Oscar Profile #445: Curtis Hanson

Born March 24, 1945 in Reno, Nevada and raised in Los Angeles, Curtis Hanson’s mother was a real estate agent, and his father, a teacher.

Hanson dropped out of school in his senior year but was later made entertainment editor of the Cal State L.A. campus newspaper, despite not being a student there. His uncle, editor of Cinema magazine, hired him as a gofer and he eventually became a photographer, editor and art director where he interviewed numerous Hollywood legends including John Ford, Vincente Minnelli, William Wyler and Dalton Trumbo. His first film credit was as one of three writers of the screenplay for 1970’s The Dunwich Horror directed by Daniel Haller from H.P. Lovecraft’s story.

Hanson’s directorial debut came with 1972’s Sweet Kill, a horror thriller starring Tab Hunter as a serial killer. He later directed 1977’s Evil Town and 1979’s The Little Dragons, but neither attracted much attention. Two 1983 films, Losin’ It starring Tom Cruise and Never Cry Wolf starring Charles Martin Smith, which he wrote but didn’t direct, were more successful but the film that put him on the Hollywood map was 1987’s The Bedroom Window starring Steve Guttenberg, Elizabeth McGovern and Isabelle Huppert.

Having hit pay dirt with The Bedroom Window, Hanson continued directing successful thrillers with 1990’s Bad Influence starring Rob Lowe and James Spader 1992’s The Hand That Rocks the Cradle starring Annabella Sciorra and Rebecca De Mornay, 1994’s The River Wild starring Meryl Streep and Kevin Bacon and 1997’s L.A> Confidential starring Kevin Spacey, Russell Crowe, Guy Pearce and Kim Basinger. The latter received 11 Oscar nominations including three for Hanson for writing, producing and directing. He won for writing.

L.A. Confidential was the best reviewed film of 1997, winning the lion’s share of the year’s film critics’ awards but it lost the Oscar to the box-office phenomenon, Titanic.

Hanson’s career prospered after L.A. Confidential with 2000’s Wonder Boys starring Michael Douglas, Tobey Maguire, Frances McDormand and Robert Downey, Jr., 2002’s 8 Mile starring Eminem, 2005’s In Her Shoes starring Cameron Diaz, Toni Collette and Shirley MacLaine, 2007’s Lucky You and the award-winning 2011 TV movie, Too Big to Fail starring William Hurt, Paul Giamatti, James Woods and Cynthia Nixon.

Hanson directed all but the last three weeks of 2012’s Chasing Mavericks starring Gerard Butler, Jonny Weston and Elisabeth Shue but had to withdraw due to failing health. He was replaced Michael Apted who finished the film and did the post-production work. It would be Hanson’s last film.

Curtis Hanson died of natural causes attributed to dementia on September 20, 2016. He was 71.

ESSENTIAL FILMS

THE BEDROOM WINDOW (1987)

Along with The Big Easy, Black Widow, Dead of Winter, Fatal Attraction, House of Games, Lethal Weapon, No Way Out, Someone to Watch Over Me and Suspect, The Bedroom Window was one of ten thrillers released in the same year that provided filmgoers in 1987 with a renaissance of film noir, that either established or furthered the careers of numerous writers, actors and directors, not the least of which was Curtis Hanson, in the moviemaking business for 18 years.

BAD INFLUENCE (1990)

James Spader was the yuppie wimp and Rob Lowe the psychopath who befriends him in Hanson’s second hit thriller with a screenplay by David Koepp (Death Becomes Her, Apartment Zero) that compares favorably to Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train with Spader playing a variation on Farley Granger’s character and Lowe playing a variation on Robert Walker’s. Sandwiched between The Bedroom Window and The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, the three films together form a modern trilogy of angst and terror that doesn’t let up.

L.A. CONFIDENTIAL (1997)

Nominated for 11 Academy Awards, this modern noir won two including one for Hanson’s screenplay and one for Kim Basinger’s portrayal of a high-priced Hollywood prostitute made to look like Veronica Lake. The film lays bare the dark underbelly of Los Angeles the 1950s in much the same manner that Roman Polanski’s 1974 masterpiece, Chinatown laid bare the dark underbelly of the city in the 1930s. Besides Basinger, there are strong performances from Kevin Spacey, Russell Crowe, Guy Pearce, James Cromwell, Danny DeVito, David Strathairn, Ron Rifkin and more that shouldn’t be missed.

THE WONDER BOYS (2000)

Winner of numerous awards in numerous categories, Hanson’s change of pace comedy-drama provided Michael Douglas with one of the best roles of his career as a college professor and novelist whose editor (Robert Downey, Jr.) has been waiting seven years for his manuscript. Tobey Maguire as his protégé and Frances McDormand as his ex-wife provide invaluable support. The film was nominated for three Oscars including Best Adapted Screenplay (Steve Kloves), Best Film Editing (Dede Allen) and Best Song (“Times Have Changed”) which won an Oscar for the legendary Bob Dylan.

IN HER SHOES (2005)

Cameron Diaz and Toni Collette play sisters who are complete opposites in this comedy-drama in which party girl Diaz has a liaison with hardworking Collette’s fiancé. The girls’ widowed father (Ken Howard) and nasty stepmother (Candice Azzara) keep the existence of their mother’s mother from the girls. Looking for a change, Collette discovers her grandmother (Shirley MacLaine) and goes to live with her in a senior community in Florida. All three female leads provide excellent performances, but MacLaine, in a Golden Globe nominated performance, is the standout delivering zinger after zinger,

CURTIS HANSON AND OSCAR

  • L.A. Confidential (1997) – nominated – Best Picture
  • L.A. Confidential (1997) – nominated – Best Director
  • L.A. Confidential (1997) – Oscar – Best Adapted Screenplay

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