Curtis Hanson Remembered: A Filmmaker Who Was Also a Movie Lover

Writer-director’s love for old Hollywood went way beyond his brilliant screen version of James Ellroy’s “L.A. Confidential”

“Who else could win Oscars for both Bob Dylan and Eminem?” read one of the many elegies for Curtis Hanson that popped up among the screenwriters in my Facebook news feed.

That interesting musical two-fer — Dylan won a Best Song Academy Award for Hanson’s 2000 dramedy “Wonder Boys,” and Eminem topped the same category two years later for “8 Mile” — speaks to the eclectic nature of Hanson as a filmmaker, one who couldn’t be easily categorized.

If there’s a through-line to the life and work of the man who passed away this week at the age of 71, it’s his love for the medium. His adoration of golden-age Hollywood (both the place itself and the films it produced) emerged throughout his work, whether he was bringing the seedy underbelly of 1950s Tinseltown to life in his masterpiece “L.A. Confidential,” summoning the spirit of Hitchcock in tense thrillers like “The Bedroom Window” and “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle,” or just casting a veteran journeyman like Norman Lloyd in a memorable supporting role in the underappreciated “In Her Shoes.”

Hanson’s movie love was legendary — he often told the story about the “L.A. Confidential” pitch meetings where he brought a photo album he’d created of vintage studio premieres, nightclubs and crime scene photos to express the specific sense of time and place he would bring to the film. In a statement from the DGA marking his passing, the Guild noted Hanson’s work as “a tireless advocate for film preservation, serving on the President’s Committee on Film Preservation, and as a board member of The Film Foundation. We are proud to have recognized Curtis with a DGA Honor in 2003 for his prolific career as a director, producer and preservationist.”

My favorite personal memory of Hanson was at the inaugural TCM Film Festival in Hollywood in 2010, where he screened Nicholas Ray’s immortal “In a Lonely Place,” one of the few movies where a screenwriter character gets to be the lead. After waxing enthusiastically about Ray’s work and about the extraordinary cast, Hanson told the audience that Ray and his leading lady, Gloria Grahame, were in the process of getting divorced during the film’s production, and that Ray was living in a courtyard apartment that was the inspiration for the movie’s main set.

That tidbit of information set a teenaged Hanson to search for it; whenever he picked up a date in Hollywood, he recalled, he would arrive early, look for a courtyard apartment in the girl’s neighborhood, and snoop around in the hopes that it was where Ray used to live. Eventually, he got access to the director’s personal papers and found the address; when he shared it with the rapt festival audience, I was delighted to learn that the building was at the top of my block.

Those Facebook screenwriters all shared similar stories of Hanson’s enthusiasm about both the city and the industry, and what’s perhaps most telling about his singular talents is that no one film has necessarily dominated the social media obituaries I’ve been reading today. There are endorsements of “L.A. Confidential” (written by Brian Helgeland, who won an Oscar) and the other films listed above, of course, but also of “The Silent Partner” (Hanson wrote this wonderfully twisty Christmas-set crime thriller, which has an all-too-small cult audience), “The Dunwich Horror” (Hanson’s screenwriting debut) and even “Losin’ It,” the raunchy teen-sex comedy that was one of the first lead roles for an up-and-comer named Tom Cruise.

Hanson’s rich legacy is a reminder that moviemakers who are also movie-lovers are a lot rarer than you might think, making it that much sadder when we lose one.

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