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Jonathan Demme Appreciation: A Filmmaker Who Turned His Humanity Into Art

The great filmmakers who came to prominence in the 1970s — and Jonathan Demme, who died Wednesday, was one of them — had stylistic traits that made them iconically identifiable. Robert Altman had his multi-character hubbub, Martin Scorsese had his volcanic rock ‘n’ roll virtuosity, and Francis Ford Coppola had his lavishly scaled operatic grandeur. But Demme, vivid and stirring as his filmmaking voice was, had no such obvious signature. You could almost say that he was defined by his lack of signature.

What defined a Demme film was the open-eyed flow of its humanity, the way his camera drank in everyone on screen — it didn’t matter whether the character was a goofy truck driver, a derelict billionaire, the troubled wife of a mobster, a new wave rock ‘n’ roller, or a serial killer — and took the full measure of their life and spirit. For Demme, the magic of movies resided in uncovering the tantalizing mystery of who each of these people were. He wanted to know them, and he wanted you to know them, to be awed by how deeply they could move and surprise you, by how much they could mirror the depth of your own dreams and experience. That’s why, no matter how hard you look for it, the defining quality of a Demme film was — and is — invisible. You can’t quite see it. But oh, how you can feel it.

It’s there, in “Melvin and Howard” (1980), in the way Demme stages the extended midnight-ride-in-a-pickup-truck conversation between the aging Howard Hughes (Jason Robards) and Melvin Dumar (Paul Le Mat), the Utah service-station owner who gives Hughes a lift — he thinks he’s helping a homeless person — and opens his life to him, and suddenly these two people who seem to come from the top and bottom of the world are talking like long-lost relatives. It’s there in the way Kym (Anne Hathaway), the sister of the bride in “Rachel Getting Married” (2008), stands up to give a rehearsal-dinner toast that turns into a rambling confession of her addictive craziness — a train wreck of a speech, yet you can’t tear yourself away from it, because the more it goes on the closer you feel to the troubled soul at its center.

It’s there in the way David Byrne, in “Stop Making Sense” (1984), spins and jiggles and bops like a geek preppie having a nervous breakdown, yet the more you look the more you realize that what’s breaking down is the wall that separates him from the ecstasy that he’s feeling. And it’s there in the way that Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster), the rookie FBI detective in “The Silence of the Lambs,” approaches the prison glass that shields her from Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), a psychopath of such playful homicidal genius that he has the ability to look right into her soul, yet what keeps bringing her back to him is the empowering surge she feels when she realizes that, yes, she can look into his, too.

Demme got his start in the Roger Corman trash factory, making wild-ass B-movies like “Caged Heat” (1974) and “Crazy Mama” (1975). (Would it be too backhanded a compliment to point out that “Caged Heat” is one of the best tawdry exploitative women’s-prison potboilers ever made?) The movie that nudged him onto the map, though, and that defined the plainspoken ironic humanity of his style right out of the gate, was “Handle with Care” (aka “Citizens Band”), which took off from the CB radio craze. It was a low-budget picture made in 1977, and you could see the kind of movie it was supposed to be in concept: a dum-dum comedy about hicks who seize on CB radios to broadcast the fantasy of who they’d like to be. (Talk about prescient! It was like a movie that tapped a super-early version of the identity-hopping of the Internet age.) Demme saw the comedy of it all, yet he refused to portray the characters as cartoons; he loved the slyness hidden by their hickness.

Three years later, he made “Melvin and Howard,” a movie that so transported Pauline Kael, the critic who became Demme’s most fervent — and perceptive — champion, that she was moved to compare him to the legendary French filmmaker Jean Renoir (“The Rules of the Game”), another supreme anti-stylist who led, front and center, with his humanity. “Melvin and Howard” was good enough to garner several Academy Award nominations, and it won in two categories: for Bo Goldman’s screenplay, and for Mary Steenburgen’s supporting performance as Dumar’s tender, exasperated wife.

It was the kind of movie that catapults a director onto the A-list, yet it was Demme’s fate to come along at just the moment (post-“Star Wars,” post-“Raging Bull”) when the sorts of pictures he yearned to make — dramas of everyday people, movies that located the sublime in the ordinary — were going out of fashion in Hollywood. It was the dawn of the ’80s, the brave new world of sequels and concepts and Sly and Arnold and slasher films and “Porky’s” and “Police Academy.” Demme tried to work within the system, but he had a legendary debacle with “Swing Shift” (1984), a World War II comedy-drama starring Goldie Hawn as a woman who goes to work in an armaments factory in California. The film was recut by its studio, and though it remained highly watchable, Demme felt singed by the experience. He was enough of a purist to want to make movies his way, and “Swing Shift” demonstrated to him what a high bar that would be for him to clear.

