Remembering Jonathan Demme: ‘Silence of the Lambs’ Director

Jonathan Demme, an Oscar-winning director, passed away Wednesday, April 26th, 2017 due to cancer complications at 73 years of age.

As it is for some directors, they are usually known for directing one genre of film. What some people don’t know about Demme, is that he was so much more than his most popular film Silence of the Lambs.

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Demme is mostly well known for his 1991 horror film thriller, Silence of the Lambs, and the movie’s outstanding character, “Hannibal the Cannibal”. It was even the third film in history to win Academy Awards in all top five categories. However, Demme is much more of a light-hearted man according to some of his other works which don’t get to share the spotlight as often.

He had worked on such films as; Melvin and Howard, which shared the story of a service station owner who claimed to have been a beneficiary of Howard Hughes and Something Wild, a ridiculous comedy about a banker whose life is turned upside down by a kooky woman. Melvin and Howard was a film that starred Paul LeMat andJason Robards who were also in his lesser appreciated indie, Handle with Care. The second film succeeded due to a switch in the concentration of the characters and received three Oscar nominations. Something Wild was a rebound from getting booted off 1984 Swing Shift because he had a different idea for the romantic play in the film. Needless to say, he succeeded. He also worked on Married to the Mob and Stop Making Sense, which is a documentary about the Talking Heads that is considered to be a seminal concert film. There were more documentaries that had the opportunity to receive his direction, such as documentaries on The Pretenders, Bruce Springsteen, and Neil Young.

Demme had a way with actors. The characters he asked them to play allowed them to explore their range in characterization and how far they could push it. Demme played a role in helping Tom Hanks win his

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first Oscar by assigning him the role of a gay lawyer in his film Philadelphia. An amazing take on the AIDs crisis of the time. This was directed shortly after Silence of the LambsDean Stockwell as the Mafia boss in Married to the Mob also earned the highly prized Oscar nomination. The 2008 film Rachel Getting Married, 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.

In addition to films, the unstoppable Demme also directed music videos, receiving Grammy nomination in 1987 for the best long form music video for Sun City: Artists United Against Apartheid.

Demme was also not shy of politics or social issues. He made two documentaries about Haiti, 1988’s Haiti Dreams of Democracy and 2003’s critically acclaimed The Agronomist. A quote from the New York Times stating, “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.”

Along with his many successes, there were also failures. His 1998 adaption Toni Morrison’s award-winning book, Beloved, did receive support from critics but was shunned away from the Oscar’s attention. Along with this there was 2002’s Charade remake  The Truth About Charlie, and received the comment that many re-makes receive, “The original was better.”

As far as Demme’s recent work before he passed on, he recently worked on an episode of Shots Fired, a police drama on FOX. It recently aired April 26, 2017 (the same day Demme’s death was announced). He also filmed the 2016 concert film Justin Timberlake + the Tennessee Kids. And 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.

Demme has made his impact as a director, along with his up’s and down’s he has certainly been one to try a little bit of everything.

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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, helping 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.

Rest In Peace Robert Demme.

“All good things to those who wait” – Hannibal Lecter (Silence of the Lambs)


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