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Jonathan Demme, Maverick Director in the Mainstream, Dies at 73

Picture of Graham Fuller
Film Editor
Updated: 27 April 2017
Vigor, mischief, and compassion for people—ordinary and extraordinary—characterized the bracing films of Jonathan Demme, one of the finest American directors of the ‘80s and early ‘90s.

The accolades currently pouring in for the director Jonathan Demme, who has at 73 died after suffering esophagal cancer, are front-loaded with references to Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia.

Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins in 'The Silence of the Lambs' | © Orion Pictures
Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs | © Orion Pictures

Those Oscar-winning mainstream triumphs warrant the acclaim they won for Demme: Silence primarily for the polite menace of Anthony Hopkins’s Hannibal Lecter and the psychological evolution of Jodie Foster’s Clarice Starling; Philadelphia for its timely orchestration of sympathy for Tom Hanks’s AIDs victim.

Indisputably, Silence is a towering sardonic thriller that the Alfred Hitchcock of the early 1960s would’ve been proud to make. If Philadelphia is a lesser achievement because of its sentimentality, it was still a film America needed.

Spalding Gray in 'Swimming to Cambodia' | © Cinecom Pictures
Spalding Gray in Swimming to Cambodia | © Cinecom Pictures

Yet Demme never quite embraced the role of a Hollywood hitmaker, as if he were wary of becoming a company man whose sharper edges would be blunted by success.

One of the producer-director Roger Corman’s protégés, Demme knew from early on that—necessity being the mother of invention—grandeur and grandiloquence were inessential elements of cinema. Demme’s indie film sensibility meant that his best narrative films were small, spare, and often strange investigations into shifting identities and life-changing experiences—hence, Crazy Mama, Citizens Band, Melvin and Howard, Who Am I This Time?, Swing Shift, Something Wild, Swimming to Cambodia, and Married to the Mob.

Michelle Pfeiffer and Dean Stockwell in 'Married to the Mob' | © Orion Pictures
Michelle Pfeiffer and Dean Stockwell in Married to the Mob | © Orion Pictures

Demme’s cinema has a palpable sense of an America emotionally abstracted from capitalism, exceptionalism, and control.

Of all the different movie versions of Howard Hughes, the grizzled motorcyclist played by Jason Robards—the one rescued by Melvin Dummar (Paul Le Mat)—is the most human, because it’s the least technocratic and obsessive. In Swimming to Cambodia, Spalding Gray finds himself most electrically alive amid the insanity of Roland Joffé’s Killing Fields set.

The women in these films are not so much liberated as wild, or ready to try wildness on. Demme lit fires under Melanie Griffith in Something Wild and Michelle Pfeiffer in Married to the Mob.

It’s unfashionable, I know, but I’d watch those two screwball wotsits rather than Silence of the Lambs any day. The ease with which Demme transforms Something Wild from a fish-out-of-water comedy into a vicious film noir made it a masterpiece of the late ’80s school of post-modern hinterland films Village Voice critics termed “Americanarama.”

Demme should have been awarded an Oscar just for getting Griffith to channel silent screen icon Louise Brooks’ flapper persona (though there are hints of Clara Bow and Tuesday Weld, too, in Griffiths’ Lulu).

Those films were made between 1975 and 1988. That was Demme’s golden period, in which he had no need to try something as unnecessary as his 2004 Manchurian Candidate remake, still less the likes of The Truth About Charlie or Rachel Getting Married.

His peak years also produced the Talking Heads documentary Stop Making Sense, perhaps the greatest single band-concert film of all. When pop video directors crossed into movies in the 1980s and 1990s, too often their inability to tell stories showed—you can’t hold an audience for 100 minutes with a facility for gaudiness. Like his peer Martin Scorsese, Demme went the other way, importing his muscular storytelling skills into music films.

He made vibrant videos for Bruce Springsteen, The Feelies, Suburban Lawns, and other—his “Perfect Kiss” video for New Order is their finest moment as a live combo on film. Demme was also an exemplary activist-documentarist.

Demme is survived by his wife, Joanne Howard, and their three children.