Curtis Hanson, director of “L.A Confidential” and winner with Brian Helgeland of an Oscar for adapting James Ellroy’s novel, was found dead in his Hollywood Hills home on Tuesday afternoon, a spokesperson with the Los Angeles Police Department confirmed. He was 71.
The official said paramedics responded to a call of an unconscious man at Hanson’s home at about 4:52 p.m. on Tuesday. He was pronounced dead at the scene. According to TMZ, which first reported the news, it appears as though Hanson died of a heart attack; while the LAPD spokesperson could not confirm that specific information, he said Hanson died of “natural causes.”
He had been retired in recent years due to Alzheimer’s.
As a producer of the stylish 1997 period film, Hanson shared the nomination for best picture and was nominated for best director. The film won an Oscar for actress Kim Basinger, and was nominated for cinematography, art direction, sound, editing, and score. At Cannes it was nominated for the Palme d’Or, and in 2015 it was named to the National Film Registry
Hanson’s other films included “The River Wild” (1994), “Wonder Boys” (2000), “8 Mile” (2002) and “In Her Shoes” (2005).
The director’s last film was “Chasing Mavericks,” a biopic of surfer Jay Moriarity starring Gerard Butler, but Hanson had to leave that production toward the end of shooting in 2011 due to what was said at the time to be complications following his recent heart surgery. Michael Apted completed the film and the two shared credit on it.
His project just prior to “Chasing Mavericks” was the HBO film “Too Big to Fail” — about the efforts to save the U.S. economy from the abyss in 2008 — for which he received two Emmy nominations.
The film that really started Hanson on his run of success in Hollywood was 1992 commercial hit “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle,” a derivative thriller about a psychotic nanny played by Rebecca De Mornay who wreaks havoc on a woman (Annabella Sciorra) and her family.
“The River Wild” was a somewhat more sophisticated take on the family in jeopardy picture thanks in part to its setting — a female river-rafting specialist takes her family and what turn out to be miscreants on a rafting expedition through dangerous waters — and its intriguing cast: Meryl Streep as the rafting ace, David Strathairn as her resentful husband and Kevin Bacon as the leader of the evildoers. But it was all, frankly, rather unconvincing, especially in the little details.
“L.A. Confidential,” which Hanson and Helgeland adapted from the excellent Ellroy novel of the same name, won the WGA Award for adapted screenplay and revealed a filmmaker at an entirely different level of proficiency. The script intelligently compressed Ellroy’s densely plotted novel into something deliciously complex but comprehensible; the film stunningly reproduced ’50s Los Angeles, from the streets to the costumes; and Hanson pulled fine, colorful performances from an ensemble cast that included Kevin Spacey, Russell Crowe, Guy Pearce, James Cromwell, Kim Basinger, Danny DeVito and David Strathairn.
The New York Times said: “Curtis Hanson’s resplendently wicked ‘L.A. Confidential’ is a tough, gorgeous, vastly entertaining throwback to the Hollywood that did things right.”
The film was also a popular success, with a worldwide gross of $126 million; another indicator of the esteem in which it is popularly held is the fact that it is ranked No. 96 on the IMDb’s Top 250.
Hanson followed “L.A. Confidential” with a much smaller but in its way even more beloved film: the witty, sophisticated comedy “Wonder Boys” (2000), adapted by Steve Kloves from the novel by Michael Chabon about an English professor, played by Michael Douglas, who’s under pressure to finish his book (his editor is played by Robert Downey Jr.) amid a literary festival in Pittsburgh. Douglas’ character is having an affair with the university chancellor, played by Frances McDormand; Tobey Maguire and Katie Holmes play two of his students. Kloves deserved his Oscar nomination for his observational adapted screenplay that avoided cliches and offered sparkling dialogue.
