Those who watch a lot of movies but don’t pay attention to the credits might be surprised to learn that the person who made The Silence of the Lambs also made Melvin and Howard, or that the director of Something Wild is also the director of Philadelphia. Actually, Jonathan Demme made all these movies, as well as Stop Making Sense, Married to the Mob, Citizens Band and Rachel Getting Married. There’s a Demme for every occasion – only now, sadly, there’s no Demme. The director died on Wednesday morning, aged 73, in his Manhattan apartment, of complications from cancer and heart disease.
Demme began his film-making career with Roger Corman, the B-movie producer who launched, among others, Francis Ford Coppola, Peter Bogdanovich, Joe Dante, Ron Howard and Curtis Hanson in the movie business. Demme directed three films for Corman, including Caged Heat (1974), a women-in-prison film that’s considered something of an exploitation classic. “I’ve known a number of directors who’ve taken a job because it’s a little picture and said, well, I’ll just toss it off,” Corman said on the WTF With Marc Maron podcast earlier this year. “I’ve known other guys – and Demme is one of them – who, if I give a women’s prison picture, will say, ‘I will make the best women’s prison picture ever made.’”
His first non-Corman film was for Paramount, a 1977 Nebraska-set comedy called Citizens Band (retitled Handle with Care). Next up was Melvin and Howard, based on a true story about an unlikely beneficiary mentioned in Howard Hughes’ will. It was his first exceptional film, and Mary Steenburgen won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her portrayal of Melvin’s first wife, sparking the legend of Demme as a facilitator of Academy Award-winning (or just plain great) performances.
Demme followed this with a series of sparkling comedies: Swing Shift (1984), with Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn; Something Wild (1986), with Melanie Griffith and Jeff Bridges; and Married to the Mob (1988), with Michelle Pfeiffer. In each, you can see Demme’s ear for music, his knack for detail, and his genuine curiosity about all his characters, major and minor (in her review of Something Wild, critic Pauline Kael said: “I can’t think of any other director who is so instinctively and democratically interested in everybody he shows you.”) He ventures into non-fiction were just as remarkable: the fluid, inventive Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense (1984); Swimming to Cambodia (1987), built around Spalding Gray’s monologues; Cousin Bobby (1992), about his relative, a fiery Episcopalian minister.
Had Demme continued making his idiosyncratic mid-budget films into the ‘90s, how would history regard him? It’s worth noting that Demme’s next two films – both quite different from anything he’d done before – would be the ones he’d become widely associated with. First, there was the clinical brilliance of The Silence of the Lambs (1991), which won five Oscars: for film, director, actors (Anthony Hopkins, Jodie Foster) and adapted screenplay (Ted Tally). Two years later came the AIDS rights film Philadelphia, with yet another actor in a Demme film, Tom Hanks, going on to win an Oscar.
Over the next two-and-a-half decades, Demme made only six features, of which the spiky, intimate Rachel Getting Married is probably the best. He did direct a number of documentaries, many of them about music, including three with Neil Young. His influence runs deep; PT Anderson has cited him as one of his biggest stylistic influences, while Wes Anderson termed Demme’s trademark close-ups “the greatest”. Demme’s outlook was best summed up in a tribute by his friend and frequent collaborator, Talking Heads frontman David Byrne. “The fiction films, the music films and the docs are all filled with so much passion and love,” Byrne wrote on his website. “He often turned what would be a genre film into a very personal expression. His view of the world was open, warm, animated and energetic.”