Yesterday it was announced that Jonathan Demme passed away at age 73. He was never quite a household name, but among movie fans he was a legend: a filmmaker who started out doing exploitation for Roger Corman before moving into ill-fated studio projects, documentaries and arguably the greatest concert movie ever made. Demme rediscovered his voice in the mid-'80s with a series of quirky dark comedies and then skyrocketed to the A-list of "prestige" directors with one of the only films to ever sweep all the major Academy Awards (to give you a sense of how rare a feat it is, this was in 1991 and no movie has done it since). He would continue to navigate between studio films, music projects and documentaries for the rest of his long career, never losing his humanistic approach to storytelling -- his ability to listen and understand every character, no matter who they were. Every new Jonathan Demme movie was a reason to celebrate. Now he is gone and we will not have any new Jonathan Demme movies, so let's celebrate the ones he gifted us while he was with us.
A simple rewatch of the film is enough to remind the jaded cinephile that yes, it is really that good. What makes Jonathan Demme’s adaptation of the Thomas Harris novel so remarkable is how easily it conforms to a variety of genres and viewer tastes. To horror fans, it’s a scary movie. To mystery mavens, a gripping crime drama. To thrill-seekers, a rollercoaster ride. It endures where other films from the era have fallen into straight-to-DVD obscurity because it works on so many levels.
Jonathan Demme makes his audience feel safe by establishing invisible boundaries around a tale of cannibalism and murder. The horrific moments (and there are some truly horrific moments) are presented with such tact and taste they bring viewers in instead of pushing them away. To see just how deft Demme is at this balancing act, compare Silence of the Lambs with its big-and-small-screen offspring. 2001’s Hannibal isn’t remembered for its story or performances but for a scene where Ray Liotta eats his own brains; and the TV show of the same name, while gorgeous and well-written, had limited audience appeal thanks to some of the most gruesome imagery that has ever aired between Mucinex commercials.
Silence of the Lambs has a killer who skins his victims and a dude who wears another dude’s face, but Demme obscures the nasty stuff while elevating the characters to the point where the movie’s most iconic scene is a seated conversation between an FBI agent and an aging prisoner. If Silence of the Lambs seems like an obvious choice to celebrate the career of a director taken from us too soon, that’s only because Demme was so talented he made adapting a popular book into an even more popular film that gave us a classic movie villain and took top honors at the Oscars look easy. Jonathan Demme was a movie magician whose best trick was disappearing behind the camera. Now, sadly, he has disappeared from the world and the stage feels empty without him. Goodbye.
Stop Making Sense. Last summer, the Pope of Film chose it as one of the fifty greatest films, and rather than repeat himself (myself) I took the opportunity to dance around the backyard in the Pope costume to celebrate the film. Demme was one of the few American directors comfortable in every genre; his comedies are as sharp as his horror film is scary as his concert film is rocking as his documentaries were well-observed.
One Demme film that I'm betting no one will be talking about today is Who Am I This Time, a short film he made for the PBS American Playhouse series. It is based on a famous short story by Kurt Vonnegut; in fact, Vonnegut's daughter Edie even has a cameo in the film. The story concerns small-town nobody Harry Nash (Christopher Walken) who only comes to life on stage, appearing in the local community theater's many productions. George Johnson (Robert Ridgely) is selected to direct a production of A Streetcar Named Desire, and talks telephone company billing machine specialist Helene Shaw (Susan Sarandon) into auditioning. Helene falls in love with Harry during rehearsals, not realizing that her Stanley Kowalski will disappear after the final curtain call.
The film is a must see, and like all Demme's film, coaxes interesting, lived-in performances out of both the leads and the lowliest extra. It's delightful and illustrative of everything Demme did well: putting character before story and putting performance before practically everything else. He even manages to tame or exploit some of Walken's affectations. It is also the rare film where perennial supporting player Robert Ridgely (He is Boris, the hanging hunchback in Blazing Saddles and the Colonel James in Boogie Nights) gets a part worthy of his talents; he is by turns warm, wise, and human, just like all of Jonathan Demme's best films. Demme will be missed by everyone who loves great moviemaking.
Upon delving further into his other work, I realized one of my personal favorite things about him was the fact that he was constantly making movies with strong, real women as their protagonists. In Rachel Getting Married, Kym, while being extremely flawed (like real women, and people for that matter, happen to be), seeks to better herself and her relationship with her family despite how dark and difficult that journey is. We get incredible women in so many of Demme’s work, like Clarice in the iconic Silence of the Lambs and the women in Caged Heat. Because Demme understood what a real person is and was able to effortlessly translate that into film, you really felt like you knew the characters, urging you to care that much more about them and the movie itself. His ability to comfort me the way a friend would without direct communication is what makes our most beloved filmmakers so important to us, and is what has created a permanent place for Demme in the hearts of movie lovers forever.
