Jonathan Demme, the iconoclastic director of movies such as “The Silence of the Lambs,” “Stop Making Sense,” “Philadelphia” and “Melvin and Howard,” died Wednesday morning in New York. He was 73.
The cause of death was esophageal cancer. Demme died in his Manhattan apartment surrounded by his wife, Joanne Howard, and three children, according to his publicist Annalee Paulo.
Demme was born in Long Island in 1944 but grew up in Miami, where his father worked as a publicist. He attended Miami Southwest High School, where he graduated in 1962, and worked briefly as an usher at the former Riviera Cinema on U.S. 1. He studied for a year at the University of Florida in Gainesville, where he planned to become a veterinarian and started writing movie reviews for the school’s paper.
But Demme dropped out after a year and returned to Miami, where he reviewed films for the Coral Gables Times Guide.
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Later, he landed a position in the publicity department of Avco Embassy, where he met producer Roger Corman. He made his filmmaking debut in 1974 with the women-in-prison exploitation drama “Caged Heat,” which he wrote and directed. Several other movies followed, but it was 1980’s “Melvin and Howard,” a comedy about the unlikely friendship between a gas station attendant (Paul LeMat) and billionaire Howard Hughes (Jason Robards), that launched Demme’s career in earnest.
Among his best-known films: “The Silence of the Lambs,” his adaptation of Thomas Harris’ novel that became a pop-culture fixture and won five Oscars, including Best Director; “Stop Making Sense,” the revolutionary Talking Heads concert documentary; and “Married to the Mob,” in which Michelle Pfeiffer played the unhappy wife of a Mafia boss.
Concurrent to his Hollywood career, Demme devoted a lot of time to humanitarian causes, particularly Haiti. In 2003, he attended the Miami Film Festival for the world premiere of his documentary “The Agronomist,” about the life of Jean Leopold Dominique, the journalist/activist who fought for the rights of Haitian farmers and was assassinated on April 3, 2000. His murder remains unsolved.
“For me the film is just one more way of keeping Jean’s story alive, and hopefully keeping the quest for justice alive,” Demme told the Herald in 2003. “There have been so many, so many good people killed in Haiti while struggling for democracy. ... Jean seems the closest; the easiest one to find justice for. The death of Jean is a tragedy unto itself. Here is someone who was able to survive two Duvaliers, but couldn’t survive the changes that occurred since then. Under a democracy, Haiti couldn’t protect Jean after Duvalier.”
In January 1994, Demme attended a screening of “Philadelphia” at the Hotel InterContinental in downtown Miami to benefit the Health Crisis Network and the Haitian Refugee Center. The movie, about an HIV-positive man who sued his employers for wrongful termination, won Oscars for Best Actor (Tom Hanks) and Best Original Song (Bruce Springsteen’s “Streets of Philadelphia”).
I think tolerance is the one thing that can save our whole human race.
Filmmaker Jonathan Demme
“The movie blatantly possesses themes that explore the way people treat each other,” the director told the Herald at the event. “I have very strong feelings that all kinds of prejudice is what is literally destroying the planet. You pick up the paper every day and there’s some group that hates another enough to try and exterminate them. I think tolerance is the one thing that can save our whole human race. I’m not sure we’re gonna achieve it in time, but nevertheless it’s worth fighting for.”
In 1998, he directed Oprah Winfrey, who was at the peak of her TV talk-show popularity, in an adaptation of Toni Morrison’s novel “Beloved.” Their working relationship was “more than seamless,” Demme said at the time. “We were alarmingly in sync with everything. I’m just awed by the magnitude of her personality, spirit and talent.”
Demme took heat from critics for directing two remakes of classic movies: 2002’s “The Truth About Charlie,” based on the Cary Grant-Audrey Hepburn vehicle “Charade,” and 2004’s “The Manchurian Candidate,” with Denzel Washington taking over for Frank Sinatra as the U.S. soldier who uncovers a brainwashing conspiracy.
“I don’t think it’s sacrilegious to remake any movie, including a good or even a great movie,” Demme told the Herald in 2004. “What is sacrilegious is to make a bad movie. But if a script has parts that can attract fantastic actors, then it doesn’t matter to me if it’s a remake or an original.”
That summer, when “The Manchurian Candidate” was released, Demme went to the movies to see another film with his kids: Director Jared Hess’ low-budget Sundance Film Festival charmer “Napoleon Dynamite.”
“I fell in love with it,” Demme said. “I felt so challenged by the originality of it. Here was a filmmaker who had made an enormously entertaining movie in a way that we are not used to. You could tell it was made for a dime, the characters were unlike the ones we had seen in other movies, and the result of all this originality was this marvelously entertaining movie. And here’s my big beautiful ‘Manchurian,’ which I felt was a really good movie but cost $90 million to make. I suddenly felt I had to get off that merry-go-round.”
RADICAL CAREER CHANGE
That’s exactly what Demme did, slipping off the Hollywood radar to make two low-budget but deeply personal documentaries —the concert film “Neil Young: Heart of Gold” and the fly-on-the-wall portrait “Jimmy Carter Man From Plains.” Both movies received modest theatrical releases and positive reviews. But compared with the scale of Demme’s previous films, you could say the director had essentially checked out of the Hollywood game.
And he chose to remain that way, even though the offers from studios kept coming. “It was very exciting to spend those years making movies that were financed by the major studios, but it’s over,” he said in 2008. “I feel very reborn as a filmmaker. When I made ‘Heart of Gold,’ it was like I made that movie for the sheer joy of filming. That’s the only reason why I’ve made everything I’ve made since then.”
So when the esteemed filmmaker Sidney Lumet first sent Demme his daughter Jenny’s script for “Rachel Getting Married,” about a family’s emotionally turbulent preparation for a wedding, his initial reaction was “I wish I had read this 10 years ago,” assuming the film would be a high-profile studio production.
But once he discovered he would be able to make the film on a low budget, for a small distributor (Sony Pictures Classics), and on his own creative terms, Demme signed on. He shot “Rachel” entirely on handheld cameras — a dramatic departure from the style of his previous work.
“The temptation is to show up with a suitcase of devices you’ve already proven to work, so you know how you’re going to shoot the movie before you even get to it,” Demme said. “But somewhere along the line — certainly by the time I got to ‘Manchurian’ — I was straining against that. Not getting bored with it, but just yearning to learn more and try different things. And I was also fed up with the stress of making movies — the overriding goal that it had to be No. 1, that it had to open in thousands of theaters, that the bigger the budget the better. These are not the ways by which I wanted to measure my career progress.”
“Rachel Getting Married” earned Anne Hathaway a Best Actress Oscar nomination and made a tidy profit. Demme would later direct one other studio film, 2015’s “Ricki and the Flash,” starring Meryl Streep as a struggling rock ’n’ roll singer. But the rest of his career was spent making concert documentaries (including 2016’s acclaimed “Justin Timberlake + the Tennessee Kids”) and episodes of TV series such as “Enlightened” and “The Killing.”
In lieu of flowers the family has asked that donations be made to the Miami-based group Americans For Immigrant Justice, which specializes in Haitian rights issues.