|Eminem and Curtis Hanson (right) on the set of 8 Mile in 2002. (Photo: Eli Reed)|
Film director Curtis Hanson, who died in September at the too-young age of seventy-one, was stuck in B-movie territory for a decade and a half before he graduated, in 1987, with the thriller The Bedroom Window. (One of his last B-pictures, Losin’ It, about three SoCal high-schoolers who drive to Tijuana to get rid of their virginity, was coarse and chaotic but very likable. One of them was played by Tom Cruise, just months before Risky Business made him a star, and I’ve never enjoyed watching him as much since.) Once he made it to the majors, so to speak, Hanson made eleven pictures, and I like all or part of every single one except for his first hit, the witless 1992 Gothic The Hand That Rocks the Cradle – it was efficiently directed, but the dunderheaded script was insurmountable. What made him so reliable a filmmaker was a combination of his bred-in-the-bone understanding of genre conventions, his transparent love of actors and his undervalued gift for getting fine work out of them, and his relaxed finesse as a storyteller. This last is no surprise: from his first days in movies, the early seventies, he was a screenwriter as well as a director, penning the compulsively watchable, enjoyably amoral Canadian mystery The Silent Partner (directed by Daryl Duke and starring Elliott Gould, Susannah York and Christopher Plummer) in 1978 and contributing to the scripts of Samuel Fuller’s White Dog and Carroll Ballard’s Never Cry Wolf in the early eighties. And he kept his hand in: he wrote The Bedroom Window and co-wrote the best picture he ever turned out, L.A. Confidential, with Brian Helgeland, as well as one of his last movies, Lucky You, with Eric Roth.
The film is good-humored and ingenious, and Hanson’s versions of Hitchcockian trademarks are waggishly entertaining – paranoia (the courtroom falls into silence when Terry enters and we sense his nervousness), significant objects (Terry spots Sylvia’s cigarettes during the cops’ visit and has to figure out a way of hiding them), the amusingly flamboyant use of supporting players (especially Wallace Shawn, who's hilarious, as the lawyer questioning Terry's credibility in court, and Kate McGregor-Stewart as a neighbor who comes on to Terry). And as the tough-broad cocktail waitress Denise, McGovern plays the character’s clear-eyed sexiness against her own vulnerability in a way that’s both funny and occasionally affecting. The problem with the movie is the casting of Guttenberg and Huppert, whose combined fatuousness – her continental femme fatale number matched to his wimpiness – is funny in a way that doesn’t aid the impulses of the narrative. It’s likely that Hanson picked up the project after the two stars were already attached to it, and he was stuck with them.
|Rob Lowe and James Spader in Bad Influence (1990).|
Fortunately, the next time out, with Bad Influence (1990), he got the right pair of co-stars. Bad Influence, written by David Koepp, takes off from Strangers on a Train, where a psychopath (Robert Walker) offers to “criss-cross” murders with a tennis celebrity (Farley Granger) he happens to meet on a train. Granger dismisses Walker’s plot as drunken blather, but then Walker goes ahead and kills Granger’s troublesome wife. The Freudian joke behind the set-up is that on some level Walker is the dark alter ego of the benign tennis player, acting on his unspoken desires. Bad Influence puts that subtext up front. Michael (James Spader) is a young marketing analyst who’s engaged to a woman he doesn’t love and whose expected progress up the corporate ladder is being blocked by an unscrupulous colleague (Tony Maggio). Michael’s a natural victim – the kind of guy who instinctively draws barroom bullies. One night a stranger named Alex (Rob Lowe) rescues him from one of those bullies, befriends him and gets him to confide how badly his life is going. Alex urges him to fight back against his work rival, encourages him to cheat on his fiancée, and then uses the videotape he’s made secretly of Michael having sex to dissolve his unwanted engagement. Michael is shocked but not ungrateful; he’s drawn to the new freedom Alex offers him. He acquires a new swagger at work and insists that his increasingly bewildered secretary (Kathleen Wilhoite) call him by the nickname Alex uses for him, Mick. When Alex gets him drunk and high on coke and takes him out to rob a convenience store, Alex doesn’t resist; he gets high on that, too, and even suggests they knock over a liquor store, too. But upon waking up next morning, he discovers that their evening on the town evolved further than he remembers: his rival was beaten up during the night, and Michael’s got blood on his sleeve.
