I’m crestfallen about the passing of the great Jonathan Demme, who was one of the leading hot-shit directors of the ’80s and early ’90s (Melvin and Howard, Something Wild, The Silence of The Lambs, Philadelphia). Demme died this morning in New York City from esophageal cancer and complications from heart disease. The cancer hit him in 2010, recurred two years ago, and then advanced in force over the last few weeks.
I knew Demme casually or slightly in a non-interview context. A run-in here, a party chat there. Once through the late Stuart Byron, the ex-Village Voice columnist who was friendly with him, and with whom I ran a consultancy business called re:visions. Demme seemed to be all about spirit, mirth, excitement. He was approachable, unpretentious. He loved Caribbean culture. If he was a worry wart behind closed doors, I never saw it.
The last time I spoke to Demme was at the Gotham Awards in December ’08. He was hanging with Jenny Lumet, who had written the screenplay for what would later be regarded as Demme’s last hurrah as a top-ranked auteur — Rachel Getting Married. The forthcoming inauguration of Barack Obama came up. I asked if he thought it was a good idea to self-identify as “Barack Hussein Obama,” given recently voiced concerns about a U.S. President sharing a name with Saddam of Iraq. “The yokels won’t like that,” I said. Demme’s response: “Fuck ’em!”
Born in February 1944 (too late for the Baby Bust generation but not a boomer either), Demme had four distinct career phases:
#1: A low-budget, exploitation-tinged, Roger Corman-affiliated chapter (writing and/or producing Angels Hard as They Come, The Hot Box and Black Mama White Mama, and then directing Caged Heat, Crazy Mama and Fighting Mad). This was followed by a dicey period noir-thriller, Last Embrace (’79), which I re-watched four or five years ago and found wanting.
#2: His peak period as an assured, studio-supported mainstream director of seven films — Melvin and Howard (’80), Swing Shift (’84), Stop Making Sense (’84), Something Wild (’86), an inspired detour with Swimming to Cambodia (’87), the not-so-hot Married to the Mob (’88) and then his two greatest successes — The Silence of the Lambs (’91) and Philadelphia (’93).
#3: A mezzo-mezzo slowdown period over the next 15 years — Beloved (’98), The Truth About Charlie (’02), The Manchurian Candidate (’04) and Rachel Getting Married (’08).
#4: His documentarian period — The Agronomist, Neil Young: Heart of Gold, Man from Plains, Right to Return: New Home Movies From the Lower 9th Ward, Neil Young Trunk Show, I’m Carolyn Parker, Neil Young Journeys, What’s Motivating Hayes, Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids. This era was punctuated by two features — A Master Builder (’13) and the not-half-bad Ricki and the Flash (’15).
I appreciated Demme from a distance in the ’70s, and I respected the hell out of Melvin and Howard. But I didn’t really fall big-time until Something Wild. I remember the exact moment when I said to myself, “Wow, this guy has really crafted something else…mixing a screwball comedy with a stalker psychodrama, and discovering Ray Liotta in the bargain.” And I really melted during the musical end-credits sequence with Sister Carol.
During a Bigger Splash interview last year Luca Guadagnino (director of the forthcoming Best Picture contender Call Me By Your Name) told he wrote a major thesis about Demme in college.
“Denzel on Demme,” posted on 2.3.17:
“When the conversation turned to his brilliant performance in Jonathan Demme‘s Philadelphia (’93) and what the collaborative energy with director Jonathan Demme was like, Denzel offered the usual type of blah-blah answer. Then he said, ‘Where is Demme?’ — i.e., what’s happened to him because he’s obviously no longer the hot-streak guy he was in the ’80s and early ’90s.
“Moderator Leonard Maltin chimed in with some blah-blah response (‘He’s fine, he’s working on a project’), but Denzel had pushed the hard-truth button — the once-great Demme, now 72, has been in a kind of eclipse since his last formidable feature, Rachel Getting Married, opened a little more than eight years ago.
“Over the least 13 or 14 years Demme has basically become a documentarian (The Agronomist, Neil Young: Heart of Gold, Man from Plains, Neil Young Trunk Show, I’m Carolyn Parker, Neil Young Journeys, What’s Motivating Hayes, Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids) who occasionally dips his toe into features.
“Rachel, a low-budgeter in which Anne Hathaway gave an award-worthy performance as a neurotic with an addictive past, was the last time Demme was in the big game. I’m sorry but nobody paid any real attention to A Master Builder (’13) and Ricki and the Flash (’15) was decidedly minor, a fact that was signalled by TriStar’s decision to open it in August.
“Demme’s essential period lasted about 13 years — Melvin and Howard (’80), Swing Shift (’84), Something Wild (’86), Swimming to Cambodia (’87), Married to the Mob (’88), The Silence of the Lambs (’91 — his biggest success) and finally Philadelphia (’93),
“Things started to gradually deflate from then on. Beloved (’98), The Truth About Charlie (’02…meh), The Manchurian Candidate (’04…not half bad but it couldn’t overcome the exalted reputation of John Frankenheimer‘s 1962 version). And then came Rachel, Demme’s first “here I am again and this is what I can do” flick since Philadelphia.”