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Celebrity, Race, Money, and Police in L. A.

Film critic John Powers discusses the film L. A. Confidential with Terry.


Other segments from the episode on September 18, 1997

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, September 18, 1997: Interview with John Powers; Interview with Curtis Hanson and Russell Crowe; Review of Jessica Williams' album "Higher Standards."


Date: SEPTEMBER 18, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 091801np.217
Head: L.A. Confidential
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:06

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

The movie "L.A. Confidential" opens this weekend. It's based on a novel by James Ellroy, set in Los Angeles in the early '50s. The story follows corrupt cops, organized crime leaders, Hollywood scandal sheets, Hollywood stars, and hookers that impersonate them.

In a few minutes, we'll talk with the film's director Curtis Hansen and one of the stars of the film, Russell Crowe.

First, our film critic John Powers is back to talk about the movie.

JOHN POWERS, FILM CRITIC: Well, I think "L.A. Confidential" is probably the best Hollywood studio movie made in several years. I think it has the virtues that I think most people love in big studio movies. It has characters that interest you.

It has a story that holds you and actually excites you more as it goes along. It's a period piece set in '50s Hollywood, so it actually has the sort of mood and atmosphere and the lavish costumes and sets that basically Hollywood is the only place in the world that can actually create.

And it brings it all together in an exciting story, so that when you're watching it, it holds you in the way that Hollywood movies hold you. I mean, art movies can hold you in a certain way and often be, perhaps, more brilliant or more intelligent.

But there's something about the way a Hollywood movie holds you when you actually are interested in the characters and interested in the plot and are loving the production design and the music and everything, that really is very special.

And L.A. Confidential does that. It's a real old fun Hollywood movie of the kind that people in Hollywood are loving. And when you talk to people in Hollywood, they're thinking: "why can't we make movies like this anymore?"

GROSS: Tell us something about the story.

POWERS: Well, L.A. Confidential is basically set in the '50s and it's the story of three cops who are trying to deal with more or less the problems of crime in Los Angeles, while at the same time advancing their own careers and their own psychological agendas.

One of the cops is named Bud White. He's played by Russell Crowe, the Australian actor. And he's essentially this kind of bull of a man who was driven to be a cop because of various violent things in his past. He's the kind of guy who will never ask you a question if he can sort of beat the information out of you. But he does it righteously. He's actually not a bad guy.

The other -- another cop is Ed Exley (ph), who's the kind of grinning guy who looks like -- maybe -- he has the kind of big teeth and sort of nice looks of the college professor that probably you didn't like 'cause he was just a little too handsome and smug. He's a very self-righteous cop, and he actually thinks he's doing everything by the book. Yet, there's this secret core of ambition to him.

Just as Bud White's decency is sort of undone by his violence, Ed Exley is just inherently slippery. So, he uses his morality as sort of a way of promoting himself.

Then there's the third cop called Jack Vincenze (ph), who's played by Kevin Spacey. And he's sort of a Dean Martin-type of a cop; sort of a swinger. He works as a consultant on a show like "Dragnet." And he loves his celebrity. He takes money from a scandal magazine. And -- but at the same time, he became a cop for some reason and there's a core of decency to him, too.

And as you're watch -- basically what happens is a series of crimes unfold and each of them are working on more or less separate stories, but gradually as the film develops, they all seem to be working on the same larger crime. And suddenly, each of these people who are so very different are starting to reveal new aspects of one another.

So that you realize that the bullish, honest Bud White needs the brains of the slippery Ed. Similarly, the corrupt-seeming cop who works on TV is in some ways more honest than some of the other cops who seem less corrupt.

And sort of the pleasure and satisfactions as you're getting this vision of the world of these three cops, who are then surrounded by what people still know about the L.A. police force -- that it is an excessively violent police force; that it's a racist police force. And you get all of that.

So there's sort of a political view and, in addition to all of that, because it's L.A., you're having the idea of everybody wanting to be celebrities, being linked to celebrities -- so everybody's identity is in one way or another linked to how they're perceived in the public.

So this is a film that probably, you know, to really work out should probably be longer, because it's actually trying to offer an entire conception of '50s Los Angeles where it's about celebrity; about race; about money -- and how it all links together.

GROSS: I think the actors in this movie are fantastic, particularly Russell Crowe and Kevin Spacey. What'd you think?

POWERS: No, the acting's tremendous all the way through. I think, you know, this is a film when you're watching, you're thinking: everybody here is good. You know, Kevin Spacey is a guy -- you know, there's something kind of unlikable about a lot of the Kevin Spacey performances; that, you know, he kind of does the "Kevin Spacey thing" a lot.