The director continued his winning streak with what was again a very different film, the Eminem starrer “8 Mile,” which fictionalized to some extent — how much was greatly debated — the rapper’s harrowing true-life story of seeking to break into the local rap world in his hometown of Detroit while dealing with a mother, played effectively by Basinger, who was a handful to say the least. Eminem (both Marshall Mathers) seemed a charismatic natural in the film (an enthused Peter Travers in Rolling Stone said, “His screen presence is electric”), although he did not ultimately pursue a film career beyond this semi-autobiographical statement. Eminem’s character, Jimmy, vies in freestyle verbal competitions against other rappers, and these scenes are suspenseful and clever. Travers added, “Hanson succeeds brilliantly at creating a world around Eminem that teems with hip-hop energy and truth.”
The New York Times made an intriguing connection: “Mr. Hanson’s last two pictures, ‘L.A. Confidential’ and ‘Wonder Boys,’ were about the trouble that words can cause. And Jimmy Smith, who is called Rabbit and is determined to be a rapper, spends a great deal of time in hot water because of his mouth.”
Hanson succeeded in making a film that drew viewers who were not already fans of Eminem or of hip-hop but were attracted to the story of a poor, sullen young man working a stultifying day job while trying to make it. The movie was his most commercially successful, with a worldwide gross of $242 million.
His next film was the comedy “In Her Shoes,” starring Cameron Diaz as the wild sister of Toni Collette’s lawyer who sinks so low, she tries to scam her grandma (played by Shirley MacLaine) before going to work in a retirement home and maturing. The film, an adaptation by Susannah Grant of the novel by Jennifer Weiner, sharply divided critics; some thought it had far more to offer than an ordinary comedy. Roger Ebert said: “The movie’s set-up would be right at home in a sitcom, but its next 99 minutes do some rather unexpected things with characters who insist on breaking out of the stereotypes they started with. It’s not every big-budget movie that gets its two biggest emotional payoffs with poems by Elizabeth Bishop and e.e. cummings.” On the other hand, Salon.com said: “The movie works neither as a comedy nor as a lame melodrama — its entertainment value is embarrassingly feeble.”
The movie was not particularly successful at the box office.
Hanson’s final completed bigscreen effort was 2007’s “Lucky You,” which he directed and co-penned with Eric Roth. The movie centers on a Vegas poker player played by Eric Bana, his relationship with a singer, played by Drew Barrymore, and with his father, played by Robert Duvall, who contributes quite a bit of color to the proceedings; Bana’s character, however, remains something of a cipher, unfortunately.
The New York Times said, “There is something winning about the movie’s genial lack of ambition. It’s a nickel-ante fable of lessons learned and chances taken set in the world of high-stakes competitive poker.”
Curtis Lee Hanson was born in Reno, Nevada, and grew up in Los Angeles. He dropped out of high school and worked as a freelance photographer and editor for Cinema magazine.
His first film work was co-scripting 1970’s “The Dunwich Horror,” an adaptation of the short story by H.P. Lovecraft.
Hanson’s first directorial effort was the 1972 horror movie “Sweet Kill,” starring Tab Hunter, followed by the zombie movie “Evil Town,” on which he was credited as Edward Collins, in 1977. James Keach and Dean Jagger starred. The action comedy “Little Dragons” followed two years later.
The 1983 sex comedy “Losin’ It,” starring a just-prior-to-“Risky Business” Tom Cruise and Shelley Long, represented something of a step up for Hanson. Variety said, “Director Curtis Hanson makes a commendable effort with a rather obvious story about three teenage boys who head for a wild weekend in Tijuana, hoping to trade hard cash for manly experience.”
After the 1986 ABC telepic “The Children of Times Square,” he directed the mediocre neo-noir “The Bedroom Window,” starring Steve Guttenberg, Elizabeth McGovern and Isabelle Huppert, but next was the far more stylish thriller “Bad Influence,” written by David Koepp and starring James Spader as a rather ordinary financial analyst and Rob Lowe as a sadistic sociopath who messes with the Spader character’s life in clever, devious ways. It was an interesting, entertaining performance from Lowe, and the film showed Hanson had promise as a director.
The commercial success of “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle” led to a Hollywood career and significantly better films from Hanson.
Hanson served as the first chairman of the UCLA Film and Television Archive beginning in 1999 and as a member of the board of governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences starting in 2001.
Hanson is survived by a son, born in 2004, with companion Rebecca Yeldham, a producer.