Watch: Jonathan Demme, the Hollywood director who ‘could do anything’

Among other things, Jonathan Demme (1944-2017) directed ‘The Silence of the Lambs’, the Oscar winner that transcended its literary roots.

Jonathan Demme (February 22, 1944-April 26, 2017) has died at the age of 73 from cancer and heart disease. He meant different things to different people. He made documentaries on bands and singers (Talking Heads, Neil Young, Justin Timberlake) and music videos; he directed movies that carried his distinctive stamp (Something Wild, Rachel Getting Married); he made Oscar-winning features that continue to play on television (The Silence of the Lambs, Philadelphia); he laboured on Hollywood productions with mixed results (The Manchurian Candidate, Ricki and the Flash).

Over the years, Demme emerged as somebody who, in director Edgar Wright’s words, “could do anything”.

Demme was a movie critic before he cut his teeth on exploitation specialist Roger Corman’s productions. His debut was Caged Heat (1974), about a group of female prisoners who rise up against a cruel prison warden.

Caged Heat (1973).

Demme’s personal style emerged in Melvin and Howard (1980), a comedy about a man who claims he is the heir of eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes’s fortune. New York Times critic Vincent Canby said about the director, “Mr. Demme is a lyrical film maker for whom there is purpose in style. When, early in the film, the camera appears to loosen its moorings to float upwards to give a broad view of Melvin’s camper set in the middle of a junkyard, within a desolate desert landscape, the film is considering the nature of the fantasy even as it is relating it.”

Melvin and Howard (1980).

Stop Making Sense, a Talking Heads concert film made in 1984, inaugurated an abiding interest in music performances. Shot over three live shows, the documentary further endeared Demme to critics for his ability to capture the energy of the band’s performance. In an interview, Demme told LA Weekly about why he didn’t use any visual effects gimmicks in the documentary: “I thought that any special cinematic effects would intrude on the richness of the pure performance. Therefore I didn’t want to get into that, and didn’t.”

Stop Making Sense (1984).

Demme was on a roll in the 1980s. Something Wild (1986), starring Jeff Daniels, Ray Liotta, and Melanie Griffith in one of her finest performances, is a screwball comedy about the unusual relationship between a banker and a waitress with a violent boyfriend. The cameos include independent filmmakers John Sayles and John Waters.

Something Wild (1986).

Demme was renowned for giving Hollywood actresses meaty roles to explore their talent. Michelle Pfeiffer delivered one of her finest performances in Married to the Mob (1988), a comedy about a gangster’s widow who falls for a police officer assigned to investigate her (Mathew Modine).

Married to the Mob (1988).

In 1991 came the film that Demme is best known for: The Silence of the Lambs. Ted Tally’s adaptation of Thomas Harris’s bestseller of the same name has been beautifully filmed by Demme. The director’s stunning use of full-frame close-ups and rich colours and tones and unerring ability to create tension without sensationalising the lurid material resulted in Oscar wins in the top five categories, including best picture, best director, and best actress for Jodie Foster – a feat shared only by Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night (1934) and Milos Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975).

Among Demme’s contributions to the source novel is the suggestion that Federal Bureau of Investigation recruit Clarice Starling (Foster) shares sexual tension with her boss Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn), which develops as she tracks down a serial killer with the help of institutionalised psychopath and cannibal Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins). A video by Jacob T Swinney analyses the singular use of close-ups in Demme’s films, including in The Silence of the Lambs.

Jonathan Demme’s use of close-ups, by Jacob T Swinney.

Demme wooed the Oscar juries again with his next movie Philadelphia (1993), a rare mainstream Hollywood production that explores homosexuality and AIDS. Tom Hanks plays an HIV positive gay man who is sacked from his job and persuades a lawyer (Denzel Washington) to represent him in court.

Philadelphia (1993).

A string of lesser films followed, including remakes of Charade and The Manchurian Candidate. The Truth About Charlie (2002) was shafted by critics and flopped, while The Manchurian Candidate (2004) had its admirers, especially of Meryl Streep’s performance.

Demme continued to work in television and direct documentaries, including the concert film Neil Young: Heart of Gold (2006), Man From Plains (2007), about former American president Jimmy Carter’s book tour, and two more films on Young.

A late-career gem was Rachel Getting Married, written by director Sidney Lumet’s daughter Jenny Lumet. A portrait of a recovering drug addict (Anne Hathaway) who attends her sister’s Indian-themed wedding (the guests wear saris, there’s a powder blue elephant-shaped cake) while wrestling with her demons is shot in a documentary and improvisational style by Declan Quinn (who also lensed Monsoon Wedding, a clear influence). Rachel Getting Married was an arthouse hit and hailed as a return to form for Demme.

