Jonathan Demme, ‘Silence of the Lambs’ Director, Dies at 73

Jonathan Demme Dead
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Oscar-winning director Jonathan Demme died Wednesday in New York of cancer complications, his publicist told Variety. He was 73 years old.

Demme is best known for directing “The Silence of the Lambs,” the 1991 horror-thriller that was a box office smash, a critical triumph, and introduced moviegoers to Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter, a charismatic serial with a yen for chianti, fava beans, and cannibalism. The story of a novice FBI analyst (Jodie Foster) on the trail of a murderer became only the third film in history to win Academy Awards in all the top five categories ( picture, actor, actress, director, and adapted screenplay), joining the ranks of “It Happened One Night” and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”

Though he had his greatest success terrifying audiences, most of Demme’s work was looser and quirkier. In particular, he showed a great humanism and an empathy for outsiders in the likes of “Melvin and Howard,” the story of a service station owner who claimed to have been a beneficiary of Howard Hughes, and “Something Wild,” a screwball comedy about a banker whose life is turned upside down by a kooky woman. He also scored with “Married to the Mob” and oversaw “Stop Making Sense,” a documentary about the Talking Heads that is considered to be a seminal concert film.

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Following “The Silence of the Lambs,” Demme used his clout to make “Philadelphia,” one of the first major studio films to tackle the AIDS crisis and a movie that won Tom Hanks his first Oscar for playing a gay lawyer.

The director most recently worked on an episode of the Fox police drama “Shots Fired,” which is scheduled to air on April 26 — the same day Demme’s death was announced. He also filmed the 2016 concert film “Justin Timberlake + the Tennessee Kids.” His most recent narrative feature was 2015’s “Ricki and the Flash,” starring Meryl Streep as an aging rocker who must return home to Indiana due to a family crisis. The film disappointed at the box office and reviews were muted.

After jumping on the CB radio craze with the under-appreciated indie “Handle With Care,” Demme came to the attention of Hollywood with the 1980 film “Melvin and Howard.” Both films starred Paul LeMat; Jason Robards co-starred as a bearded, bedraggled Hughes encountered by struggling Melvin Dumont, who helps Howard out — only to be left $156 million in a Hughes will of dubious authenticity. The film worked because it was not about Hughes but about Dumont, played by Paul Le Mat (one of Demme’s favorite actors). It drew three Oscar nominations, winning for best supporting actress (Mary Steenburgen) and original screenplay (Bo Goldman), while Robards also drew a nomination.

The 1984 film “Swing Shift,” a romantic dramedy set on the homefront during WWII and starring Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell, was directed by Demme but taken out of his hands by the studio and recut, reportedly to make Hawn’s characterization more flattering. Director and star clashed during the production with Hawn wanting a more conventional love story with laughs and Demme preferring something with rougher edges.

Two years later, Demme rebounded with the New Wave-flavored indie comedy “Something Wild.” He drew an erotically anarchical performance from Melanie Griffith, as a brunette on the run, and coaxed an impressive debut from Ray Liotta as Griffith’s lunatic ex-boyfriend.

Demme had a way with actors, discovering new talent and allowing performers to stretch their muscles. His 1988 comedy “Married to the Mob,” starred Michelle Pfeiffer, replete with loud hair and a thick New York accent, in a performance that showed the actress’ range.  It also benefited from excellent supporting performances by Dean Stockwell as the Mafia boss and Mercedes Ruehl as his far fiercer wife. Stockwell earned an Oscar nomination.

In addition to “Stop Making Sense,” Demme did documentaries on the Pretenders, Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young, and he also directed quite a number of music videos, drawing a Grammy nomination in 1987 for best long form music video for “Sun City: Artists United Against Apartheid.”

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Demme’s nonfiction work also dipped into politics and social issues, profiling the likes of Jimmy Carter and Nelson Mandela.  He made two documentaries about Haiti, 1988’s “Haiti Dreams of Democracy” and 2003’s critically acclaimed “The Agronomist.” Of the latter the New York Times said, “The turbulence that led to the removal of Jean-Bertrand Aristide from Haiti’s presidency gives ‘The Agronomist,’ a superb new documentary by Jonathan Demme, a melancholy timeliness. Its hero, Jean Dominique, embodies the fragile, perpetual hope that Haiti might someday nurture a just and decent political order.”

Demme’s commercial prowess waned in the late 1990s and early aughts. “Beloved,” a 1998 adaptation of Toni Morrison’s award-winning book, received some critical support, but was a massive bomb and failed to attract much Oscar attention. Then there was an ill-advised 2002 “Charade” remake “The Truth About Charlie,” which starred Mark Wahlberg and Thandie Newton and proved a disservice to the classic Stanley Donen original.

