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L.A. Beyond Your Wildest Nightmare

James Ellroy chronicled a sleazy post-war Los Angeles in four bestsellers. Is he Hollywood's next king of noir?

September 07, 1997|John Milward | John Milward is a writer living in Woodstock, N.Y

NEW YORK — James Ellroy, who enjoys being known as the Demon Dog of crime fiction, wears his Cameron kilt for only the most significant black-tie occasions. So far, there have been two: his 1991 marriage to Helen Knode and the world premiere in May of "L.A. Confidential" at this year's Cannes Film Festival. Reviews of the movie were sensational; opinions of how Ellroy carries a kilt were mixed.

"Let's just say that he's brave," suggested Curtis Hanson, director of "L.A. Confidential," "and that his legs are strong and hairy."

"He looked like an idiot," offered the less politic Brian Helgeland, who collaborated with Hanson on the "L.A. Confidential" script, "but I think the real reason he wore the kilt was so that when people would ask, 'Where's Ellroy?' he'd be easy to point out."

Ellroy's never been known to be a wallflower, but with "L.A. Confidential" set to open on Sept. 19, the teenage delinquent who used to break into Hancock Park homes and steal the underpants of girls who thought he was creepy has become one of Hollywood's literary lions. All but one of his 13 hard-boiled books had been optioned for the movies before Cannes, as have short stories like "Dick Contino's Blues" and "Gravy Train." Ellroy was himself hired to write the script for "White Jazz," the last of what he calls his L.A. Quartet, a sprawling series of noir novels about bad cops and nominally worse robbers that also includes "The Black Dahlia," "The Big Nowhere" and "L.A. Confidential."

"What's amazing to me," said Ellroy during a June trip to Manhattan from his home outside Kansas City (he and his wife moved there to be closer to her mother), "is that 'L.A. Confidential' was so successfully adapted, because with the exception of 'American Tabloid,' it's probably my most uncontainable, incompressible and movie-adaptation-proof novel." (HBO is taking a whack at 1995's "American Tabloid," in which Ellroy abandons L.A. cops and criminals for an equally seamy national tapestry that includes such real-life figures as President John F. Kennedy, J. Edgar Hoover, Jimmy Hoffa and Howard Hughes. "American Tabloid," which ends with Kennedy's assassination, is the first of three books that Ellroy says will conclude with his take on the Watergate scandal.)

Ellroy is hardly a new name to Hollywood. His third novel, "Blood on the Moon," was made into a 1987 movie, "Cop," with James Woods. Ellroy's cult of fans mushroomed with the L.A. Quartet, but his books were also seen as problematic film material because of their convoluted plots, unsympathetic characters, wicked violence and period settings. Lately, Ellroy's mainstream profile has risen with "American Tabloid" and "My Dark Places," a memoir that details the murder of his mother when he was 10, and the 15 months the now 49-year-old novelist spent investigating the unsolved crime that had shaped the young life and unlikely adult redemption of Jean Ellroy's only child.

Still, it took the interest of director Curtis Hanson, fresh from the commercial success of "The Hand That Rocks the Cradle" and "The River Wild," to awaken interest in "L.A. Confidential," which had languished at Warner Bros. since 1989, where it was seen as a potential miniseries.

"It's like I was at the poker table and had won a few hands," explained Hanson, "and then pushed my chips into the middle and said, 'This is the hand I'm betting on.' "

Hanson, an L.A. native and a reader of crime fiction, was attracted to "L.A. Confidential" because "I couldn't get Ellroy's characters out of my mind--it was the characters more than the specifics of the plot that kept my interest. It also touched upon a theme that I've always enjoyed playing with: exploring the difference between how things appear and how they are. I've always wanted to make a movie about L.A. that dealt with the specific duality that goes with being the city that creates illusions."

Hanson cast two relatively unknown Australian actors (Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce) to join Kevin Spacey in playing the three cops whose individual stories propel the narrative of "L.A. Confidential." It's at this point that producer Arnon Milchan asked, "Are we going to have any stars in this movie?" Danny DeVito and Kim Basinger added some marquee value, with DeVito playing the crooked, camera-toting editor of a scandal sheet called Hush-Hush, and Basinger a call girl whose calling card is her resemblance to Veronica Lake.

Hanson and Helgeland's strategy in boiling down the large cast and multiple plot lines of Ellroy's novel was to focus on the book's three troubled cops. "Once we decided to follow these three characters with equal affection," said Hanson, "we said, 'All right, what scenes are most important to these guys and their individual stories; where are the scenes where they play off each other; and how can we bring their stories all together?' "

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