March 24, 1945
Reno, Nevada, USA
Director, Screenwriter, Producer, Editor, Freelance writer, Photographer
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A former high school dropout who became a photographer and editor at Cinema magazine, writer-director Curtis Hanson honed his filmmaking skills by writing screenplays for low-budget horror flicks before directing eventually Oscar-caliber films. As with seemingly everyone of his age who wielded a camera, Hanson had his start penning "The Dunwich Horror" (1970) for the definitive mentor, Roger Corman, before directing "Sweet Kill" (1973) for the low-brow producer. In the 1980s, he graduated to compelling, Hitchcockian thrillers like "The Bedroom Window" (1987) and "Bad Influence" (1990), which paved the way for his true breakthrough film, "The Hand That Rocks the Cradle" (1992), a tense psychological thriller that became his first bona fide box office hit. Following a quality action adventure movie, "The River Wild" (1994), Hanson reached true artistic heights with his lush adaptation of James Ellroy's "L.A. Confidential" (1997), widely considered to be the best crime noir since "Chinatown" (1974). From there, he made a quirky, uneven, but ultimately endearing adaptation of Michael Chabon's "Wonder Boys" (2000), before drawing a convincing performance from rap star Eminem in "8 Mile" (2002). Though he stumbled with his next two projects, "In Her Shoes" (2005) and "Lucky You" (2007), Hanson was able to keep critics guessing while maintaining his status as one of Hollywood's most diverse directors.
Born on March 24, 1945 in Reno, NV, Hanson grew up in Los Angeles, where he was raised by his father, William, an elementary school teacher, and his mother, Beverly, a realtor. As a youngster, Hanson came to appreciate all forms of storytelling, reading the works of Dickens, Twain and Conrad while falling in love with movies, particularly the work of Alfred Hitchcock. While in high school, he and old friend Willard Huyck - who later penned "American Graffiti" (1973) - picked up an 8mm camera and shot a film that mimicked Federico Fellini's "8 ½" (1963). He then turned the Hanson home into a movie theater and charged friends and neighbors 50 cents to see his first film. Dissatisfied with the discipline of going to high school, Hanson dropped out, and found work as a photographer and editor for Cinema magazine. He was instrumental in helping actress Faye Dunaway land her seminal role in "Bonnie and Clyde" (1967), when his pictures of her on another film set where seen by actor-producer Warren Beatty and director Arthur Penn. Hanson used his clout with Dunaway to gain access to that set, where he interviewed director Penn and Beatty for the magazine.
During this time, Hanson befriended several big name directors of the day, including Don Siegel and Sam Fuller, the latter of whom invited the ambitious young man to watch him edit his films. Meanwhile, he segued into the filmmaking side himself by co-writing "The Dunwich Horror" (1970), a cheaply-executed adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft's story courtesy of schlock producer Roger Corman, and Hanson made his feature debut as a director with the genuinely unsettling cult horror flick "Sweet Kill" (1973), which starred former teen poster boy Tab Hunter as a sex-obsessed serial killer. But since Corman was disappointed in the box office results, he had Hanson reshoot additional sex scenes and re-released the film under the alternate titles, "The Arousers" and "A Kiss from Eddie." After a long gap between films, he made the jump to producing with "The Silent Partner" (1978), a slick crime thriller he wrote starring Elliot Gould as a bank teller who figures out a psychopath (Christopher Plummer) is about to rob his bank. Hanson returned to the director's chair with "The Little Dragons" (1980), a children's adventure about two boys studying martial arts, who try to use their nascent skills to save their family from being held captive.
With friend, director Samuel Fuller, Hanson co-wrote the screenplay for the racially-charged melodrama, "White Dog," which was filmed in 1982, but not released until 1991 - and in Europe, not the United States - due to unfounded charges of racism. While Fuller's career was irrevocably damaged, Hanson continued to rise up the ranks, writing the script for "Never Cry Wolf" (1983), an atypical and often quirky tale about a biologist (Charles Martin Smith) who spends time observing caribou in the Arctic, only to discover that their numbers are being eliminated at an alarming rate by humans. Hanson turned to the sex comedy genre to direct "Losin' It" (1983), which starred a young Tom Cruise, who travels to Tijuana, Mexico with his three buddies (Jackie Earle Haley, John Stockwell and John P. Navin, Jr.) in order to lose his virginity. After helming "The Children of Times Square" (ABC, 1986), which centered on teenage runaways, Hanson began coming into his own as a specialist in suspense movies, starting with "The Bedroom Window" (1987), a surprisingly good homage to Hitchcock about a man (Steve Guttenberg) having an affair with his boss' wife (Isabelle Huppert), who becomes the suspect in a murder after witnessing a killing during a tryst.
