A filmmaker fascinated by themes of deception and deceptive characters, the gifted screenwriter-turned-director Curtis Hanson chalked up an enviable track record of finely tuned sleepers ("small movies") an astonishing 30 years prior to his official recognition by Hollywood, with the Best Director-nominated L.A. Confidential (1997). Hanson thus proved that Tinseltown isn't always prompt at acknowledging and exploiting the talents of its finest.
Born March 24, 1945, in Reno, NV, Hanson made his directorial bow with The Arousers, a crime thriller that stars Tab Hunter as a PE teacher moonlighting as a serial killer. The film earned excellent reviews -- and a devoted cult following -- as an impressive B-picture that transcends its source material. Hanson more or less limited himself to screenwriting duties for the next 15 years or so, with a particularly outstanding behind-the-scenes turn on Daryl Duke's The Silent Partner (1978). Hanson loosely adapted Partner from the novel Think of a Number by Anders Bodelsen, and dramatically improved on that source material. With an absolutely ingenious premise, this shocking, gripping, and ultraviolent thriller went down among cineastes as one of the best "unknown" English-language suspensers of all time. It also netted a Genie for Best Picture in its native Canada, and drew raves for its twin lead performances by Elliott Gould and Christopher Plummer.
Scriptwriting duties on Sam Fuller's White Dog (1982) followed a few years later, as did directorial work on the undistinguished teen sex comedy Losin' It (1982), which stars an early, undiscovered Tom Cruise. But the Cruise film tanked, and the Fuller effort suffered a direr fate: unjust allegations of racism buried White Dog for years and obstructed its release in the U.S. Hanson scripted Carroll Ballard's 1983 Never Cry Wolf for Disney, and it drew high praise from critics.
For his next major directorial assignment, Hanson helmed The Bedroom Window (1987), a Hitchcock-inspired romantic thriller about a man (Steve Guttenberg) who gets involved with a mysterious woman (Isabelle Huppert) who turns his life upside down. The effort mirrored the twists and turns of The Silent Partner but (inexplicably) never quite caught on with critics or the public.
Hanson stuck to his genre roots, and peppered his next film, 1990's yuppie suspenser Bad Influence, with Hitchcock influences (particularly from Strangers on a Train). The story of an outwardly successful but inwardly faltering Los Angeles marketing analyst (James Spader), who falls under the spell of a charming but psychotic drifter (Rob Lowe), Influence became a moderate success, both critically and financially, but suffered from bitter mean-spiritedness that alienated many viewers, and abandoned its Iago-like "corruption premise" at midpoint to become a more conventional nail-biter. Of much greater success was The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, Hanson's 1992 thriller about a Laurie Dann-like babysitter (Rebecca DeMornay) who slowly wreaks murderous, vengeful havoc on her employers.
Murderous psychopaths were also a key facet of Hanson's adventure thriller The River Wild two years later. Starring Meryl Streep as a woman whose white-water-rafting vacation with her family turns deadly after they encounter an ingratiating psychotic (Kevin Bacon), the film engaged audiences and received decent -- if not stellar -- critical notices.
However successful his prior films, Hanson's 1997 L.A. Confidential eclipsed the critical acclaim of its predecessors. Hanson, who wanted to make a film about Los Angeles for years, called it his "most personal project to date." The lavish care he took in both adapting the screenplay (with writing partner Brian Helgeland [Mystic River]) from James Ellroy's novel, and in capturing the look and atmosphere of 1950s L.A., reflected this. A tough, gorgeous throwback to old-school Hollywood filmmaking, it avoided most of the clichés associated with noir detective films, and in doing so, elevated the standards of post-noir. With excellent performances from Russell Crowe, Guy Pearce, Kevin Spacey, and Kim Basinger, the film received lavish praise, and critics widely hailed it as one of the best films of the year. It was nominated for a number of Academy Awards, including Best Director and Best Picture. The Titanic Oscar juggernaut sank its chances, though Hanson and Helgeland did take home Best Adapted Screenplay statues.
The director didn't craft his next film until three years later, when he abandoned the thriller arena, switching gears for the bittersweet ensemble film Wonder Boys. Based on Michael Chabon's novel of the same name about a middle-aged professor (Michael Douglas) experiencing problems in both his personal and professional life, the film deftly marries Hanson's gift for on-location atmosphere with his theretofore-untested skill at scruffy human comedy. Perhaps underestimating the film's critical appeal, Paramount buried Wonder Boys with a February 2000 release, where it was eclipsed by both late-release Oscar heavies (The Cider House Rules, American Beauty) as well as lighter fare (My Dog Skip, The Whole Nine Yards). At the behest of Douglas, the studio withheld the film from the video shelves in favor of an Oscar-baiting re-release later that year, which did little for the film's box-office tally but nabbed it three nominations (and eventually one win for Bob Dylan's theme song, "Things Have Changed").
Hanson may not have seemed the obvious choice to helm the semi-autobiographical big-screen debut of the zeitgeist-tapping rapper Eminem, but his touch proved essential to the success of the burgeoning actor's tale 8 Mile. Again shooting on-location -- this time in the cold, grimy environs of Detroit -- Hanson imbued the film with a handheld verisimilitude and further demonstrated his affinity for nonjudgmental coming-of-age tales. What's more, he coaxed stellar performances out of both Eminem (insisting that the musician endure weeks of acting lessons before shooting) as well as a startlingly glamour-free Kim Basinger. The film powered past the 100-million-dollar mark in the fall of 2002, ensuring that Hanson would have his pick of projects for some time to come.
Indeed, Hanson's name cropped up time and again in the trades for the next several years, which rumored his involvement in project after project. He emerged with 2005's comedy-drama In Her Shoes, starring Cameron Diaz and Toni Collette as sisters of opposite personality who reassess their family history, in part via a newly established connection with their grandmother (Shirley MacLaine). Hanson's next project was the gambling drama Lucky You, directed for Warners, and scripted by Eric Roth. Over the coming decades, Hanson would helm projects like Too Big to Fail and Chasing Mavericks, though for the latter, he eventually ceded directing duties to Michael Apted due to health reasons. Hanson died in 2016, at age 71.