About midway through the 1997 noir masterpiece L.A. Confidential, Guy Pearce's ultraconfident detective walks up to a couple canoodling in a classic Hollywood watering hole. He's on the hunt for the perps behind a prostitution ring, one that specializes in turning out women who are cosmetically altered to look like movie stars, and suspects the duo of being in on the scheme. After laying down the law with the male half of the pair, he looks at the dolled-up woman and barks, "A hooker cut to look like Lana Turner is still a hooker." His partner, played by a droll Kevin Spacey, quickly interjects: "She is Lana Turner." Cut to a deadpan Pearce being sprayed in the face with a glass of water.
It's a small moment in Curtis Hanson's film, but a telling one, at least when it comes to summarizing the director's vast and varied career: His filmography may seem as if he's an imitator channelling cinema's greatest icons, but really, Hanson – who died this week at the age of 71 – was his own unique visionary, a master in disguise.
L.A. Confidential, for instance, could easily be mistaken for a highlights reel of Roman Polanski, John Huston and Billy Wilder, with a dash of Robert Altman thrown in for good measure. The Eminem-starring 8 Mile could fit comfortably in the milieu of anyone from Walter Hill to the Hughes brothers. And The River Wild could have easily come from megaproducer Jerry Bruckheimer's early-1990s stable. Yet each film bore the hallmark of Curtis's own steady hand and careful eye for detail – a singular artistic sensibility built around the core concepts of vividly crafted characters, expert pacing, twisty narratives and a strongly defined sense of place and time. His films were grounded, steady, rock-solid.
And, for the most part, underappreciated. Yes, L.A. Confidential earned Hanson his sole Academy Award, but only for the best adapted screenplay, which he shared with Brian Helgeland.
While the crime thriller was easily the standout picture of 1997 – and likely deserved its own specially created honour for managing to make cinematic sense of James Ellroy's incredibly twisty, dense novel – another little film named Titanic also came along that year, crushing any competitors in its wake. Instead of L.A. Confidential, and thus Curtis, being forever enshrined in Hollywood history, the film just skirts on the outer edges of memory – a great reminder, when need be, of how Hanson used genre to produce epic, layered productions, and of how major studios once invested in mid-budget films that, on paper at least, should never have worked.
The director worked such magic in nearly all his films, from 8 Mile (Eminem as a dramatic lead? Okay, sure!); The River Wild (Meryl Streep as an action star, finally); The Hand that Rocks the Cradle (a sexploitation pic elevated to glorious, pulpy heights); and Wonder Boys (a stoner comedy with literary ambitions). And though he didn't have an out-and-out hit since 2002's 8 Mile, his latter work is more than deserving of a critical reassessment, from the unexpectedly sour family drama of 2005's In Her Shoes to the sobering hard-luck reality of 2007's Lucky You.
No film was exactly the same in tone or aesthetics, but each bore Hanson's solid respect for the cinematic form – and his consistent ability to surprise.