Critic’s Notebook: Jonathan Demme Enriched Movies With Diversity, Humanism and Great Music

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Jonathan Demme on the set of 'Philadelphia'

The 'Silence of the Lambs' director leaves behind a rich, genre-spanning mixtape of greatest hits linked not only by their cinematic craft, but by their compassion.

A generous and inclusive celebration of humankind, with all our imperfections, was the beating heart of Jonathan Demme’s filmmaking career. The New York-born director, whose death was announced on Wednesday, leaves behind a highly eclectic mixtape of work that spans mainstream comedies, blockbuster thrillers, subversive social dramas, revered music movies and challenging political documentaries. Demme worked prolifically for almost five decades, sustaining an impressive level of enthusiasm and engagement right up until the brink of death.

Widely respected as an actor’s director, Demme trusted his cast with their own character interpretations. “I’m not a puppetmaster, I’m a collaborator,” he told The AV Club in 2002. His signature shot is the long, emotionally intense, straight-to-camera close-up. He was also an early champion of diversity in mainstream movie casting, pushing for strong representations of women, LGBT characters and people of color.

“I’m not interested in boy movies, and I’m not interested in white-people movies,” Demme explained to Rolling Stone in 1994. When I met him a decade later, he reaffirmed this view: “I live in a culturally diverse country and I like to make movies that reflect that as much as possible.”

Raised in suburban Long Island and Florida, Demme abandoned his youthful ambitions to become a veterinarian, working instead as a film reviewer and publicist. A chance series of fluke connections then landed him a screenwriting job with the legendary low-budget B-movie producer Roger Corman. The three films Demme wrote and directed for Corman’s New World outfit — Caged Heat, Crazy Mama and Fighting Mad — are formulaic quickies but still notable for their subversive political themes, smuggling proto-feminist and anti-corporate messages into their trashy sexploitation plots.

Demme’s liberal humanist politics, shared with Corman, remained a key factor in almost every film he made. He also credited Corman with instilling in him cast-iron rules about staying within budget, making his villains complex and charismatic, and always keeping the screen visually interesting. He later gave his former mentor cameos in three of his movies: Philadelphia (1993), The Manchurian Candidate (2004) and Rachel Getting Married (2008).

After demonstrating his command of quirky humor with the bittersweet comic fable Melvin and Howard (1980), Demme suffered a dispiriting setback on his major studio debut, Swing Shift (1984), when star Goldie Hawn blocked his plans to inject more blue-collar grit into the story. Bruised and defeated, he eventually walked away. His film was re-cut and earned only tepid box-office returns.

But Demme finally found a more confident cinematic voice with the escapist yuppie road movie Something Wild (1986) and the garish mafia comedy Married to the Mob (1988), which plays like an early comic forerunner to The Sopranos. Both films smartly juggle idiosyncratic humor with wry social commentary and unsettling flashes of violence. A very Demme mix.

Major mainstream success finally arrived with The Silence of the Lambs (1991), a highbrow horror milestone that succeeds in delivering gory genre thrills without sacrificing Demme’s exacting art-movie credentials. Powered by the chilling chemistry between Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins, it earned box-office megabucks and became only the third film in history to win the “big five” Oscars of best picture, director, actress, actor and adapted screenplay. Even though LGBT groups angrily accused the film of homophobia, Demme later admitted he breathed “a huge sigh of relief” after proving he could make a commercially successful blockbuster.

His profile boosted by Silence of the Lambs, Demme made a commendable decision not to simply gorge on big-money crowd-pleasers. Balancing long-held principles with the director's newfound popularity, his next project was another groundbreaking drama, Philadelphia (1993), the first big Hollywood feature to directly address the AIDS crisis and its social impact. Denzel Washington, Antonio Banderas and an Oscar-winning Tom Hanks played the leads.

Another critical and commercial smash, Philadelphia is a solidly middlebrow tearjerker, but far from Demme’s finest work. The story is unusually sentimental, and notably coy in its depiction of sexual matters. Even so, the director knew exactly what he was doing. Demme proudly conceded the film was squarely pitched at suburban mall audiences, not metropolitan liberals. “We decided it would be pointless to make a film for people with AIDS, or for their loved ones,” he explained to Rolling Stone in 1994. “We wanted to reach people who don’t know people with AIDS, who look down on people with AIDS.”

Between dramatic features, Demme’s parallel career as a documentary maker and music video director produced some indelible landmarks in a usually ephemeral genre. His revered Talking Heads concert movie Stop Making Sense (1984) is a febrile, cerebral, deliciously inventive collaboration that remains an unsurpassed design classic. His later output included stylish videos for Bruce Springsteen, New Order and KRS-One, plus a trilogy of well-regarded concert films with rocker Neil Young. Demme’s musical taste was omnivorous and admirably free of snobbery. One of his final projects was the Netflix release Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids (2016), a grand Las Vegas spectacle as energized and exhilarating as any of his more credible alt-rock collaborations.

Demme also maintained a sideline in politically themed documentaries. He paid homage to his longtime friend, the murdered Haitian activist Jean Dominique, in The Agronomist (2003) and to former President Jimmy Carter in The Man From Plains (2007). Both films are unashamedly partisan, but also thoughtful and well-rounded character studies.

Throughout his feature career, too, Demme was consistently attuned to timely political currents. His bold reinvention of the paranoid conspiracy theory classic The Manchurian Candidate (2004), which co-stars Denzel Washington and Meryl Streep, was updated to a Gulf War setting that held up an uncanny mirror to post 9/11 America. And Demme’s emotionally rich late-career masterpiece, Rachel Getting Married (2008), was both a glorious acting showcase for Anne Hathaway and a hope-drunk portent of Obama’s post-racial America, the promised land that never quite arrived.

Remarkably, Demme hardly made a weak movie in his long career. Even his misfires (his adaptation of the Toni Morrison novel Beloved) were noble, thoughtful, ambitious failures. On a personal note, having interviewed him several times, I found him an intelligent, engaging, infectiously positive cheerleader for the human race. So let us not mourn his passing, but rather celebrate his cinematic legacy in a suitably joyful manner: with a Talking Heads album cranked up loud, a fine Chianti and some fava beans.

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