Some filmmakers, unfortunately, are doomed to remain under the radar irrespective of how they impact cinema. Curtis Hanson was one such film director.
Before LA Confidential (1997) established his credentials as a first-rate noir director, Hanson had already shown signs of brilliance with his thrillers in the early 1990s such as The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (1992) and River Wild(1994).
These two films proved that even predictable narratives could be transformed into art and, more importantly, women could be imagined as atypical characters, even when featured in typical studio films.
For someone who ended up perhaps transforming the way a typical studio film could strike a balance between artistic vision and commercial feasibility on more than one occasion, Hanson is destined to be an addendum when it came to talking about the greats.
Hanson had begun his career as a writer and was always intrigued by the moving image. He had dropped out of school as a teenager and found work as a freelance photographer as well as editor of a film magazine called Cinema.
It was perhaps this early hands-on training that instilled in him a knack to get top the point and specialize in humanising characters to make them as possible. Hanson had claimed to have been inspired by Alfred Hitchcock and Nichols Ray and watching his films one cannot help but get a sense of classic Hitchcockian characters walking into a Nicholas Ray’s universe.
This can be best experienced in LA Confidential, a film that he co-wrote with Brian Helgeland, which was based on a novel by James Elroy. Like the book, the film tells the story of a group of Los Angeles Police Department (L.A.P.D.) officers in 1953, and the intersection of police corruption and Hollywood celebrity.
The title refers to the 1950s scandal magazine Confidential, portrayed in the film as Hush-Hush, which fetched Hanson and Helgeland an Academy award for Best Writing (Adapted Screenplay) along with Kim Basinger, who won her Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. The film featured Kevin Spacey, James Cromwell, Kim Basinger, David Strathairn and Danny DeVito along with then relatively little known Australian actors Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce.
LA Confidential might have made Hanson into a brand but this was simply an Omega point as far as the filmmaker was concerned. With The Hand That Rocks the Cradle and River Wild, Hanson had more or less shown how art could be infused into the core of genre films.
The factual gaffes of River Wild notwithstanding – David Strathairn’s character runs faster than the river, in which his wife Gail (Meryl Streep) and young son, Roarke (Joseph Mazzello), raft before two violent criminals (Kevin Bacon and John C. Riley) and terrorize them. This fact it is reminiscent of far too many cinematic situations and plots, Hanson could attach a sense of astuteness to the film.
Similarly, in The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, a vengeful psychotic nanny (Rebecca De Mornay) goes on a rampage to destroy the life of a woman (Annabella Sciorra) whose testimony leads to her husband’s death. Hanson displayed immense deftness to take the stereotypical and turn it around on its head.
Critics noted how Hanson could easily “manipulate characters and situations within the comfortable confines of a formula plot", which held him in good stead on two things in the future and more so when it came to LA Confidential. Hanson could take the meandering plot as well as the character that could not help but run the risk of being predictable circa 1990s of Elroy’s book and translate into an art form that was deep, highbrow and immediately accessible at the same time.
Hanson is not credited enough with creating the template for the modern action woman and the ‘strong female character’ without which the likes of Sandra Bullock might have never been able to transcend the boundaries that often shackle women in cinema.
In many ways both The Hand That Rocks the Cradle as well River Wild are both precursors to the likes of Annie from Speed and Angela Bennett from The Net (1995) or Sharon Stone’s May Munroe from The Specialist (1994).
It would have been an arduous task to follow up LA Confidential. But not only did Hanson meet the challenge, in fact, his best film was followed up with an equally good if not a better successor. In Wonder Boys (200) Hanson had Michael Douglas play a college professor and a novelist unable to get over the block that stops him from finishing his fourth novel, while he is having an affair with the chancellor (Frances McDormand), who is married to the chairman of Douglas’ department.
Over the course of one night, Tripp (Douglas) has to juggle his love and his editor (Robert Downey Jr.), who has come to collect his client’s novel but gets intrigued by a work of his student, (Tobey Maguire). The film, now considered a masterpiece of sorts, then failed to live up to expectations.
Along with Ang Lee’s Ice Strom (1997), Wonder Boys captures the urban dystopia most accurately and while the former was a period piece, the latter went on to be hailed as one of the most accurate depictions of campus on film.
Curtis Hanson was 72 when he was found dead in his house and had already retired from active filmmaking due to complication from Alzheimer’s. While his body of work might not be mentioned in the same breadth as a Martin Scorsese or a Roman Polanski, but there was more to Hanson than what met the eye.
His popular works also included the critical and commercially acknowledged 8 Mile (2002), a film where singer Eminem played a rapper inspired by his own life. Hanson’s output might not reveal what a versatile, as well as a successful filmmaker he really was, but it shows what he had achieved – he made two near perfect films about the imperfections of life.