He made a name for himself in the late ’80’s and early ’90s with four popular thrillers: The Bedroom Window, Bad Influence, The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, and The River Wild. Then Curtis Hanson did something successful directors in Hollywood don’t often do: He bungee jumped right off that safe commercial plateau. The first, brashest leap was with 1997’s L.A. Confidential, a period noir drama that Warner Bros. had no idea how to sell. It did okay anyway and won a passel of awards. Emboldened, Hanson fashioned a wry takedown of academia (2000’s Wonder Boys, which tanked at the box office despite lots of critical kudos) and a feel-good rap fable (2002’s 8 Mile, a solid ticket seller thanks to that Eminem guy).
It’s the kind of range directors used to show under the old studio system — a system that Hanson, as chairman of the UCLA Film & Television Archive, knows well. ”If it cultivated the moviegoing habit, it didn’t matter to the studios if a couple of movies were adventuresome but not financially rewarding,” says the 60-year-old filmmaker. Disarmingly laconic behind a massive wooden desk in his vintage-movie-poster-bedecked West Hollywood production offices, Hanson comes across as both your ideal professor and your surfer-dude best buddy. ”Whereas today,” he gently laments, ”it’s all about one time at bat.”
And in a score-the-first-weekend-or-you’re-out world, Hanson is taking a hell of a risk swinging at an outside curveball like his latest, In Her Shoes (due in October). It’s the story of two warring sisters: gorgeous screwup Maggie (Cameron Diaz) and Rose (Toni Collette), her slightly older, highly resentful guardian. They feud and bond and find a grandmother (Shirley MacLaine) they never knew they had. All in all, pretty girlie territory. But Hanson doesn’t buy that, not really. ”I don’t have any sisters,” he explains. ”But I have a brother. And when I read the script, I found myself identifying, relating, connecting, as a brother.” Gosh — that sounds so candles-and-red-wine. Is it possible that Curtis Hanson, who once turned Rebecca De Mornay into the nanny from hell, has made a…chick flick?
He shrugs off the term, a label beloved by marketers but maybe not so much by audiences. Some women find ”chick flick” an infuriatingly patronizing phrase — defamatory, even — feeling it suggests they want only films about shopping and makeovers and landing a man. Plenty of men cringe at the touchy-feely phrase too, because it promises no explosions but lots of the kind of hugging and learning Jerry Seinfeld would sneer at. Hanson says he couldn’t worry about final-stretch labeling issues when he stepped into Shoes. ”If I really respond to something,” he says, ”that’s good enough. I know that if I’m interested, somebody else is going to be interested.”
Ever since he showcased Meryl Streep kicking some white-water-villain ass in 1994’s The River Wild, Hanson has become a magnet for actors looking to stretch. And in fact, In Her Shoes happened not because Hanson went looking for a vehicle for ex-Charlie’s Angel Diaz to go dramatic but because Team Diaz came looking for him.