The story goes that George Clooney described his filmmaking style as “one for them, one for me,” and that ideology—acquiesce to a studio or mainstream gig, then go off and do your own passion project—has come up over and over again when we analyze the career paths of actors and directors. It’s a simplistic understanding of how Hollywood works, but as the industry has gotten more splintered, superhero-dominated, and stratified, the idea that you can only spend time doing high-brow, weird, or challenging stuff after you’ve paid your dues has become a recurring phenomenon. It’s not exactly fair, but what in Hollywood is? Clooney was an A-lister when he made that observation, and stars of similar caliber continue to live by it. In seven years, Steven Soderbergh made all three Ocean’s films and his Solaris remake starring Clooney, plus his two-part, nearly five-hour Che biopic with Benicio del Toro. George Miller helmed the Babe and Happy Feet franchises until he returned to Mad Max with Fury Road. Scarlett Johansson made the cerebral sci-fi Under the Skin in between stints as the Avengers’ Natasha Romanoff. Denzel Washington acquiesced to The Equalizer 2 before signing onto Joel Coen’s Macbeth. Unless you’re working entirely outside the studio system, or are the kind of celebrity who can command a payday of any size anywhere you go, this balance is the status quo. Everyone has to pay their bills, don’t they?
Few filmmakers have embodied this balance like John Lee Hancock, whose upcoming film The Little Things is the culmination of a 30-year passion project—the years of effort syncing up with how long Hancock has been in the business. If you only knew Hancock’s name from his family-friendly box office hits (The Blind Side, which made more than $300 million at the box office and secured Sandra Bullock an Academy Award for Best Actress; Saving Mr. Banks, which sanded the rougher, pushier edges off Walt Disney in his interactions with Mary Poppins author P. L. Travers), The Little Things seems like a hard swerve. How do you go from a feel-good story about a tough Southern mom guiding a wayward kid to football success, to a thriller about a serial killer murdering women in unspeakably terrible ways? It’s almost as weird as when Stephen Gaghan went from Traffic and Syriana to Dolittle. But looking over Hancock’s filmography will clarify how much a neo-noir like this is actually very much in his wheelhouse, and how indicative it is of the filmmaker’s approach to that “one for them, one for me” balance.
Set in 1990, The Little Things follows a former officer, Joe Deacon (Washington), and current detective, Jimmy Baxter (Rami Malek), who butt heads during their investigation of a serial killer in Los Angeles. Deacon left the LAPD contentiously and is haunted by the case he couldn’t solve, but when women start being killed again, he joins Baxter in an unofficial capacity to try and find their man. They become convinced that the slimy, obfuscating Albert Sparma (Jared Leto) is the killer, but the question of whether he’s legitimately guilty, or just playing games with Deacon and Baxter because he can, provides the cat-and-mouse tension of The Little Things. In a December 2020 interview with Dateline, Hancock shared that his script was first registered with the Writers Guild of America in 1993, the same year Clint Eastwood directed and starred in Hancock’s A Perfect World.
That film followed a Texas Ranger (Eastwood) pursuing an escaped convict (Kevin Costner) in order to save a child hostage (T. J. Lowther), and earned far more attention for Hancock than did Hard Time Romance, his little-seen 1991 filmmaking debut. Roger Ebert gave A Perfect World four out of four stars, praising its “elements of a crime genre picture, but the depth of thought and the freedom of movement of an art film.” For The New York Times, Janet Maslin called it “a rare high-powered Hollywood film that is actually about something” and praised Hancock’s “terse, colorful screenplay.” $130 million made on a $30 million budget wasn’t half-bad, either.
With the success of A Perfect World, Hancock stayed in the crime-genre lane: Four years later, he would team up with Eastwood again for a film adaptation of John Berendt’s nonfiction book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Set in Savannah, Ga., Berendt’s book tracked the trial of an absurdly wealthy antiques dealer who was charged with the murder of a male prostitute, and profiled the people involved based on Berendt’s interactions and interviews. Part true crime in the mode of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, part legalese a la John Grisham, and part sociological survey of the changing American South, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil sold millions of copies, spent months on The New York Times bestseller list, and substantially boosted Savannah’s tourism industry. The movie version was greatly anticipated, with John Cusack, Kevin Spacey, and Jude Law receiving top billing, but critical reaction was mixed. The lyricism of Berendt’s text and his insightful presentation of Savannah’s half-kooky, half-Southern Gothic appeal didn’t translate well onscreen, and in hindsight, Spacey’s casting as a closeted gay man prone to bursts of violence seems a little too close to reality.
