Oscar Directors: Hanson, Curtis–Winner L.A. Confidential Screenplay Dies at 71

Curtis Hanson, the director of the 1997 L.A. Confidential, which won him and Brian Helgeland an Oscar for adapting James Ellroy’s novel, was found dead in his Hollywood Hills home. He was 71.


Paramedics responded to a call of an unconscious man at Hanson’s home at about 4:52 p.m. on Tuesday. He was pronounced dead at the scene.

According to TMZ, Hanson died of a heart attack.  While the LAPD spokesperson could not confirm that specific information, he said Hanson died of “natural causes.”

He had been retired in recent years due to Alzheimer’s.

As a producer of the stylish 1997 period film, Hanson shared the nomination for best picture and was nominated for best director. The film won an Oscar for actress Kim Basinger, and was nominated for cinematography, art direction, sound, editing, and score.

At Cannes it was nominated for the Palme d’Or, and in 2015 it was named to the National Film Registry

Hanson’s other films included “The River Wild” (1994), “Wonder Boys” (2000), “8 Mile” (2002) and “In Her Shoes” (2005).

The director’s last film was Chasing Mavericks, a biopic of surfer Jay Moriarity starring Gerard Butler, but Hanson had to leave that production toward the end of shooting in 2011 due to what was said at the time to be complications following his recent heart surgery. Michael Apted completed the film and the two shared credit on it.

His project prior to “Chasing Mavericks” was the HBO film Too Big to Fail — about the efforts to save the U.S. economy from the abyss in 2008 — for which he received two Emmy nominations.

The film that really put Hanson on the map was 1992 commercial hit “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle,” a thriller about a psychotic nanny played by Rebecca De Mornay who wreaks havoc on a woman (Annabella Sciorra) and her family.

“The River Wild” was a more sophisticated take on the genre of family in jeopardy due to its setting — a female river-rafting specialist takes her family and what turn out to be miscreants on a rafting expedition through dangerous waters — and its intriguing cast: Meryl Streep as the rafting ace, David Strathairn as her resentful husband, and Kevin Bacon as the leader of the evildoers.

L.A. Confidential, which Hanson and Helgeland adapted from the excellent Ellroy novel of the same name, won the WGA Award for adapted screenplay and revealed a filmmaker at an entirely different level of proficiency. The script intelligently compressed Ellroy’s densely plotted novel into something deliciously complex but comprehensible; the film stunningly reproduced ’50s Los Angeles, from the streets to the costumes; and Hanson pulled fine, colorful performances from an ensemble cast that included Kevin Spacey, Russell Crowe, Guy Pearce, James Cromwell, Kim Basinger, Danny DeVito and David Strathairn.

The film was also a popular success, with a worldwide gross of $126 million.

“I had always wanted to tell a story that was set in Los Angeles in the 1950s, because that’s where I grew up, and it was the city of my childhood memories,” Hanson said in a 2001.  “I wanted to deal with that and also pursue this theme that interested me, which is the difference between illusion and reality, the way people and things appear to be versus how they really are. And Hollywood, of course, is the city of illusion. So that was near and dear to me, and extremely personal.”

Hanson followed “L.A. Confidential” with a much smaller but more beloved film: the witty, sophisticated comedy “Wonder Boys” (2000), adapted by Steve Kloves from the novel by Michael Chabon about an English professor, played by Michael Douglas, who’s under pressure to finish his book (his editor is played by Robert Downey Jr.) amid a literary festival in Pittsburgh. Douglas’ character is having an affair with the university chancellor, played by Frances McDormand; Tobey Maguire and Katie Holmes play two of his students. Kloves received an Oscar nomination for his adapted screenplay that offered sparkling dialogue.

The director continued his winning streak with a very different film, the Eminem starrer “8 Mile,” which fictionalized to some extent the rapper’s harrowing true-life story of seeking to break into the local rap world in his hometown of Detroit while dealing with a mother, played by Basinger. Eminem was a charismatic natural in the film.

Hanson succeeded in making a film that drew viewers who were not already fans of Eminem or of hip-hop but were attracted to the story of a poor, sullen young man working a stultifying day job while trying to make it. The movie was his most commercially successful, with worldwide gross of $242 million.

His next film was the comedy “In Her Shoes,” starring Cameron Diaz as the wild sister of Toni Collette’s lawyer who sinks so low, she tries to scam her grandma (played by Shirley MacLaine) before going to work in a retirement home and maturing. The film, an adaptation by Susannah Grant of the novel by Jennifer Weiner, sharply divided critics.  The movie was not particularly successful at the box office.

Hanson’s final completed big-screen effort was 2007’s “Lucky You,” which he directed and co-penned with Eric Roth. The movie centers on a Vegas poker player played by Eric Bana, his relationship with a singer, played by Drew Barrymore, and with his father, played by Robert Duvall.  The film did not find an audience.

Curtis Lee Hanson was born on March 24, 1945, in Reno, Nevada.  He grew up in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley. His father taught English at Portola Junior High School in Tarzana–Hanson was one of his sixth-grade students.

A movie buff who was a fan of True Detective magazine, Hanson and high-school classmate Willard Huyck (a future screenplay Oscar nominee for American Graffiti) collaborated on an 8mm movie and charged 50 cents admission to friends who came to the Hanson home to see it.

Hanson dropped out of high school and worked as a gofer for Cinema magazine, which was in dire financial straits. The publication was revived by Hanson’s uncle, who owned a chain of clothing stores, and he installed Hanson as editor. That enabled him to interview major directors, including John Ford and Vincente Minnelli, and he learned more about the art of filmmaking.

“In a sense, it was my film school,” he said. “After doing it for a few years, I decided that the time had come to get it together and do some work of my own.”

Given his journalistic background, Hanson began as a writer. He co-wrote The Dunwich Horror (1970), an adaptation of an H.P. Lovecraft short story, for executive producer Corman and American International Pictures.

He then wrote and directed the Corman-distributed thriller Sweet Kill (1972), starring Tab Hunter.

Hanson penned the screenplay for The Silent Partner (1978), which he adapted from Anders Bodelsen novel. The Canadian film, on which he also served as an associate producer, starred Elliott Gould as a nebbish teller who engages in a battle of wits with a bank thief (Christopher Plummer).

Hanson holed up with Fuller in the writer-director’s garage, and they pulled together the adapted screenplay for White Dog (1982) in less than three weeks. The story of a dog handler (Paul Winfield) out to retrain a German shepherd taught by white supremacists to attack blacks, it was not released in the U.S. for years after the NAACP threatened to boycott Paramount.

Hanson’s other credits include The Little Dragons (1979), which he directed and executive produced; the Alaskan wilderness family adventure Never Cry Wolf (1983).