Sudden -- you know, which you know kind of makes my flesh crawl under normal circumstances -- here, he's just absolutely wonderful. There's a moment -- his sort of epiphany in his life when he meets up with his boss in a kind of shady circumstance -- is the greatest moment of his acting career. He's unbelievably good.

Similarly, Russell Crowe, who's an actor who was essentially brought to the states as a cute guy, and as sort of an attempt to create another Mel Gibson, is now playing this kind of Nick Nolte-ish, bullish cop who is decent and strong, yet knows he's not smart enough.

Which one of the things he says in the film, basically: "I know I'm not smart enough." And he has this kind of really primal force and decency that makes you go from sort of laughing at him and being scared by him to realize oh, actually, he really is a good guy.

You know, even though you wouldn't think he's a good guy, he's wounded. At the same time, he's tough. He's tender and confused.

GROSS: Have you read the novel L.A. Confidential which the movie's based on?

POWERS: Yes I have.

GROSS: How would you compare the screenplay and the novel?

POWERS: Well actually I, you know, I -- well, I'm -- a good friend of mine is married to the novelist, James Ellroy, and so I will have to live with whatever I say here. But I will tell you honestly I think that I prefer the screenplay to the novel, because the novel is finally too baroque. I mean, I think many people will find that -- they will find that the film L.A. Confidential has too much plot. I mean, it's a very heavily plotted, plotted film.

And yet the novel has even more plot because I mean, Ellroy -- what Ellroy likes to do is basically take -- take the city of Los Angeles in particular, start a story, and show how everything connects in it; how every level of society from the highest to the lowest; every sexual -- every sexual idea is linked to everything else.

And basically, so it expands out. And then he does it in terms of these incredibly elaborate byzantine plots, where everything links up. You know, at the end of the "Black Dahlia," there's a scene -- which is one of his earlier novels -- there's a scene where a guy basically talks for 50 pages, explaining to you what you've just been reading because it's so tied up.

L.A. Confidential doesn't have that. The book -- the novel actually has more of it than the film. The film trims it back and actually in that respect I think makes it more manageable and it flies by in a really good way. I mean, I happen to know that Ellroy genuinely does like the adaptation of this film.

And I think he can see that what has been done is someone has taken a very, very, very complicated novel and managed to keep the major through-lines going and make it somehow pay off, while keeping the integrity of that weird kind of gleefully amoral Ellroy vision of the world, which is something that you, you know, very seldom get, I think, in films anymore.

GROSS: Well John, thanks for talking with us, and the movie we've talking about is L.A. Confidential. John Powers is FRESH AIR's film critic and film critic for Vogue magazine. Thanks, John.

POWERS: Sure thing.

GROSS: Well here's a scene from "L.A. Confidential." Kevin Spacey plays Jack Vincenze, a cop who consults to "Badge of Honor," a TV show like "Dragnet." He's dancing at a wrap party for the show. Later in the scene, you'll hear Danny DeVito as Sid Hutchins (ph), a scandal sheet reporter in cahoots with Vincenze.


KEVIN SPACEY, ACTOR: I'm the technical adviser. I teach Brad Chase how to walk and talk like a cop.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: Brad Chase doesn't walk and talk like you.

SPACEY: Well, that's 'cause he's the television version. America isn't ready for the real me.

ACTRESS: Is it true you're the one who arrested Bob Mitchum?

SPACEY: Mm-hmm.

ACTRESS: These badge-of-honor guys like to pretend, but being the real thing must be a thrill.

SPACEY: Why don't you and I go someplace quiet, 'cause I'd love to give you the low-down on Mitchum?



DEVITO: May I have this dance?

SPACEY: Of course. Karen, this is Sid Hutchins from Hush, Hush magazine.

DEVITO: Hello, Karen.

ACTRESS: Hello yourself.


SPACEY: What's that about?

DEVITO: We did a piece last year -- "Ingenue Dykes in Hollywood" -- her name got mentioned.

Hey Jackie boy, friend of mine just saw some reefer to Matt Reynolds (ph). He's tripping the light fantastic with Tammy Jordan (ph).

ACTRESS: Hi, Jack.

SPACEY: Sorry, I lost you for a second, Sid.

DEVITO: Contract players, Metro. You pinch him, I do you up a nice feature next issue, plus usual 50 cash.

SPACEY: No, I need another 50: two 20s for two patrolmen, and a dime for the watch commander at Hollywood station.

DEVITO: Jackie, it's Christmas.

SPACEY: No, it's not. It's felony possession of marijuana.

DEVITO: Actually, it's circulation 36,000 and climbing. There's no telling where this is gonna go -- radio, television. Once you whet the public's appetite for the truth, the sky is the limit.

GROSS: Coming up, we meet the director of L.A. Confidential, and one of its stars, Russell Crowe.

