Curtis Hanson (1945-2016)
I was saddened to learn this morning of the death of film director and screenwriter Curtis Hanson. Hanson will forever be remembered for adapting (with Brian Helgeland) and directing the big screen adaptation of James Ellroy’s novel L.A. Confidential. Hanson had already built a reputation as a director with a brilliant grasp of genre with the thrillers The Hand that Rocks the Cradle (1992) and The River Wild (1994), before he began work on adapting what is perhaps Ellroy’s most complicated novel. Ellroy himself had said of L.A. Confidential:
I knew my book was movie-adaptation-proof. The motherfucker was uncompressible, uncontainable, and unequivocally bereft of sympathetic characters. it was unsavoury, unapologetically dark, untameable, and altogether untranslateable to the screen.
But for Hanson it was a labour of love, he said of Ellroy’s fiction:
Many find Ellroy’s novels unremittingly dark. I don’t. His humor and strength of personality shine through. He’s a survivor. Whether he intends it or not, that strength of spirit illuminates even the darkest of his nightmare visions.
The screenplay took some major deviations from the novel, all for the better in my opinion, making the narrative more linear and comprehensible for the screen. The fate of Jack Vincennes is completely different in the film than it is the novel, but rightly so as I’ll never forget the shock I felt the first time I saw the kitchen scene with Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) and Dudley Smith (James Cromwell), where Spacey fatefully whispers ‘Rollo Tomasi’.
It’s worth noting too that every time I watched an interview with Hanson I was struck by how kind and even-tempered he sounded, completely destroying the myth that the best directors are tyrants who have to mentally torture their actors to get the best performances. I imagine he was a joy to work with.
Hanson and Helgeland won an academy award for their screenplay adaptation of LA. Confidential, but shamefully the bauble for Best Picture that year went to James Cameron’s hammily acted, drearily written and thoroughly waterlogged Titanic. Hanson never quite matched the success of L.A. Confidential with his later films, but lets face it who could? I would highly recommend his comedy-drama Wonder Boys (2000), a charming but incisive portrayal of academe which has a blink and you’ll miss it cameo from Ellroy.
In any event if Curtis Hanson had never made another movie L.A. Confidential would still have been a big enough achievement for a lifetime. He took Ellroy’s unfilmable novel and turned it into a neo-noir masterpiece and one of the best crime films of all time. I’ll be watching it tonight for the umpteenth time in tribute to him, and perhaps I might feel a slight lump in my throat when Lynn Bracken (Kim Basinger) whispers in that irresistibly sexy voice ‘Some men get the world. Others get ex-hookers and a trip to Arizona.’
Thank you Curtis Hanson.