Though our aging population has more octogenarians, nonagenarians and even centenarians than ever, you can’t rationally claim that 73 is a tragically young age to die.
Why then did Jonathan Demme’s passing this past April, at age 73, hit me—and so many others who were strangers to him—so hard? How could it feel “too soon?”
Certainly many other of my cultural heroes have died during my lifetime, but when they had been fortunate to live what seems like a reasonable lifespan, the occasions of their passing were sad ones but did not feel tragic. This time it did.
Part of the devastation was that the seriousness of Demme’s years-long illness was not widely known. Diagnosed with esophageal cancer in 2010, his initial treatments seemed successful. He continued to work steadily on a typically diverse and prolific array of projects spanning documentaries, performance films, dramatic features and television. (An episode he directed of the topical drama Shots Fired aired the same day he died).
He had even returned to mainstream Hollywood features in 2015 with his first wide theatrical release in over a decade: Ricki and the Flash. It was a modest pleasure and a modest box office hit in an increasingly narrow market with less space than ever for films in either category.
But I think the reason the loss felt so unfair, despite Demme being well into his senior citizenry, did have something to do with youth: the spiritual kind. In terms of both his creativity and his inner energy, he never seemed in decline. As Mark Olsen wrote in a lovely appreciation for The Los Angeles Times:
“If he seemed forever young it was perhaps because he never allowed himself to become outdated, pursuing success on his own terms while remaining ever open to new influences and outside ideas.”
Martin Scorsese, less than two years older than Demme, mirrored the sentiment in a statement he released shortly after his death was announced:
“Whenever I ran into Jonathan, he was filled with enthusiasm and excitement about a new project. He took so much joy in moviemaking. His pictures have an inner lyricism that just lifts them off the ground—even a story like The Silence of the Lambs. I have great admiration for Jonathan as a filmmaker—I love the freshness of his style and his excellent use of music, from Buddy Holly to Miklos Rozsa. There’s so much more to be said, and I hardly know where to begin. I also loved him as a friend, and to me he was always young. My young friend. The idea that he’s gone seems impossible to me.”
I met Demme only once and very briefly. It was a long time ago, but it made a big impression. He was appearing at the Music Box Theater in Chicago in 1991 as the special guest at a now-defunct local film and video festival. This was just a couple of months after the release of The Silence of the Lambs and his ascension from quirky cult filmmaker to Hollywood A-lister. He was interviewed onstage by the then-chairman of the Film and Video Department at Columbia College, where I was a film student.
After the interview, Demme came out to the lobby to greet attendees and, in my memory, it seemed like the entire crowd got in line to meet him. I hovered around the line, convinced he would be leaving at any moment, in the hopes I could introduce myself for just a minute before he escaped the mob.
But Demme stood there, smiling, greeting and talking to every single person who came to meet him. I’m sure he couldn’t have done this at every public event where he appeared, but he did it that evening. About 45 minutes in, I realized he was not going to be making a break for the exit anytime soon, so I got in the line. The one-on-one conversations continued and, as it got later and later, people behind me departed the line and went home. Finally, I was the last person waiting and Demme was still there…still smiling.
I’m sure he was tired. I’m sure by that time he just wanted to go back to his hotel. But when I stepped up to ask him my awkward, nerdy film school question, he listened and responded as thoughtfully as if it was the first question he had been asked all night.
I can’t remember the exact question. It was some labored effort to dig into how filmmakers can invest deeper meaning into genre fare, related to a line a co-worker asks Charlie Driggs (Jeff Daniels) near the end of Something Wild (1986). “How do you figure a guy like Ray Sinclair?” the co-worker inquires, trying to fathom the violence of the movie’s villain, played by Ray Liotta in the breakout role of his career. (Something Wild brought Liotta to Scorsese’s attention, eventually leading to his casting in GoodFellas.)
I can’t quote Demme’s answer verbatim. Stupidly, I didn’t have any recording device with me that night. But I remember his answer paid full credit to screenwriter E. Max Frye for the gravitas of the line and that he agreed it was pivotal in giving the movie a moral center. He said something close to, “I guess that’s what we all think when we see some terrible headline in the paper, right? How can that happen in our world?”
With that, I nervously thanked him so he could finally be on his way. He shook my hand and thanked me for coming out. He must have done that with over 100 people before me.
Trying to fully describe why Jonathan Demme’s films mean so much to me would lead to a lot of redundant commentary, as so many critics have so thoroughly described the eclectic nature of his work and the deep humanity running through it. And though he easily ranks among my favorite filmmakers, I would be a fraud to pretend to be the Demme authority. His dozens of directorial credits include a few documentaries, performance films and music videos I have yet to catch up with (a couple of which are pretty hard to get a hold of). Nor have I seen much of his occasional work in episodic television.
