Curtis Hanson, Director of Wicked Noir ‘L.A. Confidential,’ Dies at 71


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Curtis Hanson while filming the 1994 movie “The River Wild.”

Credit
Universal Pictures, via Photofest

Curtis Hanson, the film director whose adaptation of the James Ellroy noir novel “L.A. Confidential” won him an Academy Award, died on Tuesday at his home in Los Angeles. He was 71.

The death was confirmed by Officer Jenny Houser, a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles Police Department. She said that officers had been called to the house shortly before 5 p.m., and that Mr. Hanson had died of natural causes.

Julie Mann, his business manager, said Mr. Hanson had been struggling for some time with a form of dementia.

Mr. Hanson directed a handful of hits, including “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle,” “The River Wild” and “8 Mile,” as well as the well-received television movie “Too Big to Fail.” But “L.A. Confidential,” released in 1997, was his biggest film and his most successful artistic creation.

In it he captures the midcentury Los Angeles that Mr. Ellroy portrayed in his novel, a world of corrupt police officers and organized crime, Hollywood back-room deals and prostitution.

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Russell Crowe, left and Guy Pearce in “L.A. Confidential.” Mr. Hanson directed the 1997 movie.

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Peter Sorel/Warner Brothers

Mr. Hanson drew inspiration as well from films by Stanley Kubrick, Robert Aldrich and Nicholas Ray in which Los Angeles played a key role. Ray’s 1950 film, “In a Lonely Place,” about a Hollywood screenwriter (played by Humphrey Bogart) suspected of murder, was a touchstone for Mr. Hanson.

“It was the era of mystery and glamour,” Mr. Hanson said in an interview with The New York Times, “an era when everything started in that postwar boom that’s still very much with us — the freeways, the idea and growth of suburbia, television, the start of the tabloid press.”

“L.A. Confidential” starred Kevin Spacey and Kim Basinger and introduced to American audiences the New Zealand actor Russell Crowe and the Australian Guy Pearce.

“Curtis has this great ability to see what makes you tick and find the appropriate things to say,” Mr. Pearce said in an interview years later. “I don’t mean in a politically correct way, but as in terms of inspiring you and getting you to do what he wants. To me, that’s the job description of what directing is all about.”

Released to critical acclaim, “L.A. Confidential” was nominated for nine Oscars, including for best picture and best director. It competed against “Titanic” in many categories (“Titanic” took the best picture award) and won two awards — for best supporting actress (Ms. Basinger) and best adapted screenplay (Mr. Hanson and his co-writer, Brian Helgeland).

“L.A. Confidential” was one of two dozen pictures named by the Library of Congress in 2015 as worthy of preservation in the National Film Registry.

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Brittany Murphy and Marshall Mathers, better known as Eminem, in the 2002 movie “8 Mile,” directed by Mr. Hanson.

Credit
Eli Reed/Universal Studios

Reviewing the film in The Times, Janet Maslin called it “resplendently wicked” — “a tough, gorgeous, vastly entertaining throwback to the Hollywood that did things right” — and cautioned would-be viewers, “Take a popcorn break and you’ll be sorry.”

Curtis Lee Hanson was born in Reno, Nev., on March 24, 1945, and raised in Los Angeles. His father, Wilbur, was a schoolteacher, and his mother, Beverly, a homemaker. He was interested in film at an early age and dropped out of high school to make movies. He started small, with a horror film called “The Arousers” in the early 1970s. In 1983, his film “Losin’ It” gave Tom Cruise his first starring role.

“The Hand That Rocks the Cradle,” a psychological thriller about a revenge-seeking nanny starring Annabella Sciorra and Rebecca De Mornay, was Mr. Hanson’s breakout hit, released in 1992. He followed that with another hit, “The River Wild” (1994), which featured Meryl Streep as a rafting enthusiast who encounters two criminals, played by Kevin Bacon and John C. Reilly, on a trip down the Salmon River in Idaho.

Mr. Hanson had more luck with the critics than with audiences. The gentle comedy “Wonder Boys” (2000), his follow-up to “L.A. Confidential,” was met with critical approval but flopped at the box office. Based on a Michael Chabon novel and set in Pittsburgh, it starred Michael Douglas as a frustrated creative-writing professor caught up in tangled relationships.

His Cameron Diaz vehicle “In Her Shoes” (2005) and his poker movie “Lucky You” (2007) also failed to make much of an impact.

He did, however, have a hit in 2002 with “8 Mile,” shot in Detroit and based on the life of the rapper Marshall Mathers, better known as Eminem, who played the lead role, a young battle rapper who freestyles and writes rhymes under the moniker B-Rabbit.

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Mr. Hanson, speaking in Mexico in 2009.

Credit
Carlos Jasso/Associated Press

In later years Mr. Hanson directed the television movie “Too Big to Fail” (2011), a dramatization of the 2008 financial crisis based on a book by Andrew Ross Sorkin, a financial columnist and editor at The Times. His last film, in which he shared directing credit with Michael Apted, was the surfing film “Chasing Mavericks” (2012).

He is survived by his mother, Beverly June Hanson; his brother, Woody; his longtime partner, Rebecca Yeldham; and their son, Rio.

In 1999, Mr. Hanson became the first chairman of the U.C.L.A. Film & Television Archive, granting him easy access to decades of his favorite films.

He was particularly interested in the relationship between actors and directors, and the trust that it took to coax out a truly great performance.

“Occasionally, very rarely, a movie feels so heartfelt, so emotional, so revealing that it seems as though both the actor and the director are standing naked before the audience,” Mr. Hanson said while screening “In a Lonely Place” for a Times reporter. “When that kind of marriage happens between actor and director, it’s breathtaking.”

Mr. Hanson’s enthusiasm for the film during the screening occasionally caused him to speak over it, something for which he continually apologized.

“‘I’m not sure how much to talk,’’ he said. “I don’t want us to miss anything.”

Correction: September 21, 2016

An earlier version of this obituary misstated the name of the archive of which Mr. Hanson was named chairman in 1999. It is the U.C.L.A. Film & Television Archive — not the University of California Film and Television Archives.

Correction: September 26, 2016

Because of an editing error, a picture caption on Thursday with an obituary about the director Curtis Hanson overstated what is known about the filming of a river scene from “The River Wild.” While the film is set in Idaho, the scene was not shot there. (Various river scenes were shot in Montana and in Oregon.)

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