Directing movies, Quentin Tarantino has said, “is a young man’s game. Directors don’t really get better as they get older…I’ve been studying all these directors’ careers, and boy, you tell me the one I haven’t thought of and I’ll bow my head.” Tarantino is right. For the most part, directors don’t get better as they get older. (The rare ones remain just as good.) There are exceptions to that rule, however, and none may be more dramatic, in its way, than the career of Curtis Hanson, who died Tuesday at 71.
For a long time, he worked under the radar. Then, in his forties, when he’d achieved a certain medium-grade commercial success, it was for making serviceable if not exactly indelible genre movies: The yuppie exploitation noir “Bad Influence” (1990), which played — with an entertaining hint of crassness — off the Rob Lowe sex-tape scandal. The garishly effective nanny-from-hell thriller “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle” (1992). The look, Meryl Streep is doing an action potboiler! rafting-trip thriller “The River Wild” (1994). Film directors tend to get put into slots, and by the time he made that efficient trio of grade-B concoctions, Hollywood must have figured it had Curtis Hanson pegged.
Then, though, something extraordinary happened. At the age of 52, after 25 years in the business, having never worked on a single project that approached being what you might call a movie for the ages, Curtis Hanson suddenly reinvented himself…as a great filmmaker. In 1997, he directed “L.A. Confidential,” a brilliantly twisty and sordid eruption of a movie, set in Los Angeles in 1953, that was all about cops, showbiz, murder, the muck of degradation, and — through it all — the ragged persistence of loyalty and honor. It was a staggering achievement, not just riveting but cathartic, the sort of movie that took you on a journey — into the heart of darkness, and into the heart of movies. When it was over, you felt not just cleansed but shaken, maybe a little startled by the power of what you’d seen.
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By 1997, the independent film revolution was in full swing, but “L.A. Confidential” was still a rare spectacle, a bravura Hollywood thriller that looked back in time — triumphantly — in two different ways. In its moody, sophisticated intimacy with the acrid flavors of corruption, the movie took its audience back to the soul of the New Hollywood, to the seamy glory of films like “Chinatown” and “The French Connection” and “Serpico.” At the same time, “L.A. Confidential” was executed with such an exhilarating sense of high classicism, such a heady and hurtling old-movie momentum, that it stands, along with “Chinatown,” as the only instance in all of contemporary cinema when a movie was made that is truly comparable, in form and spirit and elegance and mystery, to the timeless detective thrillers of the studio-system era: “The Maltese Falcon,” “The Big Sleep,” and so on. It works on that grand a level of silken craftsmanship and mythological power.
“L.A. Confidential” was, of course, based on the 1990 novel by James Ellroy, and Ellroy’s vision — of a corruption that seeps into the very pores of society — pulsates through the movie. Yet the book itself, like most of Ellroy, is a dense jungle, at once enticingly complex and too tangled for its own good. To become a movie, the novel didn’t just need to be “adapted.” It had to be pruned, distilled, streamlined, re-imagined, and the brilliance of the film begins with the way that Hanson, who co-wrote the script with Brian Helgeland, shaped and sculpted that process. Born in March of 1945, he’d begun his career, like so many filmmakers of the baby-boomer era (Jonathan Demme, Martin Scorsese), working for Roger Corman; his first movie as a director was “Sweet Kill,” an extremely edgy 1973 serial-killer drama starring Tab Hunter as a sexually impotent psychotic whose thrill of choice is necrophilia. (Talk about hitting the sweet spot of exploitation.)
Hanson wrote that film himself, and from the outset he envisioned himself as a writer-director, a crucial (and all too rare) distinction, because what it meant, in his case, isn’t just that he liked to pen the dialogue. It meant that he was an ardent student of cinematic structure. His first truly artful act of filmmaking was the screenplay he wrote for the 1978 thriller “The Silent Partner,” starring Elliott Gould as a nebbishy Toronto bank teller who decides, on his own, to collaborate with a nasty thief (Christopher Plummer). It’s a terrific movie, and what works about it is the tricky way that Hanson’s script follows through on the logic of its setup (think Patricia Highsmith meets “Dog Day Afternoon”).
Hanson cited Hitchcock and Nicholas Ray as his gods, and there’s an invisibly sturdy studio-system design to all his work. His movies aren’t just made, they’re built. To create “L.A. Confidential,” he treated the book as if it were a vintage car he was re-customizing: He deconstructed Ellroy’s novel, teasing out its heady pulp essence, and rebuilt it from the ground up. The film is made so that we don’t just discover its conspiracy, layer by layer. We discover how the partnership between Guy Pearce’s Ed Exley, a slightly geeky straight arrow who’d like to think he’s above corruption, and Russell Crowe’s Bud White, a bruiser who thinks there’s nothing above it, spend the movie circling each other, like wary solemn predators, until they meet in the middle. Their partnership is thrillingly hard-won, and it captures what the police are: brains and brute force trapped in an awkward dance.
After the success and acclaim that swirled around “L.A. Confidential” (it was nominated for nine Academy Awards, and won for Best Screenplay, and for Kim Basinger for Best Supporting Actress), Hanson was a filmmaker reborn, one who had hoisted himself out of the purgatory of directing lockstep genre movies (not that there’s anything wrong with that). There are people who think that his next film, “Wonder Boys” (2000), remains his finest. It’s one of those movies about a cynical washed-up academic — played, refreshingly, by Michael Douglas — and the savvy idealistic student whose existence taunts, challenges, and saves him. The student was played, in a highly lauded performance, by Tobey Maguire, and critics lavished praise on the film itself. But I can’t pretend I was wild about it.