The rest of the movie is about Michael’s attempts to shake Alex off, and how crazy – and unshakeable – Alex turns out to be. It’s a very kicky black comedy, built around the opposites match of Spader and Lowe, who have a bent rapport. Hanson contrasts Spader’s bespectacled pallor with Lowe’s decadent swarthiness, and dresses his two leading men in light and dark variations of the same suit in one scene and shoots the next so they look like a pair of silhouettes, the more diminutive Spader loping after the taller Lowe. The movie’s main running gag, the constant use of videotape as a plot device, took off on both Lowe’s excessively publicized home-movie episode and Spader’s renown as the star of the previous year’s sex, lies, and videotape. Lowe’s performance was obviously based on what he knew we about him, as a real-life sexy bad boy whose hijinks countered the shallowly earnest screen appearances that had made him a star. But like his work opposite Meg Tilly in Masquerade four years earlier, the performance itself was extremely skillful. (He didn’t get the praise he deserved for either one.) And Spader was a revelation, after a series of yuppie scumbag roles and his strenuous overacting in sex, lies and videotape. He’s simultaneously embarrassing and sympathetic in Michael’s beleaguered opening scenes and makes all the character’s shifts plausible. And his other teamwork in the picture, with Christian Clemenson as his reclusive pothead brother, who partners up with him to defeat Alex, is one of the film’s chief comic pleasures. Clemenson has tiny, dim eyes and can’t smile without showing effort; he’s intensely goofball, and he gets most of Koepp’s best one-liners. My favorite is his reflection on Michael’s difficulties, which he reads with a hard-labored, philosophical sigh: “If you go to bed with the devil, sooner or later you’re gonna have to fuck.” That line suggests just how conscious Koepp and Hanson are of the kind of material they’re dealing with: they recognize that Strangers on a Train also had a homoerotic underlayer and get some comic mileage out of it. Alex all but gets in bed with Michael when they bring his doomed pick-up (Lisa Zane) home to his high-tech apartment.
|Meryl Streep, Kevin Bacon, and Curtis Hanson on the set of The River Wild (1994). (Photo: David Foster Productions)|
The way Hanson’s directing shaped all three of these performances ought to have made people sit up and take notice – and they might have paid attention to what he did for Meryl Streep in his next picture, The River Wild (1994). She has a resonance here that she only has when she plays comedy, and the movie is a comedy, though it was taken (and dismissed) as a straight action picture (which is no doubt how Denis O’Neill, who wrote the dumb, implausible script, conceived it). Streep has a wonderful time sending up the long-suffering superwomen she’d played in other movies, and she seems newly energized, and physical in a way that she has never been before (and has never been since). She plays the mother of a vacationing family pitted against a couple of deadly desperadoes (Kevin Bacon and John C. Reilly) on a dangerous river. You can tell what Hanson’s up to from the playful, jokey-melodramatic music by Jerry Goldsmith, and from the way the opening shots of Streep rowing down a river, challenging the elements, shift to reveal a cityscape. (The movie hasn’t left Boston yet; she’s on the Charles.) You can tell by the way he frames David Strathairn, as the bookish, workaholic architect who comes along reluctantly on the family rafting trip in northern Washington State (he brings along his designs!), next to Reilly: Strathairn, standing on lower ground, looks nervously up at Reilly’s expanse of chest, accentuated by his white t-shirt. You can tell by the expressions on Strathairn’s face when the script has him behave in a completely alien fashion – sending smoke signals, rigging pullies, leaving scrawled messages in code – when, separated from his family, he schemes to help them escape from the bad guys, who make Streep row at gunpoint down the river. And you can tell by her comic interplay with Bacon, especially in the scene where she warns him what the consequences will be if they try to maneuver their way through The Gauntlet, the wildest turn in the river. Hanson delivers the action picture audiences have paid for: Robert Elswit’s photography (the movie was shot in British Columbia) features the lush magnificence of the countryside, and The Gauntlet, at the confluence of three rivers, really is a scary proposition. But there’d be no reason to see this movie if he weren’t also encouraging the performers to burlesque their roles. The movie doesn’t take itself seriously for a moment.
