Throughout last night’s Modern Masters tribute in Santa Barbara, Denzel Washington frequently referred to past collaborators not just in terms of their talent or genius but in terms of career oomph and creative power. “So-and-so director was coming off this or that successful film at the time and was really cooking with steam,” he said at least two or three times. It’s not just how good a director is, he was saying, or how big this director was in the past or might be in the future, but who he/she is at the current moment.
If you wanted to work with Alfred Hitchcock, he meant, you needed to team up during his legendary hot-streak period between Strangers on a Train (’51) and The Birds (’63), but not after Marnie (’64), which was the beginning of the downturn.
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 ’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.