Rachel Getting Married (2008).

Demme’s last feature Ricki and the Flash (2015) reunited him with Meryl Streep and music. The drama stars Streep as an aging rock singer who tries to make amends for having neglected her children by attending her son’s wedding.

In 2016, Demme directed his final concert film Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids.

Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids (2016).

Demme is survived by three children and his second wife, Evelyn Purcell. His family asked that instead of flowers, mourners should send donations to the legal advocacy group Americans for Immigrant Justice.

Jodie Foster said in a statement to Entertainment Weekly, “I am heart-broken to lose a friend, a mentor, a guy so singular and dynamic you’d have to design a hurricane to contain him. Jonathan was as quirky as his comedies and as deep as his dramas. He was pure energy, the unstoppable cheerleader for anyone creative.”

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These emerging solutions are a fine balance between technology and the human touch.

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The evolving patient

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The need for such initiatives and the evolving nature of patient care were among the central themes of the recently concluded Abbott Hospital Leadership Summit. The speakers included pundits from marketing and customer relations along with leaders in the healthcare space.

Among them was the illustrious speaker Larry Hochman, a globally recognised name in customer service. According to Mr. Hochman, who has worked with British Airways and Air Miles, patients are rapidly evolving from passive recipients of treatment to active consumers who are evaluating their overall experience with a hospital on social media and creating a ‘word-of-mouth’ economy. He talks about this in the video below.


As the video says, with social media and other public platforms being available today to share experiences, hospitals need to ensure that every customer walks away with a good experience.

The promise gap

In his address, Mr. Hochman also spoke at length about the ‘promise gap’ — the difference between what a company promises to deliver and what it actually delivers. In the video given below, he explains the concept in detail. As the gap grows wider, the potential for customer dissatisfaction increases.


So how do hospitals differentiate themselves with this evolved set of customers? How do they ensure that the promise gap remains small? “You can create a unique value only through relationships, because that is something that is not manufactured. It is about people, it’s a human thing,” says Mr. Hochman in the video below.


As Mr. Hochman and others in the discussion panel point out, the key to delivering a good customer experience is to instil a culture of empathy and hospitality across the organisation. Whether it is small things like smiling at patients, educating them at every step about their illness or listening to them to understand their fears, every action needs to be geared towards making the customer feel that they made the correct decision by getting treated at that hospital. This is also why, Dr. Nandkumar Jairam, Chairman and Group Medical Director, Columbia Asia, talked about the need for hospitals to train and hire people with soft skills and qualities such as empathy and the ability to listen.

Striking the balance

Bridging the promise gap also involves a balance between technology and the human touch. Dr. Robert Pearl, Executive Director and CEO of The Permanente Medical Group, who also spoke at the event, wrote about the example of Dr. Devi Shetty’s Narayana Health Hospitals. He writes that their team of surgeons typically performs about 900 procedures a month which is equivalent to what most U.S. university hospitals do in a year. The hospitals employ cutting edge technology and other simple innovations to improve efficiency and patient care.

The insights gained from Narayana’s model show that while technology increases efficiency of processes, what really makes a difference to customers are the human touch-points. As Mr. Hochman says, “Human touch points matter more because there are less and less of them today and are therefore crucial to the whole customer experience.”


By putting customers at the core of their thinking, many hospitals have been able to apply innovative solutions to solve age old problems. For example, Max Healthcare, introduced paramedics on motorcycles to circumvent heavy traffic and respond faster to critical emergencies. While ambulances reach 30 minutes after a call, the motorcycles reach in just 17 minutes. In the first three months, two lives were saved because of this customer-centric innovation.

Hospitals are also looking at data and consumer research to identify consumer pain points. Rajit Mehta, the MD and CEO of Max Healthcare Institute, who was a panelist at the summit, spoke of the importance of data to understand patient needs. His organisation used consumer research to identify three critical areas that needed work - discharge and admission processes for IPD patients and wait-time for OPD patients. To improve wait-time, they incentivised people to book appointments online. They also installed digital kiosks where customers could punch in their details to get an appointment quickly.

These were just some of the insights on healthcare management gleaned from the Hospital Leadership Summit hosted by Abbott. In over 150 countries, Abbott is working with hospitals and healthcare professionals to improve the quality of health services.

To read more content on best practices for hospital leaders, visit Abbott’s Bringing Health to Life portal here.

This article was produced on behalf of Abbott by the marketing team and not by the editorial staff.