This is FRESH AIR.

My guest is the director of L.A. Confidential, Curtis Hansen. His previous two films were big hits, the thriller "The River Wild" with Meryl Streep and Kevin Bacon; and the suspense film "The Hand That Rocks The Cradle."

Hansen also co-wrote and co-produced L.A. Confidential with Brian Helgoland (ph). I asked Hansen why he wanted to make L.A. Confidential and how he first came across the story.

CURTIS HANSEN, DIRECTOR, "L.A. CONFIDENTIAL": Well, it all started with the book. I read James Ellroy's novel, for pleasure, about four years ago. And I read it not looking for a movie, but just because I'd read half a dozen of his other books and thoroughly enjoyed them because I think Ellroy is a unique voice in contemporary fiction.

What happened with L.A. Confidential, and what I was not prepared for, quite frankly, was the degree to which I got emotionally involved with the characters. And involved in a rather complex and surprising way, because when I met each of the major characters, I didn't like them.

But as I kept going, I got emotionally involved and ultimately really began to care about each and every one of them and their personal struggles. And the more I thought about it, I just thought if I could capture this experience for a movie-going audience, I would have a unique movie.

GROSS: Now, had a studio already bought the rights to the movie, or did you take the idea to a studio?

HANSEN: Well, a little bit of both. What I -- my first thought was to option the book and try and figure out the screenplay over whatever period of time it might take, because Ellroy does not write books that are blueprints for movies. They're very dense, complicated, intricately-structured -- which is why they're such rich reading experiences.

And it was in investigating the rights that I discovered that David Wolper had bought the rights three, I think, three and a half years before, and had set it up at Warner Brothers. So I went out and met with David and the people at Warner Brothers and in essence offered to take over the project, 'cause it had been sitting there for several years.

GROSS: Now I understand that after working on the screenplay for about a year, you put together a collection of about 15 photos that would give the producers and the actors a sense of what you were trying to do with the movie, and the look and feel you wanted it to have. What were those photos?

HANSEN: What they were, and one of them in fact is the first shot of the movie -- it's a vintage postcard of Los Angeles with the lettering, you know, in that typical old-fashioned style. And within the letters, you see these wonderful images of sort of the utopia; utopia in the sun, Los Angeles as it was -- you know, the orange groves and the beaches and so forth.

And there were three or four shots that conveyed the image of Los Angeles as it existed before World War II. Then I had a particularly salacious cover of "Confidential" magazine, and as I would go through these photos, I'd get to that cover and I'd say, OK, that's the image of Los Angeles that's being sold to get people and businesses to come here. Now, we're going to peel that image back in the same way that Confidential magazine did and get down to where our characters live.

And then I had a few sort of Ouji-esque (ph) photos of crime scenes in Los Angeles.

GROSS: "Ouji" being a famous crime photographer?

HANSEN: Exactly. They were not, in fact, Ouji photos, but they were of that type.

And some shots of a couple of musicians -- Jerry Mulligan (ph) and Chet Baker (ph); and some publicity shots of actors, not from films, but just sort of relaxing, who I felt represented what the characters should look like.

And the point being, as I explained these, I said look at how Chet Baker's dressed, for example. It's hip still. It's contemporary. I mean, he's been used in contemporary clothing ads. And by the way, these guys will be providing some of the music in the movie.

And I had this shot of Aldo Rey, an actor from the early '50s, and relaxing at the beach. And I said: "this is what Bud White would look like." And then there was a shot of another actor named Guy Madison, who was looking very preppy and wearing glasses, and I said: "this is what Ed Exley would look like."

And another man dressed to the nines and, again, in clothes that not only would we sort of, in the audience, look at and say "that looks good," but in fact we'd want to wear them. I said "this is what Jack Vincenze, the character that Kevin Spacey plays in the movie, would look like."

And the great lesson that I learned as a director is that by being this specific with my collaborators was that rather than inhibiting their creativity, it actually freed them up to be more creative, because they were able to move forward with confidence, knowing that we were all moving in the same direction.

GROSS: What are some of the things that you've seen in period films that you wanted to avoid?

HANSEN: I didn't want this to be a picture that was an homage to a style of another era. I wanted -- my number one directive to my collaborators, and the point of these photos was: let's create the world of L.A. Confidential, Los Angeles, 1953. Let's pay great attention to the detail, but then let's shoot it as though we don't care about the detail. Let's shoot it as though it's a contemporary movie, so that the characters are in the foreground and their emotions are in the foreground.