To me, the movie that confirmed that Curtis Hanson wasn’t just working at the top of his game, but that he’d become — by any measure — a genuine artist, is “8 Mile.” It’s an enthralling film. And just as Hanson, with “L.A. Confidential,” poured decades’ worth of craft into doing what perhaps no one else could have brought off (transforming Ellroy’s thicket of a novel into an incendiary retro noir), with “8 Mile” he used his directorial savvy to cut against 50 years of fumbled pop-star filmmaking.
Going back to Elvis Presley (or before), Hollywood had developed an eternal obsession with taking the pop star of the moment and building a movie around him or her. The reason was obvious: There was a pile of money to be made — and pop stars, especially once Elvis revolutionized the cosmos we live in, always seemed like they should be the most natural movie stars in the world. They had the charisma, they had the primal sex appeal, they had the effortless gift of self-presentation that was, in effect, a form of theater. They already were actors.
And yet, with the singular and glorious exception of the Beatles, almost every time a movie tried to bottle the mystique of a pop star, the result, even if it didn’t entirely fall flat, was always a letdown, a stiff compromise with what made the star magical in the first place. I like “Purple Rain,” but it could never hold a lavender candle to the excitement of seeing Prince onstage. David Bowie is a good actor in “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” but his sexy creepy majesty as a rock star never really found its way on screen. Mick Jagger, who longed to be a movie star, couldn’t figure out how to become one. The Elvis movies? A famous joke (though who doesn’t savor the tasty kitsch of “Viva Las Vegas” and a few others). Madonna’s movies? No comment. The reason that pop stars never make the leap into becoming movie stars is that what they do, instinctively, is to pose, and that’s a different thing entirely from acting. They create an image; what they don’t do (outside of their music) is create an inner reality.
By 2002, Eminem had become a lightning bolt of a star, but the whole rough-and-tumble of hip-hop — the murky speed of the rhymes, the grit and grime of the streets — didn’t necessarily sound as if it had the makings of a classic movie. Eminem, with his hooded insouciance, was magnetic in his videos, but after so many decades’ worth of pop stars trying and failing to become movie stars, what evidence was there that this spectacular anomaly of a rapper — a white kid who came on like a prankster sociopath, barking our lyrics in the idiom of the inner city, like a teen-delinquent Travis Bickle imagining himself as Jay-Z — could be a viable movie character?
There was no evidence at all, but that’s where Hanson stepped in to execute the most creative high-wire act of his career. Hanson knew that pop-star movies have always been, in a word, b.s. And so he said: Let’s do this right, for once, by stripping out the b.s. factor. Who, really, is Marshall Mathers? He’s a kid from the rubble of Detroit, and rap was all he had. Yes, he was white, and no, he didn’t know the agony of racism that had been the furnace from which hip-hop was forged. But he was a nihilistic loner, he was emotionally disenfranchised, and…rap was all he had. Hanson said: Let’s make a movie out of that truth. And let’s do it not by letting Eminem be a sulky “larger-than-life” pose machine, but by making him into a genuine actor. Let’s overturn 50 years of bogus pop-star-meets-the-big-screen tradition by making a real goddamn movie.
And he did it. “8 Mile” came out 14 years ago, and the era when Eminem ruled the world with his barbed and curlicued Shakespeare-on-meth grunge rap soliloquies is long gone, but the movie still stands as a landmark, as exciting and transformative today as it was then, and that’s because Hanson, a born-again classicist, saw that Eminem, with his rage and despair and the ticklish punch of his words, could be a James Dean for our time. He got the rap star to dig deep, coaxing out what is probably the one true movie performance he had in him, and — in the closing duel — fusing it all into what can still stand as the one and only great hip-hip movie.
“8 Mile” premiered in 2002 as one of those “surprise” sneak previews at the Toronto Film Festival. A little later on that evening, I got to meet Hanson, and though I spoke to him for all of 20 minutes, he struck me as being the single nicest person I have ever met who was a film director. He had a rare aura. He seemed like a mensch, an impression borne out by things I’ve heard since from those who worked with him. Yet in his two great films, “L.A. Confidential” and “8 Mile,” he understood the vitality of ferocity. From the outset, there was an edge to his work — a glint of intelligence, and a symbiotic sympathy with his dark-side characters, be it the foul-mouthed scoundrel Christopher Plummer played in “The Silent Partner” or Rebecca De Mornay’s evil nanny in “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle.” In its 1950s period portrayal of the West Coast police, “L.A. Confidential” is a monumental depiction of the sinister ways of power. It’s a film of awesome worldliness.
Hanson never matched the success of “L.A. Confidential” or “8 Mile,” yet one of his movies after that was terribly overlooked and underrated. That was “In Her Shoes” (2005), a comedy that signifies as a “chick flick” but is actually a marvelous study of an annoying dysfunctional alcoholic loser narcissist, played (superbly) by Cameron Diaz, and how she journeys to Florida to be rescued by her acid-tongued grandmother (Shirley MacLaine). Yes, it’s one of those movies, yet it may be the most lacerating mainstream comedy of feminine heartbreak since “My Best Friend’s Wedding.”
At the time, I could see why Hanson wanted to make it. After so many movies rooted in the byways of masculinity (toxic or otherwise), he wanted to tell a story that explored the lives of women. In the movie industry, that sort of thing represents a huge demographic leap, but for Hanson, still tasting the fruits of his midlife renaissance, it was a simply another way to go his own way. Other directors might be defined by an outlook or a genre, or a small set of them, and for a long time he was, but once he broke through, there was nothing — apart from his seamless handmade neo-Howard Hawks craftsmanship — to really define a Curtis Hanson film. Unless, of course, you talk about the special thing he brought to each and every one of them, and that was the human touch.