Success came relatively late for Curtis Hanson: he had been working as a director in Hollywood for more than two decades before he hit a commercial home run with The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, released in 1992 and one of the creepiest of the late-80s/early-90s wave of domestic-peril thrillers that included Fatal Attraction and Single White Female. It starred Rebecca DeMornay as a nanny who torments a family while exacting a complicated revenge, and proved Hanson’s chops as an effective exponent of mainstream Hollywood style: meaty, thrilling and unashamedly populist.
It was this facility he brought to his best work, all of which was made in the following decade. It ranged from persuading Meryl Streep to negotiate whitewater rapids in The River Wild, or corralling Eminem through a semi-biographical account of a young rapper’s battle for glory in 8 Mile, and even the putatively dusty campus comedy drama Wonder Boys, where Michael Douglas’ complicated emotional life turns into a series of challenges to be overcome.
This, of course, also applies to LA Confidential, the film for which Hanson will be undoubtedly best remembered and one for which he won an Oscar – for best adapted screenplay, along with Brian Helgeland (who went to direct Legend). I must confess to a prickle of apprehension when I heard that Hanson – “the River Wild guy” – had got the gig to direct one of the era’s great cult crime novels, but in the event the director won everybody over by focusing with laser-beam intensity on the personal odysseys of the two main characters, played by Guy Pearce and Russell Crowe. Not only did this successfully Hollywoodise James Ellroy’s sprawling, gruesome book, but Hanson was also brave enough to launch the little-known actors into stellar careers of their own. It was a film that deserved its multiple Oscar nominations – and in Kim Basinger, who won for best supporting actress, Hanson found something of a muse; he would cast her again as Eminem’s damaged, alcoholic mother in 8 Mile.
Hanson was schooled in the no-budget conveyor belt operated in the early 1970s by Roger Corman – for whom he earned his first two significant feature credits, as a writer on The Dunwich Horror, and as writer-director on Sweet Kill – and presumably there learned his economy of style and no-frills approach to narrative logic. Hanson hacked his way through the lower reaches of Hollywood in the 80s, though was perhaps unlucky to direct Losin’ It, the least successful of Tom Cruise’s contribution to the teen-movie wave. Only when he got aboard the yuppie-in-peril thriller Bad Influence in 1990 did Hanson’s luck begin to turn; it was a clear precursor/rehearsal for Cradle.
Having become Hollywood aristocracy on the back of LA Confidential, Hanson could afford to indulge himself to a certain extent: Wonder Boys was an unlikely follow-up, as was 8 Mile – though with the latter, at least, Hanson could ally himself with an edgy, credible force in Eminem. In later decades, he might have found himself directing superhero movies, though he did manage some high-end TV: the HBO movie Too Big to Fail, about the 2008 financial crisis. If Hanson was a film-making chameleon, he undoubtedly showed himself to be a popular, savvy one.