So my film references were more what I wanted to avoid, rather than what I wanted to do. And of course, Dante (ph), being a cameraman, was just all over that. He got what I was saying immediately and it -- and he took it one step further, which was he found the key to the lighting in that example, which was that L.A. Confidential would be lit in a naturalistic way, which -- where the audience is aware of the source light -- where the light is coming from in each scene; which is sort of diametrically opposed to the way classic film noir is lit, with these, you know, highly-stylized black and white; with the vivid dark shadows that bisect the screen and so forth.

GROSS: It's a really interesting period in Los Angeles history that the movie is set in. It's a period when, you know, there's a show like Dragnet that's imitating the cops. Whereas, you know, the cops in L.A. Confidential want the heroism and celebrity of the TV stars, and the politicians are tied into some of the corrupt parts of Hollywood; the tabloids are covering it all. Everything as depicted in the movie is corrupt in this part of Los Angeles.

You grew up in Los Angeles in the '50s, didn't you?

HANSEN: Yes, I grew up in Los Angeles, as in fact did both my parents. I mean, Terry, that's the fascinating thing about Los Angeles in the early '50s. So much of what was beginning in Los Angeles at that time, in that period of optimism and economic growth after World War II, is still with us today, for better or for worse.

You know, television as this powerful image making machine, that was used in a very deliberate way by the LAPD to sort of sell the image of this new police force that had been reworked into a military model, based on the Marine Corps in World War II. And the result was a police force that would -- had -- was empowered in a way that no force ever was before because -- because of that TV image, they felt they could do no wrong and in fact the public felt they could do no wrong.

And the birth of modern tabloid journalism as we know it -- Danny DeVito in the movie plays the editor of Hush, Hush magazine, who is our -- the equivalent of our, let us say, Confidential magazine. And as he says at the beginning of the movie: "radio, television -- once you whet the public's appetite for the truth, the sky's the limit."

Well, that's where we're living today.

GROSS: Right. It's funny how timely in its own way this 1953-era movie is, 'cause you've got the beginning of the tabloids; you've got corruption in the L.A. police force; and brutality in the L.A. police force.

Did you expect to be making that kind of -- with the L.A. police force, I'm sure, about the time you decided to do this movie, there was already a lot of investigation into the police force. It was post-Rodney King probably.

HANSEN: Well, yes, of course, the book was pre-Rodney King, obviously.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

HANSEN: Brian and I started working on the script post-Rodney King, but pre-OJ. And in fact, you know, one of the cards that we got in one of our first research screenings that I found very gratifying was somebody had scribbled on the back of the card: "are we supposed to think of Ed Exley" -- the character that Guy Pierce (ph) plays -- "as being a young Darryl Gates?"

That's the kind of question that you want people asking, because they're taking what they see in the movie and projecting it to the life that we all live with.

GROSS: Another really potent idea in the movie is that there's this ring of prostitutes who, with the help of plastic surgery, are made up to look like Hollywood movie stars. Kim Basinger plays the prostitute who's made up to look like Veronica Lake. And that whole idea that sex will be even more exciting if the person looks like a Hollywood movie star, so we'll just, like, make the prostitutes into those -- that's just really a very interesting one.

Tell me what spoke to you about that idea?

HANSEN: Well first of all, for me what the overall theme of the movie, and it's a theme that I've dealt with a little bit in other movies, but this is the first time I've been able to deal with it as fully. And also, in Los Angeles -- the city of manufactured illusion -- is the difference between image and reality; the difference between how things appear and how they really are, and of course the Kim Basinger character sort of sums that up for the audience because she looks like Veronica Lake, but in fact, you know, is something else quite different.

You know, the -- interestingly enough, that idea of prostitutes that look like movie stars is based on fact. One of the -- what I've always found interesting about Ellroy's technique is that he takes things that are true, such as that, such as Mickey Cohen, Johnny Stompanato. The major sequence in the beginning of the movie that's called "bloody Christmas," where the policemen sort of riot and beat up some Mexican prisoners -- that's all based on things that actually happened in Los Angeles at the time.

And then, of course, we spin off into our tale.

GROSS: Curtis Hansen directed L.A. Confidential which opens tomorrow. He'll be back with Russell Crowe, one of the film's stars, in the second half of the show.

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Back with Curtis Hansen, director of the new film "L.A. Confidential" which opens tomorrow. In a couple of minutes, we'll meet Russell Crowe, who plays one of the three cops the story is built around -- Bud White, the cop who doesn't think of himself as very bright, but knows how to work over suspects to get information.

Crowe was born in New Zealand and raised in Australia where he still lives. He made his American debut in the film "The Quick and the Dead" starring opposite Sharon Stone. He played a neo-Nazi in "Romper Stomper," a gay son "The Sum of Us," (ph) and co-starred with Denzel Washington in "Virtuosity."

Before we meet Crowe, let's hear about how Hansen chose the film's stars.

