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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”