Jonathan Demme captured spirit of the American renegade
Crushing news: One of the warmest, brightest American filmmakers to come of age in the 1970s, Jonathan Demme, has died at age 73.
The online film site Indiewire reported Wednesday that the Oscar-winning director of "The Silence of the Lambs" (1991) died of complications from esophageal cancer and heart disease. Demme, who worked as a rock journalist in late 1960s London before hooking up with Roger Corman and New World Pictures, enjoyed a career straddling mainstream Hollywood projects, concert films (including "Stop Making Sense," one of the greatest) and more personal, eccentric independent comedies and dramas, drawing from all sorts of genres.
During the Ebertfest film festival in Champaign, Illinois, last week, over dinner, a few of us dreamed aloud of an excuse, any excuse, to bring Demme in, with "Melvin and Howard," for example, or "Something Wild," or the elusive, possibly now-mythical director's cut of Demme's misbegotten Goldie Hawn vehicle "Swing Shift." I met Demme at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2008, on the occasion of his breathless, run-and-gun wedding drama "Rachel Getting Married." In conversation, covering music (he, too, loved The Replacements) and movies and life, he bore the grin of a skinny, unassuming Buddha and the air of a cleaned-up but proudly unreconstructed hippie stoner.
His first feature project as writer-director, the 1974 women-in-chains schlocker "Caged Heat," pointed the way for a commercial artist devoted to giving the audience what it wants, sort of. Mainly, slyly, he gave the audience unexpected treats, the sorts of character details that stick in the mind, and then linger, the way Jason Robards' a cappella rendition of "Bye Bye Blackbird" in "Melvin and Howard" lingers in the darkness.
Demme, who was based in New York, is survived by his wife, artist Joanne Howard, and three children. He leaves also millions of moviegoers who cherish Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster in "The Silence of the Lambs," or Robards' lost, dazed Howard Hughes in "Melvin and Howard," or Debra Winger's stunning climactic outburst in "Rachel Getting Married." Demme's final feature was the Meryl Streep comedy "Ricki and the Flash" in 2015, followed by Demme's final concert film, "Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids" a year later. If the Demme cut of "Swing Shift" exists, still, and Warner Brothers or Hawn or anybody in the position of getting it circulated can do so, now's the time.
So many actors gave their best, easiest, funniest, truest performances in a Demme film. Michelle Pfeiffer and Dean Stockwell in "Married to the Mob" (1988). Melanie Griffith and Ray Liotta in "Something Wild" (1986). David Byrne in "Stop Making Sense" (1984). Christine Lahti in "Swing Shift" (1984). Mary Steenburgen, Oscar winner for "Melvin and Howard" (1980). His biggest movies, including "Lambs" (1991) and "Philadelphia" (1993), weren't his finest movies. The real Demme achievements, from the heart and soul, moved closer to the ground, lower down the budget scale, capturing the true oddball spirit of the American renegade.
Demme once said in an interview: "I love humanity and I'm fascinated with the way humanity gets at each other, in good ways and bad. And as a filmmaker it gives me the opportunity to trip out on that." Those don't sound like the pronouncements of a great American filmmaker. In their casual way, though, that's exactly what they were.