I'm interested in your approach to casting in this movie. I really like the actors in it quite a bit. And I mean, two of the stars in it are not Hollywood movie stars. In fact, two of them are from Australia, Russell Crowe and Guy Pierce. Russell Crowe is better known in America than Guy Pierce is, but neither of them are that high-profile yet.

Of course, Kevin Spacey is the third cop who the story is built around. But you know, I would have thought that given that this is not a cheap film, that a studio would have said, well, you have to get Tom Cruise or you know, some, like, big name; Dustin Hoffman has to be in this.

HANSEN: Terry, when I first went through those 15 photographs with Arnan Milshawn (ph), whose company financed the picture, I explained to him that my hope would be to cast actors in this picture with whom the audience did not already have a long-standing emotional history, because as I said at the beginning, what I was hoping to do was give the audience that experience I had when I was reading Ellroy's novel, which was to discover the characters as they go along -- as the story goes along -- and to not know who they like; who they don't like; or who, in fact, is going to live or who's going to die.

The fact that Russell Crowe and Guy Pierce both come from down under is complete coincidence. Russell is an actor that I knew from a picture called Romper Stomper, and I knew from that that he could play the brutal side of Bud White. What I didn't know is if he could play the whole character. So I flew him over and met with him, worked with him, and ultimately put him on tape doing a couple of scenes. And it was just unmistakable that he had the goods to be the perfect Bud White.

Guy Pierce, by contrast, it's kind of a Cinderella story. I didn't know who he was. I met him on a day when I was seeing actors every 15 minutes. He came in. I was aware from just saying hello to him that he had an accent. He sat down and he gave a dynamite reading. And I brought him back and again, worked with him and then put him on tape.

And the signing of Guy Pierce and Russell Crowe, which was the kick-off of making this movie -- that's when we got the green light -- was really the key, to me, because I knew then that I was empowered to follow through and make the movie that I wanted to right down to the picking of every song.

GROSS: Well, this seems like a perfect time to introduce one of the film's stars, Russell Crowe -- and Russell Crowe, welcome to FRESH AIR.

What's your take on the cop that you play? How would you describe him?

RUSSELL CROWE, ACTOR, STAR OF "L.A. CONFIDENTIAL": Bud White is a very basic meat and potatoes, blue collar kind of guy, you know. He sees things in a very clear cut manner. He knows or believes that he knows the difference between right and wrong. And even though when I first read the script, I saw him as an extremely immoral man, using his badge and authority for his own ends. After a while, and having read the book, I began to see it from the other way around. I saw him as a very strong moral center who has a great belief in the things that are important to him, you know. And he will fight and die for those and what he believes in.

GROSS: I think that this is the kind of part where a lot of who the character is is just kind of projected by him and isn't necessarily registered through the dialogue; through the words on the page. And I think there's something you bring to the role -- a kind of sensitivity beneath the brutality -- that is conveyed very well by your face or expression; your body. And I was wondering if you could describe a little bit what -- what you thought about there in terms of the just physical presence of the character and what that needed to be.

CROWE: Well, we had very long discussions, me and Curtis, about who he was. And at first, I was a little scared and freaked out because in the book, Bud White is described as the largest man in the Los Angeles Police Department.

GROSS: Which you are not at all -- that large.

CROWE: No, no.


CROWE: No. That's why I rang Curtis and said: "I don't know what you've seen. It must be smoke and mirrors because I ain't that big.


CROWE: But you know, we did a certain amount of physical work in terms of like, you know, large weights and stuff, you know. But I didn't want the guy to be (unintelligible) 'cause it's 1953, and just the way he lived his life and what he eats and all that sort of stuff. He just wouldn't be that kind of physical presence, you know.

But there's a sort of thing that happens when you're playing this kind of role. If it's on the page, it's very easy to fulfill it, you know. Sometimes, you're asked to take a huge leap from what's on the page and what's actually, you know, expected. But this was a really good script and that's where it starts from when you're an actor.

GROSS: Curtis Hansen, you said something very interesting, and I think it was a New York Times article, about how people looked different in the '50s. Bodies weren't aerobicized the way they are today and actors didn't have those, like, rippling, sculpted muscles the way they do today. So I'd like to hear from each of you how that affected the movie -- Curtis Hansen, in your casting; Russell Crowe in the way you carried yourself.

HANSEN: Well, Terry, that was part of the, you know, challenge of casting this picture -- in which there are 80 speaking parts -- was to try and get the look of that period. I had the, you know, great good fortune of working with Mally Finn (ph), who's just an extremely dedicated and tenacious casting director.

And the goal was to find men that looked like that World War II veteran five, eight years later, who has not gone soft exactly, but in that time when men drank hard, smoked hard, and ate lots of meat and never thought about going to the gym and -- or, you know, working out.

