Jonathan Demme (pronounced Dem-mee) will perhaps always be remembered for his biggest hit ‘Silence of the Lambs’ a film that claimed the big five awards on Oscar night (Best Film, Director, Actor Actress & Screenplay). But this was yet another diverse strand to his back catalogue.
Born in Baldwin Long Island where he grew up before going to the University of Florida where he cultivated an interedt in film and started wrtting reviews for his college newspaper. It was here that the film producer Joseph E Levine came across his review of Zulu (one of Levine’s films) and took him on to write publicity blurb for his films. It was in this capacity that whilst he was in London he met Roger Corman, something of a god to low budget film making having already taken Francis Ford Coppolla and Peter Bogdanovich under his wing and he started writing scripts for him with his first produced script being ‘Angels hard as they come’ in 1971 which starred Scott Glenn who would appear in Silence of the Lambs years later (as would Corman) and also Gary Busey. By 1974 Demme would direct his first film from his own script, ‘Caged Heat’ an exploitation women in prison drama. He’d already directed a single for the 1973 film ‘Secrets of a door to door salesman’ which was as exploitative as its title sounds. The following year he directed ‘Crazy Mama’ and in both films the villains survive much to Corman’s disappointment.
Having made another exploitation film with 1976’s ‘Fighting Mad’ he made his first studio film, ‘Citizens Band’ a decent little comedy that cashed in on the boom in CB radio at the time. It was not the happiest of films for him as he was sacked by the producer at one point and it was his friendship with Roman Polanksi who was riding high off his success with ‘Chinatown’ and who insisted that Demme be reinstated as director on the film. The film however bombed despite positive reviews as did his next film ‘Last Embrace’. His next film ‘Howard and Melvin’ was a different matter altogether with its story about Howard Hughes befriending an old man and the film would win Mary Steenburgen an Oscar.
Things should have got better but again he had problem on his next film ‘Swing Shift’ starring Goldie Hawn who was also the producer and took it upon herself to re-edit the film. From here he started to diversify from features and made one of the finest concert movies ever made namely ‘Stop Making Sense’ recording a performance by Talking Heads which bit by bit built up from a solo David Byrne appearing in an enormous suit to a full on band with backing singers and props by the end. After a brief stint directing pop promos for the likes ofUB40 and New Order he was starting to hit his stride and diversified again into a really great comedy with Something Wild which dramatically changed from comedy to something far darker.
After this he again he changed tack with his next film, a one man show starring Spalding Gray called Swimming to Cambodia’ before returning to comedy with ‘Married to the Mob’ which flopped despite starring Michelle Pfeiffer.
But it was his next film that was to cement his reputation. It was ‘Silence of the Lambs’ a film that for many is remembered for Hopkins chilling portrayal of Hannibal Lector but Demme saw beyond this seeing it as a feminist piece of a woman struggling, and winning, in a male dominated world of policing. He was to win an Oscar for it and declined the sequel with its Grand Guignol ending.
Instead he moved to a moving human drama about the AIDS epidemic starring Tom Hanks who would win an Oscar for his portrayal of a lawyer sacked by his company for contracting HIV/Aids. His helming of the film may been prompted criticism by the LGBT community due to the depiction of the killer in ‘Silence of the Lambs’ as being transgender and Philadephia was credited with changing many peoples view of those who had contracted the virus.
Both films changed his career giving him more control over his projects but unfortunately he was never to achieve the same success as he did with those two films and he made several decent documentaries between feature films that included a remake of ‘The Manchurian Candidate.’
His work was discernible by an obvious social conscience notably in those documentaries but by 2010 he was being treated for cancer but he continued to work in the documentary field and music with his last completed work being about ‘Justin Bieber and the Tennessee Kids’.
He was twice married and had three children but by 2015 the cancer had recurred and on Wednesday26th April 2017 he passed away from oesophageal cancer and complications from heart disease at his home in Manhattan. He was 73.