But while my knowledge of his work isn’t exhaustive, it has influenced my feelings about almost every other filmmaker as far as what he or she tries to impart to an audience. In trying to connect viewers with his fictional characters or real-life subjects, Demme’s commitment was palpable. He never seemed constrained by plot or genre, even when he made a plot-driven genre film, which was rare. Whether it was a small-scale tale of colorful eccentrics like Citizens’ Band or Melvin and Howard, or a story packed with suspense like The Silence of the Lambs or his underrated remake of The Manchurian Candidate, Demme’s primary goal always seemed to be bringing out the empathy in his audience. Even in his lesser work, when it came to conjuring sincere emotion on screen, he simply never phoned it in.
He defied categorization. In his introduction to a 1991 Film Comment interview, Gavin Smith broached the director’s versatility with this opening line, “When people talk about A Jonathan Demme Film, it can mean several things. Which Demme am I this time?” Smith’s line alluded to Who Am I This Time?, an adaptation of a Kurt Vonnegut story that Demme directed for PBS’ American Playhouse. It stars Christopher Walken and Susan Sarandon as shy amateur actors whose romance depends on the roles Walken’s character assumes both on stage and off.
But Demme’s irregular career trajectory was not a case of constantly trying on new directorial personas, but simply of a wide-ranging artist pursuing his myriad of interests without caring about forging a defining, signature style.
It was a versatility that sometimes left auteur theory-driven critics writing him off. There is no critic I admire more than Dave Kehr. His writing for The Chicago Reader and later The Chicago Tribune was, for me, the epitome of newspaper film criticism. But Kehr never got it more wrong than he did in his Tribune review of The Silence of the Lambs. Put off by the film’s claustrophobic atmosphere and violence, he dismissed it as “a gnarled, brutal, highly manipulative film that, at its center, seems morally indefensible.”
Seeing the film as nothing less than a betrayal of Demme’s talent, Kehr argued the movie’s portrayal of Hannibal Lecter as a hero of sorts negated the humanism lent to other characters. It’s an ironically limited view considering Kehr’s more thoughtful appreciation of Don Siegel’s Dirty Harry, a movie with much psychological complexity for those paying attention, but which was written off as a sadistic, fascist fantasy by many (notably Pauline Kael).
But Demme was doing in The Silence of the Lambs very much what Siegel and company were doing in Dirty Harry – delivering a technically adept thriller that could be mistaken for an ugly sort of crowd pleaser on the surface. Dig deeper, though, and it’s clear both are beautifully subversive genre films – serving up popcorn entertainment but also layer after layer of gray-shaded moral contemplation and depths of tragedy to those open to seeing them.
Both Dirty Harry Callahan and Hannibal Lecter were simplified as their box office value was milked for sequels; ultimately becoming the too-easily defined pop culture icons they now stand as. But that’s a matter of commerce and neither Demme nor Siegel had anything to do with the follow-ups to their most popular films.
Undoubtedly, the majority of people do see The Silence of the Lambs as Hannibal the Cannibal’s story, not Clarice Starling’s story. But most people think Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” is an upbeat, flag-waving anthem instead of the angry, desperate scream of a troubled Vietnam veteran. People tend to embrace a message they are comfortable with – even when at odds with the author’s intent.
The Silence of the Lambs, while spectacularly entertaining, remains for me a deeply moving experience, because it is, in the end, Clarice’s story: a survivor exorcising her youthful trauma via heroics. J. Hoberman’s Village Voice review hit the nail on the head:
“Given the shock material and Demme’s visceral direction,” he wrote, “the movie is unexpectedly affecting, with its burden of grief unusual for its genre; beneath the narrative, there’s a river of tears…Ultimately, what makes The Silence of the Lambs so potent is the heroine’s inconsolable unhappiness, her solitude and sense of abandonment, the rescue fantasies she nurtures, the defensive posture she’s forced to maintain.”
“Inconsolable unhappiness” is a much harder sell than “serial killer thriller,” but it is surprising how even many admirers didn’t see the deeper, sadder side of the movie. Just because viewers didn’t see it, however, doesn’t mean they didn’t feel it. I saw The Silence of the Lambs multiple times during its initial theatrical run and no one ever applauded or cheered when Clarice finally guns down Jame Gumb, the “Buffalo Bill” killer. The way Demme designed the scene and its aftermath is a brilliant case of what you might call “subversive humanity.”
Gumb stalks Clarice wearing night-vision goggles while she stumbles, panicked through utter darkness. But before he raises his gun towards her, he reaches out...wanting to touch her. It’s a gesture of supreme, lonely desperation before it turns into a threatening posture.
