In the following post, Talkhouse Film contributors and other filmmakers share their tributes of Curtis Hanson, the director of such great films as L.A. Confidential, Wonder Boys and 8 Mile, who passed away on September 20 at the age of 71.
More remembrances will be added to this post as they come in. Feel free to leave your own tributes and memories in the comments section. – N.D.
I knew Curtis initially from his slick film magazine Cinema, which he took over and transformed into a first-class, beautifully art-directed periodical chronicling the New Hollywood of the late ’60s and early ’70s, copies of which I still treasure. Later he preceded me as a graduate of the Roger Corman school of seat-of-the-pants filmmaking. I never doubted that someone so passionate about film and the old masters would eventually rise to the top in Hollywood, and although it took a while Curtis certainly achieved his dream. He leaves behind a rich and varied legacy of films that will continue to entertain and inspire nascent directors and writers for years to come.
The news of Curtis Hanson’s death was sorrowful; I had known him so limitedly, and was always so proud when he would say my name as if he knew me. He was warm, kind, funny. But moreover, he was, I am hurt to say, one of the last of a great kind of filmmaker: one whose characters drove the story, as their pasts and textures drove them. Often today we hear of people longing to create complex characters in the stories we tell. Hanson didn’t have to mandate that for himself – if the characters were not textured, he wasn’t telling that story, and they became more complex under his hand, pulling back the layers with behavior, with every choice he made as a director: light, sound, music, frame, color or lack of. Consequently in every single one of his films, there are unique moments, that no one ever thought of before and which are unforgettable. They’re flashing before your eyes right now, aren’t they? The unlikely harrowing image of James Cromwell coldly mowing people down in L.A. Confidential and Brittany Murphy licking her palm before putting Eminem inside her in 8 Mile are two which instantly spring to mind for me. But his legacy is filled with visceral images, warmth, humor and life. Love. He will be more than missed. He is irreplaceable.
You won’t find anybody in town, anybody, who knew Curtis and didn’t like him or even love him. When he finally got that undiluted critical success with L.A. Confidential it left us all in a good mood – because Curtis was finally winning and we wanted him winning. His style was on full display in that movie, but so was his substance, his irony, his wit, his attention to detail, his adoration of cinema.
Back in the day, I taught a film class. We showed L.A. Confidential. After the screening, he answered questions and then was asked by many to sign copies of the movie’s screenplay that they had gotten from a local movie memorabilia shop. When he saw that it was not the shooting script, he abruptly stopped signing. That took us all aback. But then, the next day, a huge box arrived at my office. Curtis sent hundreds of copies of the actual script – all signed. Good man.
I’ve watched Wonder Boys about a dozen times, and there’s so much magic in that film. I think my favorite moment is when Frances McDormand’s character puts a loaded gun to Michael Douglas’ chest and says, “Pow.” The look on her face is perfectly mischievous. Douglas plays an aging professor who can’t finish his second novel. You wonder if he wants her to pull the trigger. Later, the professor will claim that books no longer matter. His student (played by Tobey Maguire) insists that’s not so. It was the professor’s book that inspired him to pursue writing. This is the reason for making art. Later still, we’ll see the professor’s 2000-page manuscript swept away by a windy torque. The pages dance along the waterfront and then flitter away, never to be read. It’s so beautiful, tragic and funny.
This movie celebrates the printed word, it laments its demise. The snowy winter landscape captures the frozen interior of the hero, grasping for some kind of reason to keep going. He’s old and tired, but not defeated. The writers in the movie never feel self-important. They’re passionate about words, stories, ideas. Seated in the back of a bar, the professor and his editor study a man who looks like James Brown. They play a game. They invent a narrative. They weave this man into the narrative. It’s beautiful. Not a cell phone in sight.
Curtis Hanson was a humanist. This was mostly revealed in his later work. It was his strength and where you could most feel his confidence as an artist. But even in his earlier movies like The River Wild, it’s his empathy and love for his characters that make his work singular.
He was wildly nimble, able to traverse between so many genres without a stumble. The same man made The River Wild and L.A. Confidential. L.A Confidential is great and directed with precision and austerity. It’s immediate, making you feel present, and every story beat crucial. But still always propelled by the characters.