By the time The River Wild came out I looked forward to Hanson’s genre pictures, but I didn’t expect he’d have a breakthrough with one of them that would cycle him into the category of front-rank filmmakers. His 1997 film noir L.A. Confidential is a big picture made by a director who knows how to make all the elements count in a little picture; it’s large-scale and intimate at the same time. Hanson and Helgeland adapted a massive, (to me) unreadable James Ellroy novel where the argot is so thick that it seems to congeal around the narrative. One of the most impressive things about the movie is that they found a way to make all that self-conscious language dramatic and to use it to tell us who the individual characters are. It’s a first-rate script – dense yet lean, and meticulously built so that the glistening architectonics of the story provide much of the pleasure. Set in L.A. in the early fifties – that is, in the place where film noir was invented and the era in which it blossomed – L.A. Confidential is as homegrown a Hollywood product as Sunset Boulevard. It begins with a voice-over supplied by Sid Hutchins (Danny De Vito), the low-life, blackmailing editor of a rag called Hush-Hush that specializes in exposing the underside of the Hollywood social whirl. But though the movie’s title plays off the idea of a tabloid editor as an ideal guide for a story that involves sex, murder and drugs, the intro, where Hutchins traces the story of Mickey Cohen’s gangland career and imprisonment, is no more “journalistic” than the set-up for Citizen Kane (and the voice-over takes us gleefully down the garden path, since Hutchins gets killed in the middle of the picture). L.A. Confidential is a movie-fed movie, and the textured cinematography by Dante Spinotti has the look of old movie posters. Even its plot has a movie link. Half a dozen people are shot to death late one night in a coffee shop called the Nite Owl, including a cop (Graham Beckel) who’s just been kicked off the force. His former partner, Bud White (Russell Crowe), follows the trail of one of the victims (Amber Smith), a young woman he recognizes, to Pierce Patchett (David Strathairn), who runs a stable of whores made up – sometimes rebuilt – to look like movie stars to please a wealthy clientele. White becomes obsessed with one of them, a Veronica Lake type with a haunted look named Lynn Bracken (Kim Basinger).
|Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce in L.A. Confidential (1997).|
The story is layered and the characters are complex. When White’s partner is ousted after a jailhouse brawl, it’s the testimony of an ambitious, politically savvy young officer, Ed Exley (Guy Pearce), that seals his fate and lands Exley a promotion. The son of a beloved cop who was killed in action, Exley is determined to operate by a set of rock-bound ethics, not by the old-fashioned, good-old-boy principles that served his father and his captain, Dudley Smith (James Cromwell) – even though Smith tells Exley outright that his refusal to take the expedient measure, like planting evidence or beating a confession out of a suspect he’s sure is guilty will cripple him as a cop. The other major figure is Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey), a narcotics officer who lives for his gig as chief adviser to the TV cop show Badge of Honor (obviously based on Dragnet). Vincennes also gets a pay-off from Hutchins for arresting celebs in full view of the Hush-Hush photogs. One of them is a bisexual actor (Simon Baker Denny) with a penchant for weed. Later Hutchins finds another use for the actor: to seduce the homosexual D.A. (Ron Rifkin), much bigger fish for the magazine to fry than some dope-smoking stud.
All the strands in this complicated plot pull together; even Mickey Cohen makes a reappearance. L.A. Confidential has as satisfyingly designed a narrative as any American thriller, and I can’t think of any that’s better acted. Actors who have only a scene or two, like Gwenda Deacon as the mother of a dead hooker, Jeremiah Birkett as the sadistic con Exley grills in the Nite Owl investigation and Darrell Sandeen as a one-time cop who turns up as Patchett’s driver, are sharp, distinctive. Afterwards you remember Denny’s nervousness as the hapless young actor prepares to come on to the D.A., and Amber Smith’s forlorn look under her bandages (plastic surgery has turned her into a Rita Hayworth look-alike) when Bud first comes across her. And, typically, you remember everything about Strathairn: the graying, faded-gigolo appearance, the aura of privilege that lingers like a slightly acrid odor.