And when Clarice does take him down, the light bursting through gunshot holes in the window coverings, her hands shake with the kind of true fear movie heroes are rarely allowed to show. As she reloads her gun, Gumb lies dying...his menace erased with his lifeblood. Demme then shows a few clues to where his cruelty may have begun: a soldier’s helmet, a small American flag and an Asian-styled butterfly mobile spinning in the air.
Whether Gumb was a veteran or just a military fetishist is never made clear (Thomas Harris’ novel gives a lot more backstory to Gumb, but never mentions military service), but Demme’s visual choices paint him as another soldier who never truly came home from the war—whether that battle was overseas or in his soul. In his last moments, the villain is also a victim and so viewers went silent upon his demise.
If The Silence of the Lambs was Demme’s much-feted but somewhat misunderstood blockbuster, his only other major box office hit, Philadelphia, may actually be the more problematic work on his résumé. It is, inarguably, an “issue film” – made first and foremost to address the AIDS crisis and so Demme’s usual prioritization of character above plot or theme takes a hit.
Andrew Beckett (Tom Hanks), the lawyer discriminated against by his own firm for his disease, is basically a saint. Except for a very fleeting indication that he may have contracted the disease through anonymous sex in a porn theater, Andrew has no qualities any reasonable person would object to. His universally supportive family and lover (Antonio Banderas) are even more impossibly perfect.
Meanwhile, except for one conflicted partner in the practice (played by Ron Vawter, HIV-positive at the time of filming), Andrew’s bosses are calculating, coldhearted caricatures of upper-class homophobia. Even with the wonderful Jason Robards as the firm’s top gun and the affectionate casting of Demme’s early mentor Roger Corman as another ranking partner, these guys seem designed to be little more than hiss-worthy villains.
Philadelphia is to AIDS what Gentleman’s Agreement is to anti-Semitism: undeniably important when it came out, but in hindsight so very safe and polite when the activist movement of the time was more properly enraged. If not viewed through the prism its era—near the height of the AIDS crisis and with American society still just beginning to accept homosexuality in mainstream culture—it is easy to dismiss as Hollywood “do-gooderism” and Oscar bait.
And yet, somehow Philadelphia manages to rise above its self-imposed social burdens and its overt straining not to offend Middle America. It does so because of its “Demme moments.” Hanks, very good in his Oscar-winning lead role, probably won the trophy with the scene in which he explains the aria “La Mamma Morta” to his lawyer Joe Miller (Denzel Washington). His emotions burst out as the aria reaches its crescendo, leaving him drained.
But the “Demme moment” comes after that scene, when Miller awkwardly excuses himself. Self-conscious about seeing his client so emotionally raw, he takes his leave, but then hesitates in the hallway outside. He takes a few steps forward and a few steps back, debating with himself whether to knock on the door and give Beckett the company he clearly needs at that moment or just go home.
He goes home, but that one moment of unspoken indecision more fully informs the audience of Miller’s personal walls of homophobia beginning to crumble than any of the dialogue or courtroom speeches that follow. It’s a scene that serves no required plot momentum – Miller’s change of heart would be clear by the end of the film without it – but it’s the kind of wonderful, seemingly inconsequential moment that was such a vital part of Demme’s method.
Similarly, the final scene of Philadelphia isn’t the normal bookend for a Hollywood film. It’s a memorial service, but where most movies would include the scene for emotional speeches by friends and family, this scene plays with what little dialogue there is as simply background noise, barely heard under Neil Young’s elegiac closing title song. (As with Springsteen’s superb “Streets of Philadelphia,” which opens the movie, Young’s song is subdued…not the “Wind Beneath My Wings” kind of tearjerker often used for these kinds of moments). There are tearful embraces, but also random conversations going on at the same time; photos viewed and memories and food shared. There are children and babies in the room, reminding us the cycle continues, while closing, grainy home movie footage of Andrew as a child emphasizes that continuum while also showing how fleeting a lifetime really is. It is, in short, as close to a real life memorial service as you are likely to see in a big budget, commercial film.
In their “Moments Out of Time” year-end feature for Film Comment in 1993, Richard T. Jameson and Kathleen Murphy clued me in to another “Demme moment” in the movie I missed on first viewing. It’s barely a few seconds of seemingly incidental action, but the writers point out why it matters as shorthand for parental commitment:
“A miscellaneous yet deeply gratifying image in midtrial, Philadelphia: the plaintiff’s father (Robert Castle) coming back into the courtroom; out for a piss, but in for the long haul; thick of trunk, stalwart as an oak, and it doesn’t hurt that he’s the director’s Cousin Bobby.”