Neither Clintwood nor Hancock escaped unscathed. Maslin—who had so previously praised Hancock for A Perfect World—in her New York Times review criticized how Eastwood had first read Hancock’s screenplay before reading Barendt’s book, and Ann Hornaday wrote for The Baltimore Sun that “John Lee Hancock has reduced Berendt’s beloved gaggle of local characters to a parade of stereotypes.” “The nuance of Berendt’s narrative … has also been sacrificed for easy watching,” Hornaday added in her review, and that idea of “easy watching” would define Hancock’s career for the next few years as he shifted away from crime and death. Perhaps part of this was caused by his failure in getting The Little Things off the ground: Eastwood, Steven Spielberg, Warren Beatty, and Danny DeVito all passed on directing, and the project languished. Remember: One for them, one for me.
So Hancock went where the jobs were. There was The Rookie, a G-rated Disney film about Major League Baseball pitcher Jim Morris that Hancock wrote and directed. The Wall Street Journal’s Joe Morgenstern said it was “right up there with the best,” praising its inspirational tone and big heart. In The New York Times, Peter M. Nichols praised its combination of “schmaltz and a serious, believable character” in Dennis Quaid’s depiction of Morris. Box office receipts were nearly four times its budget. And so when Hancock’s next big film, The Alamo, flopped both critically and commercially (the logline “You will never forget” was … unfortunate), he went back to what had worked: uplifting sentiment inching right up to corny treacle.
There’s a comforting quality to The Blind Side, Hancock’s adaptation of Michael Lewis’s book The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game, that made it such a smash hit. The film about aspiring football player Michael Oher’s (Quinton Aaron) relationship with adoptive parents Leigh Anne (Bullock) and Sean Tuohy (Tim McGraw) didn’t have the melancholy atmosphere of A Perfect World, or the smuttiness of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, or the historical experimentation of The Alamo—all qualities that made Hancock’s scripts unique. But it was the kind of story we like to repeat about America, about hard work, post-racial harmony, and sports as a great unifier, and Hancock told that story (inaccurate as it may be) well enough. Bullock left the 82nd Academy Awards with the Best Actress award; The Blind Side was also nominated for Best Picture.
Hancock was the focus of many a glowing profile. And the boost from that film allowed him the opportunity to revisit genres rather than moving on from them completely. In years to come, Hancock would try to redeem the failure of The Alamo with another Western, Netflix’s The Highwaymen, in which he reunited with A Perfect World’s Costner. He would consider the American Dream through Walt Disney in Saving Mr. Banks and Ray Kroc, self-proclaimed creator of McDonald’s, in The Founder. While the former had the same kind of gently benign vibe as The Rookie and The Blind Side, The Founder was an unabashedly critical portrait of the man who stole the fast-food concept from the McDonald brothers who pioneered it. And with The Little Things, Hancock is simultaneously returning to the crime genre from which he started and finally realizing a film that has been in the works for 30 years, the original “one for me.”
None of this is to say that we guarantee The Little Things will be a good movie—do not hold Crooked Marquee accountable for this! It is probably logical to reserve some healthy skepticism toward a script that was written 30 years ago! Hancock’s career is more interesting than you would expect from The Blind Side and Saving Mr. Banks alone, but a passion project gestating for that long could go either way! Putting The Little Things aside, though, tracking the ups and downs of Hancock’s career reminds us of the transactional nature of Hollywood, of the many genres and styles that directors and writers who aren’t given rarified auteur status are expected to master, and of the deep pragmatism needed to keep working in this industry. As Hancock said in that interview with Dateline, “I make the movies that get made,” and three decades later, The Little Things finally is. What “one for them” movie from Hancock will we get next?