You could argue Jonathan Demme made the greatest film ever about a psychopathic genius, the most important movie ever about AIDS and the best concert film of all time.
That one man directed “The Silence of the Lambs,” “Philadelphia” and “Stop Making Sense” is more than enough evidence Demme was one of the most influential and one of the most versatile directors of our time.
Over a four-decade career, Demme refused to be defined by any genre, refused to repeat himself and refused to explore variations on the same theme. The Demme film library is one of the most impressive and eclectic bodies of work of the last half century.
From mainstream comedy to darker humor, from big-budget films starring Academy Award-winning actors to gems with a decidedly indie vibe, from insightful documentaries to cinema-level TV, Demme’s richly layered work was brimming with unique and memorable characters who always seemed somehow to be a part of a plausible world, no matter how insane or bizarre their situations.
The filmmaker died Wednesday at age 73 at his New York apartment of what his publicist said were complications from esophageal cancer.
Demme broke into filmmaking in the 1970s by writing and directing for B-movie legend Roger Corman. Works such as “Caged Heat” and “Crazy Mama” (which starred Cloris Leachman and marked the film debut of Bill Paxton) were a cut above typical shlocksploitation fare, and Demme was able to upgrade to prestigious small films such as “Melvin and Howard” (1980) and the star-driven (and troubled) production of “Swing Shift,” starring Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell.
“Swing Shift” was something of a mess, but Demme recovered and then some with the 1984 Talking Heads concert film “Stop Making Sense,” still hailed as one of the seminal rock documentary films. (It was actually a compendium of three concerts performed at the Pantages Theater in Los Angeles.)
By the end of the 1980s, Demme had compiled an impressive, already varied resume — but his career reached yet another level, one few directors ever reach, with “The Silence of the Lambs,” which won the 1991 Academy Awards for best picture, best director, best screenplay, best actor (Anthony Hopkins) and best actress (Jodie Foster). It’s an almost perfectly directed film, succeeding on the highest level as a psychological character study, a deeply disturbing mood piece — and one of the damn scariest movies you’ll ever see.
Hopkins’ portrayal of Dr. Hannibal Lecter is one of the finest screen performances ever, but it’s also a tribute to Demme’s masterful direction when one considers Hopkins is onscreen for less than 20 percent of the film. Demme creates such a pitch-black, all-encompassing aura around the character, Lecter dominates the film even when he’s not onscreen.
Demme directed Tom Hanks’ Oscar-winning performance in “Philadelphia,” and it was indeed brave and transformative work by Hanks — but watch the film again and see how much Demme focuses on Denzel Washington’s attorney, Joe Miller, who in some ways has an equally compelling journey. When we meet Joe, he’s a homophobic huckster, but he grows to not only respect and love his client, but to make some major changes in his worldview.
In the 2000s, Demme reteamed with Washington for the remake of “The Manchurian Candidate.” He did documentaries about Neil Young and Jimmy Carter, the critically adored and heartbreakingly effective “Rachel Getting Married,” and “Ricki and the Flash,” an underappreciated comedy/drama with Meryl Streep as a rocker of a certain age who never quite made it but keeps on swinging that ax.
Although Demme was of course primarily known for his work in film, he directed TV from time to time, going all the way back to a handful of “Saturday Night Live” short films in the 1980s through two episodes of “The Killing” and an episode of “Shots Fired” that is scheduled to air tonight on Fox.
Circling back to the movies, we haven’t even yet mentioned “Married to the Mob,” “Something Wild” or “The Truth About Charlie.” Suffice to say you could click on just about any title with the credit “Directed by Jonathan Demme,” and you’d be in great hands.