The five leading performers, reveling in their juicy roles, are all splendid. As the Irish police chief Cromwell gives a seasoned, jocular performance; distanced, ironic, with an almost unerring instinct for sizing up the men under his command, his Dudley Smith keeps you guessing just what matters to him, what pierces his armor. Basinger and Spacey play variations on the same role: the whore with the heart of gold. Spacey is captivating from his first scene, where we see Jack on the set of Badge of Honor, soaking up the glamor and enjoying his status. But circumstances drive him deeper into himself than he’s gone in years – maybe ever: when Vincennes discovers the body of the young actor, his fate spooks Jack and ultimately turns him into a hero. (Spacey’s transition is superb, maybe the best thing in the whole movie.) Basinger, who won an Oscar for her performance, plays a role with a past: you can see Gloria Grahame, Kim Novak and of course Veronica Lake in Lynn. But Basinger is softer and sadder than Grahame, wiser than Novak, deeper than Lake. Crowe and Pearce play men who begin as adversaries, end as allies, and function as alter egos. Pearce’s bland, college-boy looks make him seem, at first, a less interesting actor than he is. His Edmund Exley is a go-getter who isn’t in touch with the darker implications of his own ambition; if he were, he’d realize that he’s capable of the same impulses he damns in cops of his father’s and Smith’s generation. Bud White is Exley turned inside out: anguished by his own sensitivities, he tries to deny them, to play the brute. Dana Andrews used to specialize in this kind of vulnerable-tough-guy role, and Crowe gives the deeply felt performance Andrews would surely have given. A friend of mine who didn’t respond to L.A. Confidential complained that it ends up justifying Dudley Smith’s vision – that Exley has to learn to become the kind of cop his father was in order to see that justice is served. But that’s only half the story. White, whose fanatical hatred of women beaters (his own father was one) masks his terror that he has the potential to be one himself, has to confront not only that possibility but also the hero in himself. Every one of the five major characters is more than he or she seems. That’s what makes this a great movie.
|Michael Douglas and Tobey Maguire in Wonder Boys (2000).|
Hanson followed L.A. Confidential, in 2000, with Wonder Boys, which Steve Kloves adapted from Michael Chabon’s novel, improving on it considerably. The protagonist. Grady Tripp (Michael Douglas), is a renowned novelist and English professor at a small east-coast liberal-arts college. Though middle-aged, he still seems tentative about his life, and his daily dose of marijuana helps keep him in limbo. He’s kind and direct with his students, one of whom, Hannah Green (Katie Holmes), rents a room in his house; they have an obvious affection for him and aren’t bothered by his quirks, which no doubt make him more colorful and memorable in their eyes. He makes connections to people; what he can’t make are choices. As the movie begins, his wife has walked out on him because he’s ceased to be a presence in the marriage. His clandestine girl friend, the college provost, Sara Gaskell (Frances McDormand), who’s married to the chair of the English Department (Richard Thomas), has just learned that she’s carrying Grady’s child, and she’s hoping for a commitment from him. He’s been toiling away on his second novel for seven years, but he can’t finish it, or even manage to trim it down – the manuscript now runs to 2,500 single-spaced pages. Impulsively, he takes his most gifted student, James Leer (Tobey Maguire), a troubled, repressed young man, under his wing, but once he does, he suddenly pulls away. Grady’s problem isn’t that he doesn’t get involved in life; it’s his inability to follow through. This wonderful comedy is an unconventional coming-of-age movie in which, though it’s James who unbends (with the help of a little pot and a little booze) and loses both his depression and his virginity, it’s the gray-haired druggie prof with the scarf tossed around his neck and a permanent look of floating anxiety behind his horn-rims who really comes of age.
