The Office” and “Modern Family.” He was 66. Full obituary.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Ken Howard was president of SAG-AFTRA and an actor known for his role on TV’s ‘The White Shadow.’ He championed the merger of Hollywood’s two largest actors unions, which had a history of sparring. He was 71. Full obituary(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
The longtime Los Angeles radio disc jockey, whose real name was Art Ferguson, hosted the morning radio show for popular and influential station KHJ-AM in the late 1960s and went on to be a key player in the launch of latter-day powerhouses KROQ-AM and KIIS-FM. He was 71. Full obituary(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)
The veteran actor built his early career playing heavies and won an Academy Award in 1968 for his supporting role as the tough Southern prison-camp convict who grew to hero-worship Paul Newman’s defiant title character in “Cool Hand Luke.” He was 91. Full obituary(Warner Bros. / Getty Images)
A prolific entrepreneur, Mann over the course of seven decades founded 17 companies in fields ranging from aerospace to pharmaceuticals to medical devices. He was 90. Full obituary(Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)
The Egyptian diplomat helped negotiate his country’s landmark peace deal with Israel but then clashed with the United States when he served a single term as U.N. secretary-general. He was 93. Full obituary(Marty Lederhandler / Associated Press)
Pro-BMX biker Dave Mirra was one of the most decorated athletes in X Games history. He held the record for the most medals in history with 24. He was 41. Full obituary(Ed Reinke / Associated Press)
Maurice White, co-founder and leader of the groundbreaking ensemble Earth, Wind & Fire, was the source for a wealth of euphoric hits in the 1970s and early ‘80s, including ‘Shining Star,’ ‘September,’ and ‘Boogie Wonderland.’ He was 74. Full obituary(Kathy Willens / Associated Press)
In a career that encompassed everything from big-budget Hollywood movies to classical theater, Rickman made bad behavior fascinating to watch from “Die Hard” to the “Harry Potter” movies. He was 69. Full obituary
The composer and former principal conductor of the New York Philharmonic was known for pushing music lovers and the music establishment to let go of the past and embrace new sounds, structures and textures. He was 90. Full obituary(Christophe Ena / Associated Press)
The Academy Award winner was revered as one of the most influential cinematographers in film history for his work on classics including “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “The Deer Hunter.” He was 85. Full obituary(Tamas Kovacs / EPA)
Gordon helped revolutionize surfing with the creation of the foam surfboard. His polyurethane boards were lighter and easier to ride, making surfing accessible -- which helped popularize the sport globally. He was in his 70s. Full obituary(Charlie Neuman / San Diego Union-Tribune/ZUMA Press)
The attorney and almond farmer was known for his battle to stop the $68-billion California bullet train project from slicing up his almond orchards -- part of a deeply emotional land war that has drawn in hundreds of farming families from Merced to Bakersfield. He was 92. Full obituary
But it was his uncle in Beverly Hills who brought him into what Hanson once described as the “periphery of show business.”
His uncle was Jack Hanson, owner of the popular Jax women’s clothing shops who launched the exclusive Beverly Hills nightclub the Daisy in the `60s. The businessman also bought a magazine called Cinema, for which his nephew worked first as a go-fer and eventually became editor and art director.
“The old greats were still around, and not that many people were interested in them,” Curtis Hanson told the Boston Globe in 2002, recalling interviewing directors John Ford, William Wellman, Vincente Minnelli, William Wyler and screenwriter Dalton Trumbo.
He also became friends with directors such as John Cassavetes, Don Siegel and Sam Fuller, with whom he co-wrote Fuller’s 1982 film “White Dog.”
As Hanson put it, the magazine “was my film school.”
During this time, he also took pictures that helped get Faye Dunaway cast in the landmark 1967 film “Bonnie and Clyde.”
“I took them as a favor to her press agent; Warren [Beatty] heard about my enthusiasm for her and called me,” Hanson told the Globe. “He offered to have the studio buy my pictures, but I said I’d rather get a ticket to Texas when they made the movie.
“Good to his word, he called me up a few months later, and I went down there, hung out, and took pictures on the set, and interviewed [director] Arthur Penn and [cinematographer] Burnett Guffey and [editor] Dede Allen. That was a pivotal learning experience for me.”
Hanson’s first produced script was a co-written 1970 adaptation of an H.P. Lovecraft short story “The Dunwich Horror,” starring Sandra Dee and Dean Stockwell.
Roger Corman, a producer on the film, executive produced “Sweet Kill” (re-titled “The Arousers” when it was reissued), which marked Hanson’s debut as both a director and a producer.
Over the next decade and a half, his work included writing the screenplay for “The Silent Partner,” a 1978 crime drama with Elliott Gould and Christopher Plummer; and directing the 1983 coming-of-age comedy “Losin’ It,” starring Tom Cruise.
Hanson maintained a passion and respect for the golden age of cinema — he was a powerful and articulate advocate for film restoration and served as honorary chairman of the UCLA Film & Television Archive for more than a decade — and his films often made insider references to this era.
A particular favorite of his was the 1950 film noir “In a Lonely Place,” starring Humphrey Bogart and directed by Nicholas Ray. Before shooting “L.A. Confidential,” Hanson screened the movie for two of its stars, Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce.
Throughout his career, Hanson strived to re-create the level of actor-director intimacy and trust that he felt Bogart and Ray enjoyed, and which produced such raw on-screen emotion. As a result, Hanson developed a reputation among actors as a director who was particularly intuitive.
“Curtis has this great ability to see what makes you tick and find the appropriate things to say,” Pearce told the New York Times in 2007. “I don’t mean in a politically correct way, but as in terms of inspiring you and getting you to do what he wants. To me, that’s the job description of what directing is all about.”
McLellan is a former Times staff writer.
Staff writer Matt Hamilton also contributed to this story.
Start your day right
Sign up for Essential California for the L.A. Times biggest news, features and recommendations in your inbox six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.