How the ‘cynical and twisted’ L.A. Confidential shot Hollywood full of holes

Hard-boiled romance: Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce in L.A. Confidential, 1997 - AJ Pics / Alamy Stock Photo
Hard-boiled romance: Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce in L.A. Confidential, 1997 - AJ Pics / Alamy Stock Photo

On March 22 1998, the annual Golden Raspberry Awards – or Razzies – ceremony was held in Hollywood, the night before the considerably more prestigious Oscars. The film that had been expected to sweep the board was the dire Batman & Robin but it was Kevin Costner’s post-apocalyptic flop The Postman that won Worst Picture, Worst Director and Worst Actor. Costner, of course, was nowhere to be seen at the proceedings, but Brian Helgeland, who was jointly awarded Worst Screenplay with Eric Roth for his work on the film, happily turned up. He made a self-deprecating speech in which he suggested that: “My films are like my children, each special in some way. In the case of The Postman, I was perhaps an errant parent and therefore I am to blame.”

His good humour could perhaps be explained by his knowledge that he was odds-on to win the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay the next evening for L.A. Confidential, along with the film’s director Curtis Hanson. He duly did so, thus becoming the second person in history to win an Oscar and a Razzie in the same year. Helgeland reportedly kept both awards side by side at home to remind him of "the quixotic nature of Hollywood”.

Yet The Postman has long since been forgotten, despite occasional attempts by Costner’s most devoted fans to rehabilitate it. It's been 25 years since its original release but L.A. Confidential continues to be regarded as one of the finest crime films ever produced in Hollywood. It is a towering classic that stands comparison with the greatest works of the genre, as well as the only James Ellroy adaptation that has done full justice to his muscular, challenging prose.

Not bad, really, considering that its director was previously regarded as a competent hack-for-hire, its stars were either unknown or character actors, and Helgeland was best known for having written such timeless pictures as Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master and 976-EVIL. Yet the alchemical combination of material, filmmakers and cast made for a rich and all-enveloping cinematic experience, albeit one that saw its share of drama on its journey to the screen.

After an eventful and traumatic childhood that included his mother being murdered when he was ten and a brief spell as a juvenile neo-Nazi, Ellroy published his first novel, Brown’s Requiem, in 1981. He soon established a reputation as a peerless chronicler of the dark side of American life, most notably with his L.A. Quartet of novels, including The Black Dahlia, White Jazz and 1990’s L.A. Confidential. The latter was a sprawling account of police corruption and showbiz gossip in 50s Hollywood, revolving around a massacre in the Nite Owl café in Los Angeles, and subsequent wide-ranging scandal that encompassed celebrity, prostitution rings and murder. Ellroy took inspiration from real-life events, as he often did with his writing; in this case the 1951 Bloody Christmas scandal, in which drunken cops savagely beat a number of Mexican American prisoners.

The novel, which its author described as a “hard-boiled historical romance”, divided critical opinion upon publication; Chicago Tribune praised it for being written in a style that “hits like a cleaver but is honed like a scalpel”, but the New York Times complained that “the plotting becomes so tortuous and the narrative style so burdened by repetitive scenes of atrocious violence that the author compromises the truthfulness of his own vision”. It is a vast book in every sense, running to nearly 500 pages, spanning nearly a decade, and taking its central narrative almost as a starting point for an interrogation of everything from American attitudes towards female agency to racial prejudice. It is a bracing read and anything but an easy one.

Yet one aficionado of it was the director Curtis Hanson, then best known for his psychological thrillers Bad Influence and The Bedroom Window. He had grown up in California in the 50s and 60s, and felt an immediate kinship with the milieu that Ellroy had depicted; his uncle Jack had owned the stylish Rodeo Drive boutique Jax – in Ellroy’s words, “the grooviest, sexiest, most altogether bonaroo boutique on Rodeo Drive” - and the young Hanson had grown up seeing the likes of Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn browsing the shop, which he had worked in as an occasional Saturday helper. Jack had also owned a gossip magazine, Cinema, which initially was intended primarily as a means of promoting Jax, but which gave his nephew his first break as a writer and editor, interviewing the likes of the blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, and developed what would become a lifelong interest in film.