The treasure box of marvelous characters includes Grady’s bisexual pal Terry Crabtree (Robert Downey), an editor who comes to town for the annual writers’ gathering, Wordfest, champing at the bit to see the novel Grady swears is nearly finished. It also includes the drag queen (Michael Cavadias) Terry has in tow when he steps off the plane; a local Grady and Terry run afoul of at a bar (Richard Knox) with a strange link to Grady’s 1966 Ford Galaxie; a pregnant waitress (Jane Adams); a former student of Grady’s named Traxler (Alan Tudyk) who drives him home when the Galaxie is stolen and later earns an unexpected legacy from his prof; and a celebrity writer named Q (Rip Torn) who delivers the keynote at Wordfest.
As Tripp, Douglas gives a loose, lived-in performance that bears no resemblance to anything he’d done before. In melodramas like Wall Street, Basic Instinct and Disclosure, Douglas had been something of a camp icon, such a florid, aggressive presence that it was possible to develop a fondness for what he did as long as you didn’t confuse it with acting. But in Wonder Boys he’s unmistakably an actor, and the transformation is glorious. He pulls off both the comedy and the pathos; he galvanizes the movie, because the tone Hanson and Kloves sustain – screwball, with an undercurrent of ruefulness – wouldn’t work without Grady as its embodiment. (The only time since that Douglas has done work of this caliber is in Solitary Man, which came out nearly a decade later.) Much of the film is uproarious, its blackout-sketch rhythm complemented by a splendid, old-masters rock ‘n’ roll soundtrack; we hear Dylan, Neil Young, the artists Grady would listen to, who, like him, are still kicking around, their spirit intact. But it’s the quieter, more plaintive scenes that stay with you, and they’re all built around Douglas: Grady on the back porch of his house, looking around uneasily before lighting a joint; Grady urging Traxler to “take the long way home,” detouring to catch a glimpse of Sara, oblivious of him, in her greenhouse; Grady trying to engage a distraught James under the gently swirling snow.
If Hanson was the first director to coax a genuine performance out of Michael Douglas, he was also the first to figure out what to do with Tobey Maguire. Maguire is a talented actor, but tough to hook into; in his previous movies he’d always looked like half of him was in some other dimension. But in Wonder Boys, when you look into his eyes, everything you see emanates directly from the character he’s playing, His James is a brooder, but also curious, probing; he’s a prevaricator, yet there’s an emotional truth to the lies he tells. The movie is generous to James; it’s generous to everyone. Even the characters who aren’t in on the camaraderie, like the hopelessly full-of-himself Walter Gaskell, are parodied in a good-natured way. The movie is full of small, lovely actor’s moments, like the hilariously frank way Downey’s Crabtree has of checking out an attractive prospect, or the hesitation in Frances McDormand’s voice when Sara tells Grady that of course it would be ridiculous to consider having their baby. (She’s waiting – just a beat – for him to contradict her.) There’s even a memorable dog, a blind pug named Poe with a grudge against Tripp. (He’s Walter’s pet.) Hanson is remarkable with all his cast, and they respond with winning performances. L.A. Confidential may be Hanson’s masterpiece, but Wonder Boys is the Hanson movie I love the most.