Cousin Bobby is Demme’s 1992 documentary about reuniting with his cousin Castle, an activist Episcopalian priest known for his work in Harlem. In the warm and insightful film, Demme incorporates shared family memories while also charting Castle’s history of social action. It is both documentary and a home movie. Coming out directly between his two most commercially successful pictures (Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia), it also showed Demme was not going to change his free-ranging ways in the wake of his newfound Hollywood clout.
Castle would end up with a minor side gig as an actor after Philadelphia, appearing in small roles (often as a priest) in The Addiction, Big Night, Sleepers, Cop Land and other films. He also worked for Demme again, with parts in Beloved, The Truth About Charlie, The Manchurian Candidate, and the director’s last great narrative feature, Rachel Getting Married.
Bringing Castle into his narrative work shows how Demme saw filmmaking as social interaction as much as a creative endeavor. He frequently cast the same actors – talents he relied upon who were also good friends. Rachel Getting Married, a movie about family ties (albeit severely frayed ones) is the epitome of this practice. The massive, multicultural wedding celebration at the center of the film also feels like a Demme & Friends reunion, with supporting and bit players from throughout his career.
Along with Castle, who conducts the ceremony, the “wedding guests” include Paul Lazar (a veteran of nine Demme movies or TV productions), British singer-songwriter Robyn Hitchcock (subject of Demme’s concert film, Storefront Hitchcock, and a menacing operative in The Manchurian Candidate), reggae singer Sister Carol East (who gets the spotlight in the memorable closing credits of Something Wild and plays Michelle Pfeiffer’s hair salon boss in Married to the Mob), and a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him appearance from Roger Corman (who, despite the tiny cameo, gets opening credits billing).
On top of that, the song groom Sidney (Tunde Adebimpe) sings at the altar is “Unknown Legend” by Neil Young, who, in addition to his contribution to Philadelphia, was the subject of no less than four concert films and/or documentaries directed by Demme.
On paper, this could all seem terribly self-indulgent – a director winking to in-the-know movie and music buffs. But it doesn’t play that way in the movie. The celebration seems authentic both in and outside of the narrative. Indeed, one of the glories of Rachel Getting Married is how Demme allows the wedding to play without regard to story concerns. The often wrenching turmoil of recovering addict Kim (Anne Hathaway) threatening to derail the happy occasion for her sister Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt) eases up as the final act of the movie throws expected narrative momentum to the wind. The plot points have been pretty well tied up, but Demme lets the party go on. The extended wedding sequence, like the director’s career, becomes a vibrant mix of styles, sounds, cultures and emotions.
Rachel Getting Married also marked another departure from any easily defined, signature style of an auteur. After favoring active but loose, relaxed camerawork early in his career, Demme shifted to a more intense visual approach, punctuated by heavy use of a distinctive, extreme close-up where the actor sometimes looked disconcertingly out at the audience directly. But with Rachel, he said goodbye to both approaches, instead embracing a handheld, roaming camera aesthetic that was already a cliché by the time of the movie’s release in 2008.
The change turned out to be an unexpected triumph. Rachel succeeds in achieving the “you are there” feel the docudrama-styled technique promises instead of the “you seriously need a tripod or a dolly” look of so many drab, navel-gazing independent dramas. I think Demme succeeded precisely because “navel-gazing” was never one of his weaknesses. It all comes back to empathy again. He wanted to bring the audience closer to his characters, not to his own motivations behind the camera.
Rachel Getting Married also reflects a certain kind of social utopia common in the director’s work. His was a world where people of different ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds could find common ground and thrive. Needless to say, it seems even more utopian in the era of Trump. But Demme experienced it in his own life and work, so he saw no reason to not express it in his films.
Whether it was button-downed Charlie finding love with crazy girl Audrey in Something Wild, hardscrabble West Virginia-bred Clarice having an uneasy meeting of the minds with aristocratic madman Hannibal Lecter, or Obama-hating grocery clerk/musician Ricki trying to make peace with her affluent, liberal ex-husband and daughter in Ricki and the Flash, Demme was drawn to what ties us together…no matter how curious the connection.
In that regard, it makes perfect sense that his breakthrough film was Melvin and Howard, in which small town dreamer Melvin Dummar shares a life-changing ride with billionaire recluse Howard Hughes. When Dummar comes out on the short end of a contested claim to Hughes’ will, he’s not all that upset. He knows what to treasure: the memory of the disheveled Hughes in his pickup truck, singing along to his novelty tune, “Santa’s Souped-Up Sleigh.”
“Howard Hughes sang Melvin Dummar’s song,” he tells his lawyer proudly before the movie flashes back to their brief time together: just two guys sharing a ride and a song. A perfect statement from a filmmaker who seemed ready to take almost any ride and so eager to hear every voice.