RIP Jonathan Demme: From Philadelphia to Silence of the Lambs, remembering his best films
Is there anything Jonathan Demme couldn't do?
From thrillers about real life serial killers like Ed Gain (Silence of the Lambs) to a Oscar winning drama about an AIDS patient (Philadelphia) to hilarious comedies (Melvin and Howard), Demme has directed a diverse set of films.
To say we have lost a talented director when the 73-year-old stalwart of Hollywood passed away on 26 April 2017, is understating the gap left behind.
He was one of the few filmmakers who could direct strong women on screen without sexualising them, or portray a minority without frowning upon them.
A few working Hollywood directors still possess his versatility and almost none of them have his pageant of bringing to live drama, suspense and romance with equal enthusiasm.
Though all of Jonathan Demme's films are nothing short of extraordinary, here are our favourite five films from his repertoire:
Stop Making Sense (1984)
Stop Making Sense, the concert film about the band Talking Heads, released in 1984, in a frenetic 90 minutes, is one of the coolest concert films ever made.
The credit goes in part to Talking Heads, who at the time were riding high on the success of the album Speaking In Tongues and its hit single 'Burning Down the House.'
But the bulk of its brilliance comes from Demme, who worked with David Bryne (the lead singer) to create a concert movie unlike any before — or since. He favoured shots from the crowd's point-of-view and avoided crowd reaction shots, which creates the sense that, as Byrne once noted, you're part of the band and not the audience. Many concert films, most recently the Rolling Stones doc Shine a Light and LCD Soundsystem’s Shut Up and Play the Hits, try to replicate this feeling. Few succeed.
Even though Demme's challenging adaptation of Toni Morrison’s even more difficult novel was not a box office success, it was a film which was widely appreciated by critics. It was always going to be a tough sell, even with Oprah Winfrey as the star: Morrison + slavery + child murder + baby-voiced ghost (played by Thandie Newton) doesn't exactly beckon audiences to the multiplex.
But who else could have adapted such a complex story to life other than Demme? Demme was able to translate the surrealism of Morrison's novel and give it that movie gloss it needs. And it is interesting to point out that Demme is one of the few directors who can take on a film about a minority (African Americans here, the LGBT community in Philadelphia) and not make it seem like he was an outsider looking in — his lens focused on his subjects to tell a story, rarely had the condescending feel of a privileged outsider.
If Demme made this film right now, it would have been labelled as the perfect Oscar bait.
But back then in 1993 when it was made, HIV was just rearing its ugly head. Philadelphia was the first mainstream, big budget film to cover the AIDS epidemic in America. Tom Hanks stars as a gay lawyer suing his old firm for wrongful termination and Denzel Washington as the lawyer who represents him.
Once again Demme manages to be deeply empathetic about the subject he is dealing with — an AIDS patient who is a member of the LGBT community. But there's no pity, no scorn in the director's lens,and it's a story of a man who is trying to fight for his basic rights — and that is what makes the film so inspiring.
The Silence of the Lambs
Perhaps Demme's biggest and best-known film, The Silence of the Lambs is an adaptation of the book of the same name and stars Jodie Foster as FBI trainee Clarice Starling and Anthony Hopkins as imprisoned serial killer Hannibal Lecter, whom she enlists to help her find another serial killer.
The film is an unprecedented in so many ways. Not only was it one of the best thriller films to date, the character of Clarice Starling, a young female FBI agent trying to 'level up' to her male counterparts and put her best foot forward, is one of the most feminist, un-sexualised portrayals of the leading woman we have ever seen onscreen. And Clarice Starling certainly left an impact on pop culture — The X-Files creator Chris Carter modelled his leading lady, Dana Scully (played by Gillian Anderson) after her among others.
Jimmy Carter: Man From Plains
Demme's documentary chronicles the promotional rounds the 39th president, Jimmy Carter, underwent for his 2006 tome Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, in which he laid much of the blame for Middle Eastern discord at the feet of Israel. Unsurprisingly, that opinion didn't please many in the international community, and the doc follows Carter as he faces his critics on tour, leading to provocative, enthralling debate about the future of the region. Most folks would have simply turned this into a long promo piece; Demme, wisely, goes for bigger game here, letting this portrait double as a look at ways the media reduces complicated arguments into simplistic sound bites.