Jerry Smith: I was 11 when The Silence of the Lambs knocked me out and quickly became one of my favorite films of all time. It came out during those magic days of looking in your local newspaper and seeing those awesome movie ads, full of quotes and photos and when I saw the ad for the film, it immediately caught my attention. I begged my dad to take me to the local theater to see it and when I walked out of that film, I was transfixed on what I had just experienced.
As a young cinephile, I quickly went to my local video store and rented everything Jonathan Demme had directed prior to that magnificent piece of horror and suspense. I fell in love with Married to the Mob and Something Wild and when Demme followed up The Silence of the Lambs with Philadelphia, it was a moment when I realized that this wasn’t just another talented director, but a filmmaker who was truly important. His ability to visually tell a story and get such great performances out of his actors was unparalleled, and though Demme’s films have been critically acclaimed, I feel like the director never quite got the recognition he deserved: he was one of the greats, a true cinematic master, giving us film fanatics some wonderful pieces of art. While the Academy likes to pretend it isn’t one, he also gave us one of the greatest horror films of all time.
Hearing of Jonathan Demme’s passing really bummed me out. The guy did such a wonderful job as a filmmaker and there won’t be another like him. Thanks for giving me so many great memories, Mr. Demme. Godspeed.
Erika Bromley: The passing of Jonathan Demme makes me think of all the great work he's done, and it also reminds me that there are a few Demme films I haven't seen, including Philadelphia. It's a movie that got away from me but have always wanted to see. I was a young high schooler when it opened, and while my family was a movie-going family, my parents did not bring me with for this one. Once it came out on DVD, it became a title that was always on my "to watch" list, but for whatever reason, it has been bumped for other titles over the (gasp!) decades. You know, to make sure I first experienced S.W.A.T. Critical viewing. So this week, in honor and memory of Mr. Demme, I will finally watch Philadelphia. Even if it's not as good as my young self remembers hearing it was, I'll still be happy just getting to study Demme some more.
said before that Jonathan Demme has long been one of my favorite filmmakers. How can I not be obsessed with someone who wrote and directed Caged Heat AND made The Silence of the Lambs AND Rachel Getting Married? He made many other movies I love -- some even more than those -- but I mention those three to point out the breadth of his skill, working across a variety of genres and budget levels and always turning out something that is good and interesting. Many of my colleagues have already spoken about his humanity, and I think that's Demme's truly special gift when it comes to movie making -- he was our most humane director, never content just to understand the point of view of all of his characters but celebrating their culture, their music, their diversity. His films celebrated life in every way: its energy, its messiness, its unpredictability, love, loss. Even his most recent narrative film, Ricki and the Flash, did all of these things despite being mostly dismissed by both critics and audiences. I love that Demme was Demme to the end.
Many of the movies mentioned above are movies that I love a great deal, so I can't make an argument for what Jonathan Demme's "best" movie is or even which of his I would call my favorite. What I can say is that upon hearing the news of his death -- the loss of an artist the likes of which I have not been as rocked by since Wes Craven passed -- the movie I most wanted to revisit was 1986's Something Wild. The story of a yuppie square (Jeff Daniels) who is pulled into the orbit of a woman (Melanie Griffith, maybe never better) who appears, on the surface, to be an early incarnation of the "Manic Pixie Dream Girl," only to find that it's not all playing hooky and having exciting daytime sex. Sometimes the new, exciting person has some new, exciting baggage, like a psychotic ex boyfriend who now wants to kill you (Ray Liotta, maybe never better). I'm a fan of what Quentin Tarantino once called "gear shift" movies -- the ones that start out as one thing and become something else entirely by the film's end -- and I don't think there's ever been a better gear shift movie than Something Wild. Even though the introduction of Liotta marks the movie's turning point, Demme makes the movie's descent into hell still feel slow and organic; we don't even realize what has happened to us until it has already happened. So many movies can be mapped out from their first few minutes. Not Something Wild, a movie that keeps us on edge for its entire running time because we genuinely don't know what the fuck is going to happen. Demme brings some of his early exploitation electricity to a studio project and the result is one of the best, most thrilling movies of the 1980s. But the rest of the Demme-isms are firmly in place as well: the humanity of characters who would be marginalized in other, lesser films; the strong female characters; the celebration of music (including my favorite, Sister Carol performing "Wild Thing" on camera during the end credits); the funky, offbeat energy. So much of what makes Jonathan Demme great is represented in Something Wild.
Thank you, Jonathan Demme, for a lifetime of movie love -- both yours and ours. You were a brilliant technician who made the world a better place with your empathy, your sensitivity, your joy. I will miss you so much.