To me, Wonder Boys is his masterpiece. It’s one of the warmest movies ever made and for sure the most cozy; the characters are so alive and real, you can almost smell them. Every performance is so authentically eccentric with its own rhythms, but all contributing to an overarching tone made by a big-hearted conductor. It’s my favorite winter movie. Never has winter felt so warm and inviting. The cast is extraordinary, making these characters come alive; that would only be possible with a director as generous as Hanson.
He will be missed. There are so few directors that cared about people they way he did.
Anyone who makes movies as disparate as 8 Mile, Bad Influence and L.A. Confidential is a very good director, and anyone who makes Wonder Boys is probably better than that. It’s a movie you can watch and watch, and wonder how the hell they made it as good and funny as it is. A lot owed to a very lived-in performance from Michael Douglas, alongside a star-in-the-making turn from Tobey Maguire, but Hanson is ultimately responsible, and it’s a shame he wasn’t around longer. He was around a lot at the DGA in the early 2000s, encouraging his cohorts and was an encouragement to me. I asked him why 8 Mile was so good, or stupid words to that effect, and he shrugged and nodded. A real director.
I was 11 when L.A. Confidential came out. I wanted to see it because I thought it looked adult and serious and cool. As it turned out, that’s exactly what it was. I didn’t understand all of it at the time, but I knew that I liked it. I understood it was made in homage to films that I hadn’t seen, but now I knew I wanted to. It was about smart and serious men doing their jobs well. I’ve always thought of Curtis Hanson like that. He was an exceptional craftsman. Some might call him a journeyman director, but I’m not so sure – L.A. Confidential, 8 Mile and especially Wonder Boys feel too personal for that. He will be missed. I also have to give a special shout-out to Sam Fuller’s final film White Dog, which Hanson wrote and which I love.
When I think of Curtis Hanson, I think about versatility. Such a variety of subjects, time periods and genres, and yet all imbued with all the best nuance and tension that you could hope for in a piece of Hollywood filmmaking. It wasn’t just an impressive command over the camera and a razor sharp economy with his screenwriting (just look at his script for Sam Fuller’s White Dog), but a real sensitivity with his actors as well (many of whom give some very memorable moments, if not career-best work).
I remember being thrilled by The River Wild as a grade schooler when seeing it with my parents at a Friday matinee, but mainly remembering the wonderful shades of gray within the characters played by David Strathairn and John C. Reilly. The room for ambiguity. The “heroes” having their darkness and their mistakes. The “villains” having their moments of affection, of reprieve. This film left an odd surge in me. I was already wanting to be an actor by this point in my life, but realizing just how much room for character there could be when playing either a “hero” or “villain” really blew me away. These wonderful ideas of illusion and reality, of surface level versus the interior, were all embodied in my own life as I grew into puberty and started realizing the depths of which I, too, could be duplicitous as a Catholic-raised Texas boy: just how much of a lie was it when you told your parents an excuse that still retained an edge of truth?
All of these themes were crystallized when I saw L.A. Confidential as a teenager. It had all the elements of a good noir that you could ask for (and I was obsessed with noir), but the moment that forever changed me was watching Kevin Spacey’s life slowly drain from his face from an unexpected bullet to the heart as his shattered cup of coffee rocks to a stop on the kitchen linoleum. It was so shocking and devastating: the breath fading from the most charming and accessible character in the film, and at the 3/4 mark! It was a Psycho-esque surprise, knocking off the top-billed character, and Hanson delivered this scene in the most horrifying way imaginable: without ceremony and with barely any music. It was bold, uncompromising. But what made this scene haunt me as an aspiring actor was that Spacey’s shady character was right on the verge of regret. Right on the edge of redemption. But he wasn’t quite there. Not yet. My mind now can’t help but fly to this scene every time I am about to perform a death scene on film. And this is the strength of Curtis Hanson. While his characters are beautifully flawed and gray, his filmmaking is anything but. His films will always be vivid and striking.
“In technicolor, sir.”