Hanson continued to display Hitchcock's influence on his work with "Bad Influence" (1990), a slick, "Strangers on a Train"-like psychological suspense thriller about a successful marketing analyst (James Spader) who falls prey to the corrupting wiles of an enigmatic drifter (Rob Lowe). With his next project, Hanson finally enjoyed a runaway box-office success with "The Hand That Rocks the Cradle" (1992), a compelling, expertly acted and cannily directed thriller that starred a startlingly creepy Rebecca DeMornay as a nanny-from-hell, who has taken the job with a family in order to exact her revenge for her husband's suicide. He continued his success in the genre with "The River Wild" (1994), a tense adventure set in the great outdoors that starred Meryl Streep in her action movie debut and featured a top-notch supporting cast including Kevin Bacon and David Strathairn. Shot on location along the winding Kootenai River in Montana, the film resembled "Deliverance" (1972) in many ways, with its focus on a group of white-water rafters fleeing psychopathic killers. But Hanson focused more on making it an action picture, while eliciting strong performances out of his A-list stars.
Hanson used his new-found clout in Hollywood to adapt James Ellroy's self-described "adaptation-proof" "L.A. Confidential" (1997), with its labyrinth plot, eighty speaking parts and numerous locations. Writing the script with Ellroy's blessing and the help of screenwriter Brian Helgeland, the result was an impeccably crafted, densely plotted and surprisingly fast-paced tale of police corruption in the City of Angels in the 1950s, making "L.A. Confidential" the best American film noir since Roman Polanski's "Chinatown" (1974). Hanson and Helgeland faithfully captured the Los Angeles of James Ellroy's pulp novel, giving great attention to period detail in the background while shooting a contemporary movie focused on the characters and their emotions. They focused their storylines on three main characters: Officer Bud White (Russell Crowe), a violent and ill-tempered cop; Sergeant Ed Exley (Guy Pearce), an ambitious by-the-book detective; and Sergeant Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey), a Hollywood operator who serves as a police consultant on the fictional TV show "Badge of Honor," while setting up celebrity busts with sleazy tabloid reporter (Danny DeVito). All run afoul of the corrupt Captain Dudley Smith (James Cromwell) who helps keep the streets of Los Angeles safe for mobsters, drug dealers and a high-class pimp (David Straitharn) running a prostitution ring of celebrity look-alikes, including a warm-hearted dead ringer for Veronica Lake (Kim Basinger). Not only was "L.A. Confidential" a hit with critics and audiences, it earned numerous awards at the end-of-year ceremonies, winning Academy Awards for Basinger and the writing team of Hanson-Helgeland. In fact, many thought it should have won the Best Picture and Best Director Oscar, but a little film called "Titanic" (1997) and its helmer James Cameron took both honors.
Hanson's masterful work on "L.A. Confidential" elevated him out of conventional journeyman status and into consideration for some of Hollywood's top projects. Rather than plunge into a whirlwind of new commitments, he instead continued to nurture thoughtful, literate material. His next effort was "Wonder Boys" (2000), a film based on author Michael Chabon's acclaimed novel about a college professor and author (Michael Douglas) who has been unable to finish a massive follow-up to his one highly-praised novel, and his quirky relationship with a young, troubled student (Tobey Maguire). Although the story had some wobbly moments, Hanson shot it with style and sensitivity, wresting top-notch performances from Douglas, Maguire and supporting players Robert Downey, Jr., Katie Holmes and Frances McDormand. Hanson next turned his skilled hand on a more unconventional film, "8 Mile" (2002), a street-level drama played out in the hip-hop world of urban Detroit, starring and loosely based on the life of Grammy-winning rapper, Eminem. Adopting a raw, gritty documentary filmmaking style, Hanson was able to garner a compelling, intense performance from Eminem in his first on-screen role, as well as strong work from Brittany Murphy, Mekhi Pfifer and his "L.A. Confidential" star, Kim Basinger.
Continuing to demonstrate his diversity, Hanson took on what, in other hands, might have been a conventional female-centric drama, "In Her Shoes" (2005), starring Cameron Diaz and Toni Collette as close, but opposite sisters - Diaz was the sexy, irresponsible party girl, while Collette was the plain achiever with low self-esteem. After a severe falling out, both slowly learn how to appreciate each other and themselves when brought back together by their grandmother (Shirley MacLaine) they thought was long dead. Continuing to keep critics off balance, Hanson directed "Lucky You" (2007), a coming-of-age relationship drama about Huck Cheever (Eric Bana), an exceptionally talented, but emotional poker player, who falls for Billie Offer (Drew Barrymore), a young singer from Bakersfield with more talent than heart. After the two meet, Huck realizes that in order to win Billie over, he must learn to play cards the way he has been living life and live his life the way he has been playing cards. Both were critically panned and essentially ignored by audiences, making less than $6 million at the box office. Turning to the small screen, he directed "Too Big to Fail" (HBO, 2011), the critically acclaimed docudrama chronicling the major players engulfed in the financial crisis of 2008 that brought the global economy to its knees. Hanson's efforts earned him an Emmy Award nomination for Outstanding Directing for a Miniseries, Movie or Dramatic Special.
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