CROWE: Oh, you mean I was typecast?


GROSS: Russell Crowe, do you have those rippling muscles?

CROWE: I think it's just dependent on the character. If it's important to the character, you know, to get to that level, then fine and dandy, you know. But it's based on the character and whether you're playing an anally-retentive Welsh-Baptist virgin or whether you're playing a, you know, meat and potatoes tank of a man like Bud White. You've gotta fulfill who it is that you're playing, you know. And if it's a requirement that this guy, as part of his life or whatever, you know, dictates that he's gonna be very physically fit, then you go that way, you know.

I think as a young actor, once you've been exposed to the performance of a DeNiro in "Raging Bull," you realize that we're beyond any very simple explanation like "method" or whatever of what you do. It's about immersion in the character, you know. And as Curtis will attest, you know one of the things that we did on this movie is James Ellroy and Curtis came up with the fact that Bud White wouldn't be a beer drinker so for five months, I didn't have a beer. And that, for a young Australian, was absolutely torture.

GROSS: How did you decide that this character wouldn't drink beer?

CROWE: Well, James had this thing going on that Bud White's colleagues drank beer, and he didn't want to be -- didn't want to turn out like them, you know. So even though he's a very basic kind of working class guy in that time period, and it would seem that beer would be his thing, he didn't -- he's not the kind of guy who'd spend three or four hours shooting the breeze after work, you know, just talking about rubbish like his colleagues do.

So, you know, he's got another agenda, you know. After his normal shift, he's still got things he pursues in terms of being a policeman. So James came up with this thing that Bud White drinks only single malt scotch straight, and that was part of Curtis and Brian's script as well, you know.

And the one time you actually do see him ask for a drink, it's when he's doing the first interrogation scene with Lynn Margaret Bracken (ph), and he doesn't take a single sip from the glass because he only asked for the drink to relax her. That's an interrogation technique. And all the cops that see the film go: "hey, man, you was trying to get her to relax. OK, yeah -- this guy's smarter than you might think he was."


GROSS: We're going to actually play an excerpt of that scene, and this is the scene where Russell Crowe's character, a cop, goes to the house of a prostitute who is a Veronica Lake look alike, played by Kim Basinger. And this is an excerpt of their first encounter together.


KIM BASINGER, ACTRESS, AS PROSTITUTE: There's blood on your shirt. Is that an integral part of your job?


BASINGER: Do you enjoy it?

CROWE: When they deserve it.

BASINGER: Did they deserve it today?

CROWE: I'm not sure.

BASINGER: But you did it anyway.

CROWE: Yeah. Just like the half-dozen guys you screwed today.

BASINGER: Well, actually, it was only two. You're different, Officer White. You're the first man in five years who didn't tell me I look Veronica Lake inside of a minute.

CROWE: You look better than Veronica Lake. Pierce (ph) patch it?

BASINGER: He takes a cut of our earnings and invests it for us; doesn't let us use narcotics and he doesn't abuse us. Can your policeman's mentality grasp those contradictions?

CROWE: He had you cut to look like Veronica Lake.

BASINGER: No. I'm really a brunette, but the rest is me. And that's all the news that's fit to print. Nice meeting you, officer.


CROWE: I'd like to see you again.

BASINGER: Are you asking me for a date or an appointment?

CROWE: Well...

BASINGER: If you're asking me for a date, I should know your first name.

CROWE: Forget I asked. It was a mistake.

GROSS: Curtis Hansen, how did you cast Kim Basinger opposite Russell Crowe? Did you have them do an audition together?

HANSEN: No. I met Kim actually at the "Formosa," which is the setting of a couple of key scenes in the movie. And with Kim, as with Kevin Spacey and you know, each of my main collaborators, I sat down and went through those 15 photographs, and sort of described the movie that I hoped to make.

And more or less just told her that she was in the picture, because my feeling was that Kim would not only be able to pull off the Veronica Lake look alike aspect, but that Kim, more than most anybody, would recognize that that Veronica Lake image -- the long blonde hair over the eye -- that that powerful image was both an asset and a trap. You know, it's all we remember, really, of Veronica Lake.

And I thought that Kim would be anxious to play the woman behind that image. What I wasn't prepared for, quite frankly, was the degree to which she came forward as an actress, and again this gets into the difference between image and reality. I didn't know Kim. I only knew her sort of by reputation. And I wasn't prepared for the degree to which she came forward as an actress and literally placed herself in my hands with an unbelievable amount of trust and courage.

GROSS: It's so hard for actresses who are no longer ingenues to get a role, and I think that the fact that she is a mature woman enables her to portray the kind of cynicism that she gets across in the movie. I think it adds depth to the character.

