Curtis Hanson, a Hollywood director whose motley output included a deranged-nanny thriller and a semi-biopic of rapper Eminem as well as “L.A. Confidential,” a crime drama that also earned him a screenwriting Oscar and made Russell Crowe a star, died Sept. 20 in Los Angeles. He was 71.
A Los Angeles Police Department spokesman said paramedics found Mr. Hanson at his home in the Hollywood Hills section of the city. His companion, producer Rebecca Yeldham, told the Associated Press that Mr. Hanson had a rare terminal condition called frontotemporal degeneration that eventually destroys behavioral control.
“L.A. Confidential” (1997), co-written with Brian Helgeland from a James Ellroy novel, was Mr. Hanson’s career apex. It was a sleek and supremely entertaining drama of moral rot in the California sunshine, a film layered with gradations of corruption and compromise and a plotline filigreed with police, pornographers, movie people and gangsters.
To film aficionados, “L.A. Confidential” followed in the “retro noir” tradition of Roman Polanski’s masterpiece “Chinatown” (1974), but Mr. Hanson said he had set out to conjure the tone of director Nicholas Ray’s Hollywood-set noir “In a Lonely Place” (1950), with Humphrey Bogart as an unstable screenwriter suspected of murder.
“L.A. Confidential” was so alive with 1950s tabloid atmospherics and finely drawn characterizations, and so confidently directed through its thicket of plots, that it transcended period piece nostalgia. The sharp dialogue served further to etch a dark portrait of life.
“You’re like Santa Claus with that list,” one cop tells another, as they make their rounds, “except everyone on it’s been naughty.”
Crowe, then little known outside of Australia, was the film’s male standout, playing a policeman who brutalizes criminals and develops a tenderness for a jaded call girl. Kim Basinger earned an Academy Award for best supporting role as the woman, and the film also drew Oscar nominations for best picture and best director but lost to “Titanic” and its director, James Cameron.
Last year, “L.A. Confidential” was placed on the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry of “culturally, historically or aesthetically” significant movies.
Mr. Hanson’s output as a director was modest but versatile: 14 feature films and a handful of additional screenwriting credits over four decades. After an apprenticeship in low-budget horror films, he directed an early Tom Cruise vehicle “Losin’ It” (1983), about randy American teens in Tijuana.
Directing a succession of thrillers, Mr. Hanson emerged as a filmmaker who could elevate preposterous material with his increasingly assured and deft touch. “Bad Influence” (1990), with Rob Lowe as a mysterious cipher who leads uptight executive James Spader astray, led to “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle” (1992), with Rebecca De Mornay as the unhinged nanny.
When “Cradle” proved an unexpected commercial smash, Mr. Hanson was entrusted to direct Meryl Streep in the terror-on-the-rapids drama “The River Wild” (1994).
“L.A. Confidential” thrust Mr. Hanson to the front rank of filmmakers, and he chose as a follow-up “Wonder Boys” (2000), based on Michael Chabon’s shaggy-dog novel centered on a cannibis-loving, washed-up author (Michael Douglas). Mr. Hanson persuaded Bob Dylan, a fan of “L.A. Confidential,” to write a new song for the film; Dylan’s “Things Have Changed” earned him an Oscar, but the film was a commercial dud.
Mr. Hanson surprised many critics by extracting a credible performance from Eminem in “8 Mile” (2002), which was loosely based on his struggle to make it as a white rapper in Detroit. His next film was “In Her Shoes” (2005), a sibling-rivalry romp starring Cameron Diaz and Toni Collette. It was dismally received, but he saw in the movie parallels with his most enduring work.
“For me all good stories are about awareness,” Mr. Hanson told the London Guardian at the time. “People discover who they are and what they’re all about by meeting their doppelgängers.”
“It occurred to me that Maggie and Rose [from ‘In Her Shoes’] are actually very similar to the two cops in ‘L.A. Confidential,’ ” he said. “In both movies the two characters appear to be very different, [but] when they come together they form a complete human being. What I like doing is considering how a very binary, black and white vision of the world is overly simplistic. Contradictions are often no such thing.”
Curtis Lee Hanson was born in Reno, Nev., on March 24, 1945, and he grew up in Los Angeles, where his father was a public school teacher. Movie-obsessed from childhood, Mr. Hanson quit high school and became a reporter for Cinema magazine, which was owned by his uncle. He said he managed to turn the job into a “film school” by securing interviews with leading directors from an earlier era, including John Ford, William Wellman and Samuel Fuller.
Mr. Hanson earned his first screen credit for co-writing “The Dunwich Horror” (1970), based on an H.P. Lovecraft story. His later screenplays included “White Dog” (1982), an allegory about racism directed by Fuller, and “Never Cry Wolf” (1983), based on Farley Mowat’s account of his life among Arctic wolves.
As a director, Mr. Hanson’s final credits included the Las Vegas gambling story “Lucky You” (2007) starring Eric Bana and Drew Barrymore; the HBO-TV drama “Too Big to Fail” (2011), about the 2008 financial collapse; and the surfing drama “Chasing Mavericks” (2012) starring Gerard Butler. When Mr. Hanson fell ill, director Michael Apted completed the latter film.
Besides his companion, Mr. Hanson’s survivors include their son; his mother; and a brother.
Reflecting on his career, Mr. Hanson said he wished he could have entered the business in the 1930s and 1940s, at the height of the Hollywood studio system.
“One lesson I carry with me was that in the days of the studio system, the best directors often got better as they got older,” he told the Boston Globe in 2002. “Part of the reason was that they were nurtured — they were allowed to do different kinds of movies. Howard Hawks could do ‘His Girl Friday’ and then ‘Red River’ and ‘The Big Sleep’ ” — a comedy, a western and a mystery.
“Today, we have the opposite situation,” he added, “where you’re encouraged to do what you did before. And very often filmmakers tend to make their best and most personal movies first and then attempt to replicate them with diminishing returns. I guess I’ve tried to be my own benevolent studio head. To say, ‘Okay, I’m interested in this director in the long run. What’s good for him?’ ”
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