He had long waited for a novel that would capture the simultaneous glamour and seediness of the age. That the one that did was also a gripping thriller was a distinct bonus. As he said: “When I read L.A. Confidential, I just got hooked on the characters, got caught up emotionally in their individual struggles with their personal demons. I wanted to capture that in a movie. Also, I found that the way I felt about the characters was near to the way I felt about the city of Los Angeles. I’d always wanted to make a movie about L.A., to deal with this city at that magic moment in the 50s when the dream of L.A. was being bulldozed to make way for all the people that were coming here in pursuit of the very dream that was being destroyed.”

'Hits like a cleaver': L.A. Confidential author James Ellroy - Jay Williams
'Hits like a cleaver': L.A. Confidential author James Ellroy - Jay Williams

Helgeland, meanwhile, was attempting to escape from the ghetto of horror B-movies or failed scripts for unmade medieval action films – for a while, he had the sobriquet "the sword guy" – by adapting L.A. Confidential for the screen. He had tried to get a meeting with Warner Bros, the studio that held the rights to the book, in order to pitch his ideas. He had a chance encounter with Ellroy at a book signing and the two had hit it off but, when he was finally allowed his meeting, he was bluntly told that Hanson had already signed a deal to write and direct the film, and that he would be surplus to requirements.

Most writers would have shrugged and moved onto another project, but the persistent Helgeland arranged a meeting with Hanson. The director later recalled that: “[We met] in an old bungalow on the Universal lot that had been…scheduled to be torn down to make way for the Jurassic Park portion of the studio tour. I thought this was a good sign, as much of the L.A. we would need to bring to life had suffered a similar fate.”

They agreed to write the script together and completed seven or eight drafts, working on a simple principle: remove every scene from the book that didn’t feature the three main protagonists, and then construct a narrative around them. These characters were the suave Jack Vincennes, the Dean Martin-esque Hollywood Jack who enjoys the celebrity offered by his work on a tabloid television show; the straight-arrow Ed Exley, son of a lauded detective who was murdered in the line of duty; and the thuggish Bud White, a man who has a near-biblical desire to punish criminals who assault women, a compulsion driven by his father having beaten his mother to death. All of them would need great actors, keen to join what promised to be a prestigious project – if it was handled the right way.

Director Curtis Hanson and Kim Basinger on the set of LA Confidential - Alamy
Director Curtis Hanson and Kim Basinger on the set of LA Confidential - Alamy

When Hanson and Helgeland finally had a script that they were happy with, they approached Ellroy for approval. He was, in Hanson’s tactful words to Venice Magazine, “refreshingly wary” and shrugged, “My book, your movie”. He noted that, of all the books he had written to date, he thought L.A. Confidential was the least filmable. (Blood on the Moon was the only book of his that had so far been turned into a film, 1988’s James Woods vehicle Cop, and it had attracted good reviews but been a financial flop.)

Besides, Ellroy was happy to profit from Hanson and Helgeland’s work. He said: “The motherf_____ was uncompressible, uncontainable and unequivocally bereft of sympathetic characters. It was unsavoury, unapologetically dark, untameable and altogether untranslatable to the screen [...] Movieland self-delusion was a major theme of the novel. It was only fitting that I should profit from its exercise.”

The film was greenlit by Warner Bros at a budget of $35 million – a considerable amount for an R-rated crime film, but an amount that would preclude star casting. In the roles of Exley and White, Hanson cast Guy Pearce and Russell Crowe respectively. Crowe’s highest-profile role had been as a neo-Nazi thug in the Australian film Romper Stomper, which Hanson had found “repulsive and scary, but captivating”.

Not in a dress: Guy Pearce as do-gooder cop Edmund J Exley - United Archives GmbH / Alamy Stock Photo
Not in a dress: Guy Pearce as do-gooder cop Edmund J Exley - United Archives GmbH / Alamy Stock Photo

Pearce, meanwhile, was most associated with the TV show Neighbours, although he had appeared as an obnoxious drag queen in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. Hanson refused to watch Priscilla, fearing that Pearce’s flamboyant performance would be at odds with the deadpan qualities that he had shown in his successful audition for Exley. He said: “I didn't want to have my confidence shaken by watching him run around for two hours in a dress.”

