It is a sad day indeed in Hollywood which marks the premature passing of Curtis Hanson. Hanson, 71, was a filmmaker’s filmmaker, a writer and director who left an indelible mark with films like Wonder Boys, 8 Mile and LA Confidential, the James Ellroy noir adaptation which won him Golden Globe nominations for Best Directing and Best Screenplay in 1998. That film was also nominated for Best Drama and won the Globe for Kim Basinger as Best Actress.
A self-effacing, soft-spoken cinephile who served on the AMPAS Directors’ Branch and was the first chairman of the UCLA film archives, Hanson was ever gracious albeit passionate in his meetings with the HFPA. In 2010 he spoke to us about Wonder Boys, the sophisticated literary comedy adapted from the Michael Chabon novel about a writer (Michael Douglas) struggling with writer’s block. A supremely intelligent film about the foibles of creativity which was also supremely funny.
“I think I’m a storyteller,” he told us on that occasion, “and I love characters. I’m very detail-oriented but I also recognize that the actors and their performances are the most important thing because in telling the story they’re the most valuable tools that I have. They’re what we movie-goers are left with and we care more about them than we care about the camera angles or the set dressing.”
An ardent fan of directors like Robert Altman, Hanson described the meeting he had with Billy Wilder after LA Confidential as the equivalent of “an audience with the Pope.”
“If I didn't make movies,” he said, “I would (simply) love going to movies. And that’s what cinema means to me: it’s visual storytelling with the actors who … let us in, you know. And the best ones let us in in a way that we feel we’re actually into their souls. It's a combination of writing, visuals and acting that makes movies unique and that I think, except for the addition of sound, have kept movies more or less unchanged since the days of D.W. Griffith.”
In the end, he mused, “we’re all wonder boys. You know, we feel we have a potential that we hope to realize. We all feel we’ve made mistakes, we’ve done things well; we’ve done things not so well, and we all want to, in a sense, get from here to there (to) the better version of ourselves.”
Hanson did that. And with his films he brought many of us at least part of the way.