HANSEN: Well, Terry, I do too, although I wouldn't actually have used the word "cynicism." I think Kim Basinger's part, which is not the biggest part in the movie, but I feel it is the emotional anchor of the movie. She is the one character that knows the truth about herself, and you know, she knows that she is selling this image -- that that's how she makes her living.

Whereas the other characters are sort of struggling with themselves. She knows the truth about herself and she sees the truth in others. And she has arrived at this point not because she was, let us say, the brightest person that ever walked, but she has arrived there by the journey that she has gone through.

And there is a spareness and a simplicity and a truth to her performance that I think comes from the fact that she brings a sort of -- the wisdom of years of experience as a woman -- the character, I'm talking about.

GROSS: And so you wanted an actress mature enough to bring that to the role.

HANSEN: Well, I felt that she would bring that to the role. And you know, personally I am tired of the sort of cliche in movies of always seeing older men with much younger women. I thought, you know, rather than working against us, doing something different would actually work for us in this picture.

CROWE: There's a balance also in the performance that Kim brings. I think later in the movie, there's a line she does with Guy Pierce, you know, when he walks into the West Hollywood station and says: "are you OK?" And she looks up and says: "are you OK?" You know? There's a kind of a -- there's some years there, you know what I mean?

HANSEN: She can take care of herself.

CROWE: Absolutely. Yeah. She's an independent individual. She does this for a job, you know.

GROSS: My guests are Curtis Hansen, director of L.A. Confidential and Russell Crowe, one of the film's stars. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

Back with Curtis Hansen, director of L.A. Confidential, and Russell Crowe, one of the film's stars.

Russell Crowe, I know Curtis Hansen brought in the two Australian actors to the states to Los Angeles I guess about eight weeks before the shoot. What did you do during those eight weeks to get a sense of Los Angeles and the police and the period that you were supposed to evoke?

CROWE: Well, having that length of time was a luxury, you know, because normally, you know, it's kind of like: "all right, you're playing a figure from history. You're on in five."

But having two months was fantastic because it allowed us to kind of really, really get steeped in the characters. We watched a lot of old movies. Curtis happens to be a cineast of the highest order. And he introduced me to some fantastic films, like "In A Lonely Place," the Bogart movie; "Private Hell 36," (ph) Don Segal's (ph) film; and Kubrick's second feature, "The Killing" with Sterling Hayward -- Hayden.

And apart from that, a lot of reading of books. You know, there's a lot of books available. The LAPD, being at the -- in the city that is the center of the film industry, they're very used to having a spotlight on them, you know. And so they've been using film as a medium to promote themselves and to teach their new recruits since the '40s.

So, we had access to that. We saw a lot of documentary footage. There's a particular book called "The History of the LAPD" by Joe Dominick (ph) which was a very interesting read. Also looked at the testimony of Mark Fuhrman in the OJ trial and also of Stacy Kuhn (ph) in the Rodney King trial, 'cause I felt that if there was a seed of the abuse of authority was planted with Bud White, then maybe that was the unfortunate fruit of that.

So that was also a very interesting aspect. Of course, there was a lot of dialect work. I worked with this young lady called Jessica Drake (ph), and a lot of people don't believe it, but there is a Los Angeles accent, and that was what we were aiming to nail with Bud.

The research period of time -- we also traveled with contemporary serving policemen, you know, which was only helpful to a certain degree because so many things have changed. In 1953, the available weaponry was totally different, you know. You had the .38 caliber two-inch, four-inch, and six-inch barrel Colt and Smith & Wesson. You had to supply your own weapon. That's changed. The radio calls have changed. The precincts have been redrawn. So -- and also there's no Miranda rights.

So you had a totally different attitude from the community to the police as well.

GROSS: OK, one last question. That has to do with the soundtrack. And I have to say, this is a -- I think one of the great soundtracks in the recent...


GROSS: ... past because you've chosen great records for this, including a couple, you know, a Chet Baker vocal, a couple of Betty Hutton track, a Dean Martin, a couple of Lee Wiley tracks. And I was so surprised and delighted to see Lee Wiley represented on the soundtrack of the film. She's a wonderful singer who started her career, I think, in the '30s.


GROSS: And, well maybe in the late '20s.

HANSEN: She was actually the first -- she was actually the first, Terry, to do the so-called "songbooks" of composers.

GROSS: Right. Gershwin and Cole Porter.


GROSS: And maybe Harold Arlen, too. Anyways, I -- before we end with a Lee Wiley song, I want to ask you, Curtis Hansen, why you made sure that a couple of her 1950s recordings were represented in your movie? What does she convey to you that you wanted in there?