Although neither actor was a known quantity at the time, the director justified this: “You don't like any of these characters at first, but the deeper you get into their story, the more you begin to sympathise with them. I didn't want actors audiences knew and already liked.” Although the producer Arnon Milchan was worried that the film starred unknowns, he was mollified by the casting of more established actors in the other roles, including Kim Basinger as the Veronica Lake-lookalike prostitute Lynn Bracken, Danny DeVito as the sleazy tabloid proprietor Sid Hudgens and a pre-scandal Kevin Spacey as Vincennes.

The latter was specifically cast because Hanson saw a resemblance between the Oscar-winning actor and Dean Martin, who the director saw as a touchstone for the film. As he said to Spacey when they met, he didn’t want Vincennes to be “the Dean Martin when he was this sort of alcoholic cliché on Celebrity Roast, but the Dean Martin who was the epitome of 50s hip: the guy who appeared to have all the answers, totally cool.” In a final touch of knowing perversity, James Cromwell, then best known for his role as the kindly farmer in Babe, was cast as the apparently saintly police captain Dudley Smith; Cromwell’s twinkling avuncularity proved to be a suitable feint when Smith’s evil nature is eventually revealed.

Hanson drew on the old-school glamour of 1950s Hollywood figures such as Dean Martin (centre) - Topical Press Agency/Getty Images
Hanson drew on the old-school glamour of 1950s Hollywood figures such as Dean Martin (centre) - Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

The film was shot around Los Angeles throughout 1996, and one of the challenges was to find architecture and settings that were still authentically 50s in their appearance; Hanson drew specifically on the photography of Robert Frank to attempt to establish the film’s visual style, which might best be described as Californian sun but with noir undertones. Upon its completion, Hanson decided that it should debut at the Cannes Film Festival in 1997: a bold move, considering that it had been expected to be high-quality commercial filmmaking, rather than great art. Warner Bros refused to submit it, leaving Hanson to do so, successfully, on his own cognizance. But Ellroy had already been impressed: “I understood in 40 minutes or so that it is a work of art on its own level. It was amazing to see the physical incarnation of the characters.”

After an ecstatic reception at Cannes, it was obvious that L.A. Confidential was not just an accomplished crime thriller, but one of the finest films of the decade. It opened in September in the United States to reviews that fell over themselves to praise it; Roger Ebert called it “seductive and beautiful, cynical and twisted, and one of the best films of the year”. It would eventually be nominated for nine Oscars, and would win two, for Basinger, and Hanson and Helgeland’s writing. It had the bad luck to be up against James Cameron’s Titanic, an inferior although far bigger film that duly won awards that it did not deserve out of gratitude that Cameron’s folie de grandeur made a fortune at the box office.

Nonetheless, L.A. Confidential was itself a financial success – it made around four times its budget worldwide – and, in 2008, a group of Los Angeles critics voted it the finest L.A. film of the past 25 years, beating the likes of Boogie Nights, Jackie Brown and The Big Lebowski. There were even attempts to turn it into a television series in 2003 and 2018, but neither made it beyond pilot stage: an acceptance, perhaps, that it was impossible to improve on the brilliant original.

'A difficult time': Kevin Spacey as Jack Vincennes - Film Stills
'A difficult time': Kevin Spacey as Jack Vincennes - Film Stills

Ellroy – never a company man – has also now taken against the film. In comments he made at the Hay Festival in 2019, he mocked it as being “as deep as a tortilla”. He continued: “If you watch the action of the movie, it does not make dramatic sense. I don’t care how many awards it’s won... I don’t like the bulk of the performances.” (This was at odds with his comments on the film’s invented final shoot-out upon its release, which he called “bullshit…but inspired bullshit”.) Typically, he claimed that the saving grace was the financial incentive. “They paid me some good dough to sign over the rights… money is the gift you never have to return,” he said.

Most would, however, respectfully disagree with Ellroy. Although Hanson’s death in 2016 meant that he never had the chance to make another film as indelible as L.A. Confidential – although 2000’s superb Wonder Boys comes close, and there will be those who praise Eminem in 2002’s 8 Mile – it is a sign of his talent that a one-time journeyman filmmaker was offered the chance to make a picture that truly mattered to him, and that the results were a masterpiece.

As he said before its release: “L.A. Confidential is that one project where I’ve been able to cash in the chips I’ve earned from being lucky enough to have had a couple of financially successful films and saying: ‘OK, now this is the film that I want to make.’ It’s my most personal movie. Whether it achieves any popular acceptance or not is less important to me. That’s not why I made it.”