He also failed to convince critics that his 2004’s big-budget, high-profile remake of “The Manchurian Candidate” needed to be made. The film starred Denzel Washington, Liev Schreiber and Meryl Streep, which hit in the middle of a contentious presidential election between George W. Bush and John Kerry, but despite the political climate, it didn’t make much of a splash.

The 2008 film “Rachel Getting Married,” was a return to form for Demme, and served as an excellent vehicle for Anne Hathaway to demonstrate acting ability in a largely unsympathetic role of a young woman, out of rehab long enough to attend the wedding of the sister. Hathaway received her first Oscar nomination for the part.

Demme directed an adaptation of the Ibsen play “The Master Builder,” penned by and starring Wallace Shawn, in 2013. In 2015, in addition to “Ricki and the Flash,” he directed the docu-series “The New Yorker Presents,” bringing to life the iconic magazine.

Robert Jonathan Demme was born in Baldwin, Long Island, New York, and attended the University of Florida. Like John Sayles, he began his directing career in Roger Corman’s stable, helming women’s prison exploitation film “Caged Heat” in 1974; nostalgic road trip film “Crazy Mama,” starring Cloris Leachman, in 1975; and Peter Fonda action film “Fighting Mad” in 1976.

In 2006 Demme was presented with the National Board of Review’s Billy Wilder Award. Demme’s nephew, director Ted Demme, died in 2002 at age 38.

Demme was previously married to director-producer Evelyn Purcell. He is survived by second wife Joanne Howard and their three children: Ramona, Brooklyn and Jos.

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  1. Bob Zahn says:

    Although I never met Jonathan formally, I believe I truly knew him through his great body of work, which had his thumbprint and heart beat on every frame.

  2. Dave J says:

    Revolutionized thriller movies as we know it with his Silence of the Lambs and Jonathan Demme will surely missed.

  3. Bob Melvin says:

    Please don’t forget Swimming to Cambodia – a beautifully-made film a performance piece by the late, great Spaulding Gray.

  4. Don Phillips says:

    I will sorely miss my dear friend and collaborator on Melvin and Howard as we made it against near impossible odds and in the end 4 Golden Globe noms (1 win) 3 Oscar noms ( 2 Wins) and Best Picture National Society of Film Critics! He was a genius and warm and funny and always empathetic to his friends as I will miss him! By the way it’s Dummar not Dumont

  5. Ellsworth Ware, III says:

    ‘You’re gonna regret this. You’re REALLY gonna regret this’. Demme had a way with actors, and Ray Liotta in ‘Something Wild’ attests to that talent.

    Godspeed, Mr. Demme.

  6. Andrew Moczek says:

    He was in The incredible melting man. I think he was one of the victims. I think me may have been in a few other films but he was better known as a great director. He will be missed

  7. noegold says:

    Interviewed Jonathan numerous times. Saddened immensely to hear of this.

  8. Aluísio says:

    Don’t forget Rachel Getting Married. He made some great films; Silence of the Lambs, Melvin and Howard, Something Wild, and Stop Making Sense were my favorites. May he rest in peace.

  9. Tim Rapp says:

    Jonathan Demme’s remake of “The Manchurian Candidate” starring Denzel Washington, Liev Schreiber and Meryl Streep was excellent, and as relevant today as when the first Mancurian Candidate was released (actually more so today). Anyone interested in educating themselves about the true “state of the art” about mind control should read Brice Taylor’s “Thanks_for_the_Memories.pdf”. It is a disturbing read, but enlightening!

  10. melvin and howard, something wild, philadelphia, and silence of the lambs: what tremendous variety. the humanity overwhelms in all of them. i’ve watched and learned from each several times. some of the really great films of the latter part of the last century.

  11. Sal U. Lloyd says:

    Talented man, often saddled with subpar scripts.

  12. Phillip C says:

    This man was one of THE most kind, genuine and supportive mentors any then-kid straight out of film school could ever have hoped for. Jonathan had tremendous heart as well as talent, and he wasn’t afraid to display it openly and offer it freely. I am really saddened, and wish his family and friends much love.

  13. Phillip Ayling says:

    Sorry to hear this. He was the real deal.

  14. orsonw1 says:

    This mostly fair obit nonetheless overemphasizes the box office results of Jonathan Demme’s films and fails to honor his exceptional talent with actors, and rapport with and appreciation for them.

  15. Jack D. Iddley says:

    The photo of Joanie on this article made me think the poor guy was in “Happy Days”. What gives?

  16. Jack says:

    He lived in a great house in Nyack, NY on the Hudson River. He was a regular customer at the deli across the street, and hired one of the Irish looking counter guys to be in “Philadelphia.”

  17. Ral Carbo says:

    Don’t forget “Beloved”.

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