Reel Dad: Paying tribute to Curtis Hanson

The director loved movies. Writing for movies. And making movies.

When movie director/writer Curtis Hanson died last month, the film world lost a creator who dared to reach beyond the blockbuster to tell stories with complex narratives, rich characters and meaningful messages.

That’s why his movies will last. No matter when we see them, or how often we see them, Curtis Hanson’s films refuse to age. Just like the moviemaker himself, the films stay fresh.

Here are the best.

Kim Basinger, Kevin Spacey and Danny DeVito in Curtis Hanson's L.A. Confidential.

Kim Basinger, Kevin Spacey and Danny DeVito in Curtis Hanson’s L.A. Confidential.

L.A. Confidential (1997)

Looking back, the choice was obvious. Before Oscar night, this wondrous interpretation of the stories of James Ellroy won every critics’ award in sight. But the Academy fell for the scope and sizzle of James Cameron’s Titanic and left Hanson to cherish receiving an Oscar for his screenplay and for supporting actress Kim Basinger. But L. A. Confidential was, clearly, the film of the year. Writer Hanson shapes what could have been a rambling collection of observations into a compelling narrative of deception and denial in the underworld of Los Angeles. Then director Hanson stages that screenplay with a consistency of style that makes the film as entertaining to watch as it is to hear. Years later, we may remember the movie as our first chance to watch Russell Crowe on screen. And there’s so much more.

Wonder Boys (2000)

From the dark streets of Los Angeles, Hanson ventured to the musty hallways of academia for this remarkable character study of a man who must deal wonder why he may not live up to his potential as a writer, teacher and man. Michael Douglas, playing against type in the performance of his career, creates a three-dimensional look at what it takes, at middle age, to assess a life with reason and truth. Rather than deny his regrets, this man smothers them with layers of bad behavior. Instead of confronting truth, he prefers to blame those who accomplish more. But when a series of unexpected events and new people crash his life, the academic must look in the mirror without making excuses, a first step to realize that, any age, anyone can be a work in progress.

8 Mile (2002)

When this film was released, its success stemmed from the rare movie appearance of rap star Eminem in the lead role. Audiences were so dazzled by his presence they may have ignored the strength of the film. And many, including Academy voters, overlooked another award-calibre supporting performance from Kim Basinger as the rapper’s mother. Together these performers create a credible look at the dynamics between parent and son when each becomes too proficient at disappointing the other. Like many parents, Basinger reveals the anxieties that can shape a child’s life; like many children, Eminem offers the reactions that youth can restrict. Together they show us what parent and child should and can mean when both have the chance to express themselves. Even if, for one, that comes in the form of rap music.

The River Wild (1994)

Today it’s difficult to imagine that, in the early 1990s, many in the movies no longer considered Meryl Streep relevant to big audiences. Yes, she could play any character and, yes, she could tell any story and, yes, she could make any movie moment beautifully work. But she was at an age where it was more challenging each year to stay in step. So Streep reinvented herself, with a flourish, in what could be a called a first-time action thriller starring a (then) two-time Oscar winner. As a mother on vacation, estranged from her husband and curious about a larger world, Streep is as credible shooting the rapids as dealing with the realities of her relationships. While nothing the actress does in the dramatic exchanges may surprise, what she accomplishes in the set pieces may astonish. Who would have known this woman who many believe can do anything on screen actually can.

 

Thank goodness for the archive of movies that enables a director’s work to live on.

Rest in peace, Curtis Hanson. Thank you for so many marvelous movie moments.

Inside Curtis Hanson

Curtis Hanson liked movies that could talk.

Perhaps because he was a writer, maybe because he loved characters, this moviemaker used words to stimulate our imaginations for what his stories could be.

And, in a series of revealing interviews, for such publications as The Guardian, The A-V Club and Venice Magazine, Hanson revealed what it meant to make movies.

Take a look at some of Curtis Hanson’s comments about Curtis Hanson.