And so, for the rest of the decade, he followed one and only one thing: his muse. He made the Spalding Gray concert film “Swimming to Cambodia” (1987). He began to dabble in political documentaries like “Haiti: Dreams of Democracy” (1988). He got heavily involved with pop music and directed a number of videos, some of which were remarkable — just watch, for instance, his brilliant video for New Order’s “The Perfect Kiss,” in which he takes the weirdly detached image of four Brits playing postmodern synth-dance pop and makes it look as organic as a folk-music concert. And then, of course, there was “Stop Making Sense,” the Talking Heads concert film, made with such rhythm and adoration and directness, and with such a striking absence of glitz, that it emerged as the most up-close and indelible rock documentary since “Woodstock.”

At the same time, Demme was able to make two remarkable dramatic features in the ’80s. “Something Wild,” his 1986 road-comedy-turned-thriller, is, in my opinion, the most under-appreciated great movie of the Reagan era. It starts off as a madcap genre film, with Jeff Daniels as a dork seduced into the orbit of Melanie Griffith’s hard-partying bad girl. For a while, it has a this-could-only-be-happening-in-the-movies vibe, yet that’s the beautiful trick of it: When Ray Liotta, in his first major screen role, shows up as a dangerous criminal pest, “Something Wild” turns into a screwball version of “Cape Fear,” laying down a challenge to the hero: Does he have what it takes to enter the world of violence?

The film was not a success, yet Demme had figured out a new way to deploy his humanity on screen: by taking genre material and playing it for real. He did the same thing in “Married to the Mob” (1988), his tale of a suburban Mafia wife (Michelle Pfeiffer). It’s almost a study for “GoodFellas” — but more than that, it’s really a dry run for “The Sopranos,” in which Demme tried to get past underworld-movie clichés to ask the question that he was always asking: What is this person’s experience? What would it feel like if you were in her shoes?

I still remember, in 1990, my complete shock when I saw a press release announcing that there would be a film version of “The Silence of the Lambs” — a Thomas Harris serial-killer novel I knew and loved — and that Demme would be behind the camera. Talk about casting against directorial type! It was like hearing that…well, Jean Renoir was planning to direct “Psycho.” Demme envisioned the movie as a feminist call to arms, with Foster’s Clarice as a new kind of heroine, deconstructing the patriarchal order of older thrillers, but beyond that what an extraordinary night-bloom sensation of a movie it was! Demme didn’t hype anything onscreen; he saw the humanity in Dr. Lecter, too, and refused to make him a demon. (A lot of people called him a villain; but actually, he was a murderous cannibal you wound up rooting for.) The result was a new classic, one that swept the Oscars, and suddenly, after 15 years in the business, Jonathan Demme was sitting on top of the movie world. Not a bad fate for the Jean Renoir of the New Hollywood.

Yet there was a fly in the ointment, an asterisk next to Demme’s victory. It was the protests sparked by gay-advocacy groups over the portrayal of Jame Gumb/Buffalo Bill, the villainous serial killer in “The Silence of the Lambs,” with his poodle named Precious and his cross-dressing fetishes. Was he a stereotype, a mincing angry “gay” psycho? Demme claimed that that’s not what was intended at all, but the protests stung him to the core, because he had always been a supremely progressive filmmaker, out to capture the lives of those who’d been held down by prejudice. And now here he was, suddenly taken to task for being…the oppressor.

I dwell on this episode because I think it had a profound effect on Demme’s career. For a good while after “The Silence of the Lambs,” he seemed to be using his work to atone for what he’d been accused of. (It also seemed like he was atoning for success; his halting, rambling acceptance speeches during the “Silence of the Lambs” awards juggernaut indicated that he wore the role of Hollywood champion with a certain guilt.) “Philadelphia,” his drama starring Tom Hanks as an attorney with AIDS, was a worthy and passionate liberal Hollywood drama, full of feeling and almost designed to win Oscars, yet it never quite transcended the message-movie category. It was — and remains — a good film; it’s just not a Jonathan Demme work of art. And “Beloved,” his epic version of Toni Morrison’s novel, was at once stilted and overly “poetic”: a movie in which the identity politics came on stronger than the drama. Demme kept on making documentaries and music films, and some of them were affecting (like the Jimmy Carter portrait “Man From Plains”), but it was hard to shake the feeling that on the heels of his greatest success, he’d gotten lost as a filmmaker. It was as if he’d fallen between the cracks of his impulse to entertain people and to uplift them.

But then, once again, he finally put it all back together. “Rachel Getting Married,” made in 2008, is a Jonathan Demme masterpiece, a teemingly joyful and tumultuous family wedding drama in which he seems to summon everything he ever learned as a filmmaker, only to bring it to a new pitch of emotional vibrance and storytelling bravura. Building the film around Hathaway’s charismatic basket case was an inspired stroke — she stood in for anyone who ever found themselves at a wedding feeling like they weren’t good enough to share in the life being celebrated. Debra Winger, as the still powerful but beleaguered mother, gave the kind of comeback performance that reminds you why a true movie star is ageless.

And for the first time since “The Silence of the Lambs,” Demme discovered a way to turn his progressive impulses into something transporting. “Rachel Getting Married” is about a mixed-race marriage that’s portrayed as being no big deal (in fact, it’s not even mentioned). And the beauty of the movie is that it’s a vision of tomorrow that dares to offer itself as a snapshot of today. It says: Here is the new world. Your world. My world. Our world.

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