Curtis Hanson, the Oscar winner who transformed James Ellroy’s sprawling crime opus L.A. Confidential into one of the most taut noir films of the last 20 years, has died. According to Variety, he was 71.
A screenwriter as well as a director, Hanson got his start penning an H.P. Lovecraft adaptation, The Dunwich Horror, for career-launching mega-producer Roger Corman. Hanson would work with Corman again three years later, for his directorial debut, 1973’s necrophilia-themed B-movie Sweet Kill.
Hanson continued to write and direct steadily throughout the ’70s and ’80s, working with performers ranging from Elliott Gould and Christopher Plummer (in 1978’s The Silent Partner) to Tom Cruise, Shelley Long, and Jackie Earle Haley (in 1983’s Losin’ It.) In 1992, he directed Rebecca De Mornay and Annabella Sciorra in The Hand That Rocks The Cradle, his first major success. The evil-nanny flick met with middling reviews but strong box office returns, giving Hanson one of his first hits. He followed it up with 1994’s The River Wild, one of many stories he’d tell over the years about regular people forced into extraordinary, violent circumstances.
Even before River finished filming, though, Hanson was already hard at work on his next project: an attempt to turn James Ellroy’s vast examination of crime and sin in ’50s L.A. into a workable film. Working with writer Brian Helgeland, Hanson spent two years on the script for L.A. Confidential, brutally hacking away everything in Ellroy’s novel that wouldn’t work on the screen. “They preserved the basic integrity of the book and its main theme,” Ellroy would later say. “Brian and Curtis took a work of fiction that had eight plotlines, reduced those to three, and retained the dramatic force of three men working out their destiny.” Casting Guy Pearce, Russell Crowe, and Kevin Spacey in the key roles of three very different detectives pulling the threads on a single, monstrous crime, the film is a masterpiece of adaptation. Critics and audiences both responded to its obvious skill, almost quadrupling its budget at the box office, and leading it to receive nine Oscar nominations. (Ultimately, the film would win two Academy Awards, one for adapted screenplay, and one for Best Actress for Kim Basinger—no small feat in a year when Titanic was rampaging through theaters.)
Hanson followed Confidential up with Wonder Boys, a genial middle-age meditation starring Michael Douglas, before pivoting into a much gritter world for the Eminem vehicle 8 Mile. Although the semi-autobiographical film has been overshadowed in many respects by its own soundtrack—including “Lose Yourself,” which won the Oscar that year for Best Original Song—the film’s rap battle sequences remain bracingly kinetic.
Hanson retired from directing in the early 2010s, shortly after being forced to stop working on the surfing biopic Chasing Mavericks due to health concerns; he was reportedly suffering from heart problems and Alzheimer’s Disease. Hanson was found dead in his Los Angeles home on Tuesday afternoon.