 

Becoming Self Aware

“For me all good stories are about awareness. Self-awareness and lack of it, of how you get there and how you might fail to get there. I have deliberately tried to mix it up in my movies, because I enjoy visiting different worlds. However, thematically, I find that things keep coming up. Self-examination to begin with. You know, who am I, how did I get here and how do I become a better version of myself. Self-destructiveness, because that is the beginning or negation of self-examination.”

 

Becoming a Movie Lover

“I grew up as a reader as well as a movie-lover, so many of the novelists I admired—and so many of the great filmmakers I loved—were self-taught. Consequently, their school was the school of life, and it was very much reflected in their work. I wrote some screenplays on speculation, because even though I wanted to direct, to direct you need a lot of money. Even for a cheap movie, you need film stock and equipment and actors. Whereas to write, all you need is paper and an idea, so I felt that writing might be my stepping stone.”

 

Becoming a Movie Fan

“I’m a great movie fan. That love of movies is very much alive in me. I approach the movies I make as a movie-lover as much as a movie-maker. When I’m casting a picture, I think who I’d like to see in it if I was sitting in a theater. Who would surprise me? That’s what I love about Michael Douglas’ performance in Wonder Boys, because I feel like he surprises audiences that know him from very different roles in his other work. In L.A. Confidential, it was great to surprise the audience with Guy Pearce and Russell Crowe—two Australian actors that they didn’t know at all—and let people discover them through the course of the film.”

 

Becoming a Movie Maker

“I always loved reading…stories, storytelling and movies. There’s that certain point in your childhood when you realize that there’s someone who actually makes the movies. In terms of inspiration, the movie that stunned me most was Vertigo. It was just so hypnotic, sensual and scary at the same time. And it still is. A lot of things you see and love as a kid, you were right about.”

 

Becoming a Movie Mentor

Once you’ve gotten the opportunity to actually direct, have a story you’re dying to tell, tell it the best way you can and make that your focus and don’t be distracted by anything else. Also, be honest. If you don’t know the answer to something, own up to it. By doing that, you’re displaying an openness and a lack of fear. That’ll make actors feel very comfortable because the miracle of acting, to me, is the total lack of fear they have to have. When they sense that lack of fear in somebody else, they recognize it and appreciate it.”

 

Becoming a Surprising

“I look for characters that interest me, and a story that keeps me involved and makes me want to know what happens next. Then, after the fact, you look back and see some things that were common in both pictures or several pictures, as you mention. On the surface, Wonder Boys seemed like such a departure from L.A. Confidential—it’s funny, it’s contemporary, and so on—and yet at a certain point, I had a feeling that reminded me how I felt when I was shooting L.A. Confidential. I realized that in both movies, there are three main male characters and one female, and all of them are struggling to figure out what they’re doing with their lives.”

 

Becoming the Director of Michael Douglas (Wonder Boys)

“What I try to do is give each actor an environment in which they can do their best work. Then they go off and do the mysterious thing that they do. When I was thinking about the prospect of him in this part, I wondered if he would go all the way with it. Would he become this character, as opposed to playing it? What was exciting to me about the possibility of Michael playing this character was that, if he approached it with an absence of movie-star vanity and just let down all defenses, he would show us a side of himself that we’d never seen before. The thing that’s so gratifying is that so many reviews have said it’s not only the best thing he’s done, but they also say he’s more appealing than he’s ever been. People really connect with him, and of course they laugh at him in a way they never did before, too.”

 

Becoming a Movie Icon

Yes, it’s a very competitive business. Put simply, there are many people who want to make movies and very few opportunities for them to do it. I had a checkered early career, for sure, with a lot of very unhappy experiences where pictures got taken away, re-cut, re-titled… all the nightmares one hears about. Consequently, it’s so gratifying to then make a picture that’s successful and gives you leverage to have better circumstances than you’ve ever had, before the next time out.”
Excerpts from The Guardian, The AV Club, Venice Magazine

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