Jonathan Demme: Oscar-winning director with a discerning eye and rock 'n' roll heart

Jonathan Demme was best known for The Silence Of The Lambs and Philadelphia.
Jonathan Demme was best known for The Silence Of The Lambs and Philadelphia.PHOTO: NYTIMES

NEW YORK • Jonathan Demme, the Oscar-winning film-maker who observed emphatically American characters with a discerning eye, a social conscience and a rock 'n' roll heart, achieving especially wide acclaim with The Silence Of The Lambs and Philadelphia, died on Wednesday at his home in Manhattan. He was 73.

The cause was complications from oesophageal cancer, his publicists confirmed in a statement.

Mob wives, citizens band radio buffs and Aids victims; Hannibal Lecter, Howard Hughes and Jimmy Carter: Demme (pronounced DEM-ee) plucked his subjects and stories largely from the stew of contemporary American subcultures and iconography. He created a body of work - including fiction films and documentaries, dramas and comedies, original scripts and remakes - that resists easy characterisation.

A personable man with the curiosity gene and the what-comes-next instinct of someone who likes to both hear and tell stories, Demme had a good one of his own, in which he wandered into good fortune and took advantage of it. A former movie publicist, he had an apprenticeship in low-budget B-movies with producer Roger Corman before turning director.

Demme became known early in his career for quirky social satires that led critics to compare him to the late playwright and film director Preston Sturges. They included Handle With Care (1977), about an eccentric network of rural Americans linked by trucks and citizens band radios, and Melvin And Howard (1980), a tale inspired by true events, which starred Jason Robards as billionaire recluse Hughes and Paul LeMat as an earnestly good-natured gas station owner who picks him up in the desert after Hughes has crashed his motorcycle. Hughes ostensibly leaves a colossal fortune to the man, who never gets the money, of course, losing his claim to it in court.

Demme may be best remembered for that pair of 1990s films that were, at the time, his career's biggest anomalies. The Silence Of The Lambs (1991), a thriller based on the novel by Thomas Harris, earned five Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director.

As sleekly executed as it was frightening, the movie starred Anthony Hopkins as Chianti-loving cannibal Lecter aiding an FBI trainee (Jodie Foster) in hunting down another serial killer. The movie is also marked by Demme's characteristically restless camera and Howard Shore's score, with its eerie leitmotif.

Demme's reward was a studio prestige project, Philadelphia (1993). It was one of the first major Hollywood films to address the Aids crisis, but reviewers said the film was marred by a predictable, self-conscious seriousness and a script that seldom went beyond obvious heroes and villains. The movie benefited enormously from an Oscar-winning performance by Tom Hanks as a gay white-collar lawyer who is fired when it is revealed he has contracted Aids.

Demme had his friends Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young contribute songs for the soundtrack; Springsteen won an Oscar for his song, Streets Of Philadelphia.

Rock music is central to many of Demme's films. "Music was my first love, movies came second," he once told the long-defunct New York newspaper The SoHo News.

In his subsequent directing jobs, he displayed technical competence but professed a certain joylessness in making Beloved (1998), a version of the Toni Morrison novel, and The Manchurian Candidate (2004), a remake of a vastly superior 1962 film.

He acknowledged, however, that they essentially allowed him to fund passion projects such as Stop Making Sense (1984), his revered concert film about Talking Heads. It shunned hackneyed conventions of the form such as audience reaction shots and captured the intimate interplay, onstage and off, of the bandmates.

David Byrne of Talking Heads also scored Demme's Married To The Mob, a gaudy 1988 farce in which Michelle Pfeiffer plays the wife of a Long Island gangster (Alec Baldwin), who tries to exit the mob life after her husband is bumped off.

In her review of the film, Janet Maslin of The New York Times took note of the melange of Demme's film-making eccentricities - not just the music, but the details of costume and language and performance that are all pitched to a particular note of fond, giggly amusement.

"Jonathan Demme is the American cinema's king of amusing artefacts: blinding bric-a-brac, the junkiest of jewellery, costumes so frightening they take your breath away," Maslin wrote. "Mr Demme may joke, but he's also capable of suggesting that the very fabric of American life may be woven of such things, and that it takes a merry and adventurous spirit to make the most of them."

Robert Jonathan Demme was born on Long Island on Feb 22, 1944. His father, Robert, was a publicist in the travel industry; his mother was the former Dorothy Rogers.

His first marriage, to Evelyn Purcell, ended in divorce. He later married Joanne Howard, an artist. She survives him along with three children, Brooklyn, Ramona and Jos.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 28, 2017, with the headline 'Oscar-winning director with a discerning eye and rock 'n' roll heart'. Print Edition | Subscribe