The Good, The Bad & The Badass: Curtis Hanson
For much of his career, Curtis Hanson was a journeyman director. He was about as good or as bad as his material, capable of putting-out crowd-pleasing thrillers like THE HAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE or THE RIVER WILD, but also just as likely to put out forgettable pulp like LOSIN’ IT, BAD INFLUENCE or the occasional sleeper like THE BEDROOM WINDOW, a better-than-average Steve Guttenberg vehicle. Hanson’s career took a major turn in 1997, with his adaptation of James Ellroy’s L.A CONFIDENTIAL. One of the best films of the nineties, no one would have ever thought such a low-key director like Hanson would be the one to finally nail Ellroy, with him also using the movie to launch the careers of Aussie actors Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce.
From there, Hanson went on to make two more classics. His Michael Chabon adaptation, WONDER BOYS, barely made a dent at the box office, but is now considered one of star Michael Douglas’s best parts, as well as an important pre-SPIDER-MAN showcase for Tobey Maguire, and a strong showing for a then-controversial Robert Downey Jr., (and let’s not forget Frances McDormand). WONDER BOYS was so good that Paramount, in a rare move, pulled it from theaters during the original winter of 2000 run to re-release it in the fourth quarter in an attempt to generate some Oscar buzz - a rare acknowledgment that they’d botched the initial release. Grotesquely, it only received three nominations (screenplay, editing and song - the last one of which it won) - the same year that CHOCOLAT got nominations up the wazoo. No matter, it’s universally regarded as a classic now.
In a strange move, Hanson then went on to direct the Eminem vehicle, 8 MILE, which wound-up becoming his biggest hit and getting major critical acclaim, also becoming a classic of its genre. After three amazing films in-a-row, Hanson should have been regarded as one of our best directors, but he was never quite able to measure-up to his own work, with follow-up movies IN HER SHOES, and LUCKY YOU both becoming major critical and financial disappointments. Hanson probably would have made a comeback, had his health not taken a turn for the worse (which necessitated him pulling out of CHASING MAVERICKS midway through production) but the fact remains, he made a trilogy of perfect films - quite the accomplishment.
It’s downright criminal that TITANIC took the 1998 Best Picture Oscar over L.A CONFIDENTIAL. While I’m by no means a TITANIC-hater, it’s a very simple movie next to the magnificent L.A CONFIDENTIAL, which ranks as maybe the best film put out by a major studio in the nineties and launched several big careers. Thoroughly engaging, smart and also damn exciting, it’s probably the best neo-noir of all-time, anchored by three incredible performances - Russell Crowe as the brutish but noble Bud White, Guy Pearce as the by-the-book Ed Exley and Kevin Spacey (then totally cast against-type) as the fast-talking “Hollywood” Jack Vincennes. This is one of those films I can watch over and over again and find myself falling under it’s spell each time, and Hanson’s no-fuss direction is masterful.
Hanson’s THE HAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE was a kind of water-cooler hit in 1992. It was part of a string of yuppie suburban thrillers like UNLAWFUL ENTRY and PACIFIC HEIGHTS that imagined a comfortable middle-class existence being upturned, this time by Rebecca DeMornay’s seductive but evil nanny. It’s a silly movie, with a non-P.C performance by Ernie Hudson as a mentally challenged gardener. It’s not the worst film of this cycle, which eventually petered out towards the middle of the decade, but it’s pretty crazy to think that the same guy that directed WONDER BOYS was also responsible for this.
In 1978, Hanson wrote a deliciously nasty little Canadian thriller called THE SILENT PARTNER. It’s one of the darkest Christmas movies ever made, with Christopher Plummer cast against type as a psychopathic bank-robber who, when robbing a bank dressed as Santa Claus, is outsmarted by a clever bank teller (Elliot Gould) who later finds himself outmatched by the psychotic goon. There are some really cool bits in this, including a spectacularly gruesome scene involving a decapitated head in a fish-tank that needs to be seen to be believed. This isn’t the easiest movie to track down (although it’s a regular fixture on Canadian Cable during the holiday season) but well worth watching.
I’m going to assume that everyone reading this has seen L.A CONFIDENTIAL. If not, take this as a massive SPOILER warning. At the time this was made, other than Kim Basinger, Kevin Spacey was the most famous person in the L.A CONFIDENTIAL cast, and I, like everyone else who saw it in 1997, was shocked by the fact that he’s killed-off two-thirds of the way through by James Cromwell’s seemingly good police captain, prompting his famous last words, “Rollo Tomasi”, which makes sense if you’ve seen the movie.
5. THE RIVER WILD
4. 8 MILE
3. THE SILENT PARTNER
2. WONDER BOYS
1. L.A CONFIDENTIAL
While illness kept him from ever making something that really measure up to his 97-02 films, it can’t be denied Hanson had an incredible run for awhile there, and his movie will no doubt stand the test of time for generations to come.
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