|Toni Collette and Cameron Diaz with director Curtis Hanson, on the set of In Her Shoes. (Photo: Everett Collection, 2005)|
Hanson never recaptured the glory days of these back-to-back triumphs, but his movies continued to be worth checking out. In 2002 he made 8 Mile, an urban triumph-of-the-spirit movie, like Rocky, set in a poor area of Detroit where the hero, Rabbit, played by Eminem, lives in a trailer with his single mom (Kim Basinger) and his little sister (Chloe Greenfield) and slaves away at an auto plant while he dreams of recording hip-hop. What makes the movie distinctive, aside from the scruffy gleam the cinematographer, Rodrigo Prieto, gives the inner-city locations, is the hip-hop milieu; the battle it builds to (which takes up the last twenty minutes) is as entertaining as a good low-down number in a backstage musical, and earlier there’s a lively impromptu rap banter at the lunch wagon where Rabbit and his co-workers buy their food. Eminem really comes alive in these scenes, but he’s fun to watch throughout the picture. He doesn’t have much expressive range, but his pained, wary eyes hold the camera, and he never postures. As an actor he’s best in scenes with the livewire Mekhi Phifer as his best friend; Phifer could walk off with the movie if he weren’t such a generous performer. Rabbit is eager to get the hell out of the neighborhood; that he doesn’t in the end, but sticks around to hold down his factory job and take care of his mother and sister while saving up for studio time, suggests that the screenwriter, Scott Silver, has taken the economics of his era into consideration. Rabbit and his friends talk about getting a record deal and going platinum, but the reality is that no one an afford to give up his day job. The song we hear Eminem perform over the end credits, the exuberant, impassioned “Lose Yourself,” is all about the transcendence of the musical moment, and that’s what Rabbit lives for, not the fame and fortune that may or may not follow.
In Her Shoes adapts a Jennifer Weiner novel about a pair of sisters fighting their separate self-images and each other. When I saw it in 2005 I went for the performances of Cameron Diaz as the gorgeous, rootless Maggie, Toni Collette as the smart, romantically sidelined Rose and Shirley MacLaine as the Miami grandmother they discover many years after their father (Ken Howard), wrecked by their mother’s suicide, banished her from their lives. But I didn’t go for the movie. When I screened it again recently, I was unexpectedly moved. Susannah Grant’s screenplay is melodramatic and contains some implausible moments, but it’s also canny and shaped to showcase the actors, and Hanson does extraordinary work with them, including Howard, Mark Feuerstein, Richard Burgi and Brooke Smith in key supporting parts. (Diaz in particular is astonishing.) Lucky You (2007) has a forlorn nocturnal-Vegas look (Peter Deming shot it) and some good scenes, especially toward the end, when its hero (Eric Bana) and his estranged father (Robert Duvall) compete in a poker championship. The script is part gambling drama, part psychological drama focusing on the tense father-son relationship, part romantic comedy; the last, unfortunately, is the last successful, because Bana and Drew Barrymore, as an aspiring club singer, aren’t a match and the arc of their romance isn’t convincing. The movie never strikes the right balance of the three genres, but Hanson strikes a mood of sleepless languor that curls up around you; you just wish there were a whole movie to fit that mood.
The last movie credited to Hanson is 2012’s Chasing Mavericks, a bio of teen surfer Jay Moriarity (Jonny Weston), and Michael Apted is listed as co-director. Hanson had to stop making movies when he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and I assume Apted picked up the slack in mid-shoot. The movie’s a little bland, in the style of a TV movie from the eighties, and it doesn’t help that the key role of the kid’s hard-ass mentor is played by Gerard Butler, an actor with no discernible personality but one of the producers. Still, it’s perfectly watchable, and it contains some sweet sequences, though there’s no way to know which ones Hanson directed. I think it makes more sense to think of the 2011 TV movie Too Big to Fail, about the 2008 financial collapse, as his swan song. Too Big to Fail didn’t garner much attention, but it should have. Adapted by Peter Gould from Andrew Ross Sorkin’s book, it’s a gripping drama with a staggering cast: James Woods, John Heard, Cynthia Nixon, Topher Grace, Paul Giamatti, Edward Asner, Billy Crudup, Michael O’Keefe, Ayad Akhtar, Joey Slotnick, Bill Pullman, Evan Handler, Tony Shalhoub, Matthew Modine, Victor Slezak, Kathy Baker, Amy Carlson, Laila Robins, Dan Hedaya – all of them good – and, in a sensational performance, William Hurt as Secretary of the Treasury Hank Paulson. Since Hanson’s touch with his actors was his best attribute as a director, it’s hard not to see the movie, through hindsight, as a send-off, a last chance for him to work with actors who have something special to offer. And good God, there are miles of them. Watching the picture after Hanson’s departure, you can’t help feeling they’re paying tribute to him.
– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.