HANSEN: Well, she's very much a personal favorite of mine, and so I took the opportunity to include her, both for storytelling reasons and also to expose the audience to her. It's all storytelling to me, Terry, and I took the opportunity in selecting these songs to help tell the story and illustrate the theme of the movie, and also to help delineate the themes of the individual characters.

When I met Kevin Spacey for the first time and handed him the script, I said: "I want you to think of two words when you read this: Dean Martin." And he immediately got what I was talking about. He said: "you mean, the cool guy we wanted to be when we grew up?"

And he just, you know, took that and ran with it. And to sort of help set the tone of that, I used two Dean Martin tracks at pivotal scenes that Kevin Spacey is in. And each song is picked with something like that in mind.

And Lee Wiley, you know, she does these two songs, "Here's Looking At You" and then "Oh, Look At Me Now," and again, it gets back to the theme of this picture -- the difference between how things appear or look and how they really are.

GROSS: Curtis Hansen directed L.A. Confidential. Russell Crowe stars in it. The film opens tomorrow.

Here's Lee Wiley singing "Looking At You."


LEE WILEY, SINGER, SINGING: Looking at you, my troubles are fleeing
I'm admiring the view 'cause it's you I'm seeing
The sweet honey dew of well-being settles upon me

Life seemed so grave, I wanted to end it
'Til that wonderful day, you started to mend it
And if you'll only stay, then I spend it looking at you

GROSS: Coming up, a new CD by pianist Jessica Williams.

This is FRESH AIR.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Curtis Hansen; Russell Crowe
High: Director Curtis Hansen and actor Russell Crowe from the new film "L.A. Confidential" which is adapted from the 1990 novel by James Ellroy. James Ellroy is a previous FRESH AIR guest whose memoir "My Dark Places" was about his mother's murder in L.A. in 1958. The film, which has received a lot of attention at film festivals, including Cannes and Toronto, is about corruption and retribution in L.A. in the 1950s and '60s.
Spec: Movie Industry; L.A. Confidential; Books; Authors; James Ellroy
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1997 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1997 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: L.A. Confidential
Date: SEPTEMBER 18, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 091802NP.217
Head: Higher Standards
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:55

TERRY GROSS, HOST: We often play music by pianist Jessica Williams in between segments on our show. She comes from Baltimore, but has spent 20 years or more on the West Coast, based in San Francisco, Sacramento, and Portland. She's been making records for the last 20 years, too, and played a lot of nightclub gigs.

On a recent CD, she revisits some tunes she's played along the way. Our jazz critic Kevin Whitehead has a review.


KEVIN WHITEHEAD, FRESH AIR COMMENTATOR: Pianist Jessica Williams playing Cole Porter's "Get Out of Town."

On her recent album "Higher Standards" from the Candid label, Williams tackles a bunch of old tunes she knows very well, including jazz chestnuts like Dizzy Gillespie's "A Night In Tunisia" and Ellington's "Solitude." Oddly enough, playing a familiar tune can make improvising jazz that much harder. It can be difficult to find something you haven't played before, or worse, that your audience hasn't heard over and over.

One way Jessica Williams sidesteps that problem is by approaching tunes from left field, like playing Solitude at a bouncy tempo better suited to Ellington's theme "Take the 'A' Train." In fact, she alludes to that tune so often, you can almost forget what song she is playing.

It's a nice tease. Here's Solitude.


WHITEHEAD: Jessica Williams' version of Kurt Weill's (ph) "Mack the Knife" grows like a tree from a simple rhythmic figure. That figure itself is based on the timing of the first three notes in the melody, each a little shorter than the last.

She ties that motif to one of her pet tactics: reaching under the piano's hood to dampen a string with one hand, while striking its corresponding key with the other. That gives off a clipped, percussive sound she uses as a unifying hook.


WHITEHEAD: The playful quality in this music is what really draws me in. Williams is having such a good time, you don't even mind she gives little room to her fine rhythm section, drummer Mel Brown (ph), and bassist Dave Captine (ph). The danger with playful music is that she'll get too giddy with invention and nothing can wear you down faster than a certain kind of enthusiasm.

But she's smart enough to calm down once in a while, stretching out the melody of the ballad "Midnight Sun" longer than Henry James can stretch a sentence. Jessica Williams comes off as a piano player ready for anything and eager to get to it. That kind of enthusiasm wears very well.

GROSS: Kevin Whitehead reviewed Higher Standards by pianist Jessica Williams on the Candid label.

Dateline: Kevin Whitehead; Terry Gross, Philadelphia
High: Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews "Higher Standards" by pianist Jessica Williams on the Candid label.
Spec: Music Industry; Jessica Williams; Higher Standards
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1997 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1997 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Higher Standards@
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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