On his commentary for Boogie Nights, Paul Thomas Anderson spends a moment mentioning his influences. He acknowledges that his film is often compared to the work of Martin Scorsese and Robert Altman, and it's easy to see why -- it's got the energy and stylistic flash of Scorsese and the large ensemble/multiple story threads of an Altman film. But what PTA points out -- and what I had never thought about until he said it -- is that he thinks his biggest influence on that movie is Jonathan Demme.
If you've seen enough of Demme's movies, the comparison makes total sense. Like Demme, PTA gets great performances out of every one of his perfectly-cast actors. Like Demme, PTA loves every one of his characters. Like Demme, he finds the humanity in all of them, embracing their flaws and trying to understand what each of them wants now matter what it might be. Boogie Nights isn't about porn. It's about people trying to connect to other people. All of Demme's movies can say the same.
Like so many filmmakers who got their starts in the 1970s, Demme came up through Roger Corman, scripting a couple of exploitation quickies before being allowed to direct a few himself. He quickly graduated to making Jonathan Demme movies -- performance-based character studies about characters who either choose to or are forced to live outside mainstream society. Damme would alternate those movies with his other passions: documentaries and music films, and all three forms would continue to inform one another throughout his career.
If you're new to Jonathan Demme, these 10 movies would be a great place to start.
1. Caged Heat (1974) Demme's first feature was made for Roger Corman's New World Pictures, starting him down a path of making funky, offbeat movies with their own unique energy and a love of both his characters and the actors playing them. Getting his start in exploitation explains a lot of what makes Demme's movies tick, as he tends to sympathize with outsiders and then searches for the thing that makes them human -- we recognize ourselves in those we once thought unrecognizable. Caged Heat is a smarter, more political women-in-prison movie, especially for the era (era). It taught Hollywood and audiences a valuable lesson: don't ever underestimate Jonathan Demme.
Brian De Palma.
3. Melvin and Howard (1980) Here's where we get to see the real Jonathan Demme begin to emerge, as he moves away from genre (for a time) and towards a character piece that falls in love with its characters not just in spite of their flaws but because of them. It tells the supposedly true story of Melvin Dummar, a gas station owner in Utah, whose life is forever changed after meeting wealthy eccentric Howard Hughes (Jason Robards). The movie creates three great characters and showcases three great performances (the third is Mary Steenburgen as Melvin's life Lynda; she won an Oscar for her performance), which would become common practice for Demme's work. It would be so easy to tell this story in a way that mocks or look down upon these same characters, but Demme refuses to go that route. He's not capable of that kind of acidity. He cares too much.
5. Stop Making Sense (1984) Combining two of the director's biggest passions -- the music movie and the documentary -- Demme made what could be argued is the best concert film of all time with Stop Making Sense, covering three nights of the Talking Heads performing their Speaking in Tongues tour at the Pantages Theater in Hollywood. Despite being a concert film, you can still feel the filmmaker coming through in the movie's funky rhythms, in the way that it turns each of the band members into a character we get to know through the course of the film (even though there's never any backstage material or interview footage; it's the concert only), even in the way the movie celebrates diversity in a way that doesn't call attention to itself. Like with his narrative films, Demme's documentaries love his subjects.
7. Married to the Mob (1988) This one gets unfairly dismissed as just another wacky '80s comedy about gangsters. That's wrong. This is a great movie -- one that absolutely adores actors and gives every one of them a great part to play (and what a lineup of talent it has, including Michelle Pfeiffer in her first true starring role, Dean Stockwell, Matthew Modine, Oliver Platt, Alec Baldwin, Nancy Travis, Mercedes Ruehl and a number of familiar faces from Demme's repertory company including Charles Napier, Chris Isaak, Obba Bababtunde and Sister Carol). It's so easy to imagine the movie slipping away in the hands of a lesser filmmaker, becoming too broad, too disposable, pushing one angle too hard and throwing off the delicate balance that Demme achieves. We've seen so many crime (even "mob") comedies that just rely on cheap jokes and stereotypes, but Demme doesn't do that. The laughs come from the characters, not from an overly jokey script or forced physical comedy. Every character is taken seriously (or as seriously as they can be in a comedy), given something that they want or need. You'd be surprised how many films include a bunch of supporting characters —sometimes even the leads — with empty placeholders. Married to the Mob is the rare screwball farce that still takes the time to listen to and understand everyone in it. Even Matthew Modine is great in it.
9. Philadelphia (1993) The critical acclaim given to Demme after Lambs pigeonholed him for a time as a director of "important" movies, which is how we ended up with Philadelphia and Beloved in the '90s. That's not to take anything away from both movies, which have their strengths. Philadelphia, in particular, is a profoundly humanist film, one which treats a gay character as a person who happens to be gay -- as obvious as that sounds, it was practically unheard of when the movie was made in 1993. It's remembered for being "the AIDS movie," but Philadelphia is yet another great character piece about the ways that humans can treat (and mistreat) one another. This is also the movie that gave rise to Tom Hanks as a dramatic actor (he won his first of two consecutive Best Actor Oscars for his work), and is worth celebrating if for no other reason than that. Don't get caught up on the "message" part. Philadelphia is a beautiful movie about our basic need for love and dignity.