This morning we learned that Jonathan Demme, Oscar winning director behind Silence of The Lambs, has passed away at the age of 73.
The report in IndieWire, via a family source, claims esophageal cancer and complications from heart disease were what ultimately took Demme’s life. Here was one of the greatest directors of the modern era, but you probably wouldn’t realize it because Jonathan Demme was never trapped in any genre or consistent “auteur” themes with which he felt obligated to use. He simply made great movies, no matter the genre.
After getting his start in the 70s exploitation shlock classics like Caged Heat, Demme found success with the incredible 1984 David Byrne/Talking Heads documentary Stop Making Sense. He turned this success into a steady and eclectic directing career, helming offbeat comedy/dramas like Something Wild – one of the more underrated movies of the 80s – and Married to The Mob. So his attachment to the upcoming Silence of The Lambs adaptation was somewhat of a surprise.
Lambs is considered, at least to me, to be the Psycho of the 90s, a harrowing psychological thriller with incredible performances and an almost perfect sense of space, pacing, and build up. The movie’s black heart sings, and was rewarded as such at the Academy Awards, becoming only the third film in history to win the Big Five: Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, Screenplay.
And then, Demme took a left turn into the world of socially-conscious melodrama with Philadelphia. The shift in tone between these two films was typical of Jonathan Demme’s career, and Philadelphia would be Tom Hanks’ first of back-to-back Best Actor wins.
Beyond Philadelphia, Demme bounced from remakes to original films and back again never quite capturing the magic of his late 80s and early 90s work. He had a brief resurgence with yet another underrated indie drama, Rachel Getting Married, which is at least partly responsible for legitimizing Anne Hathaway.
Jonathan Demme was never going to direct the same movie twice, even though he flirted with the notion from time to time. He switched styles, he changed genres, and he put the focus on story over flair. Which is why he was rarely mentioned in the same breath as his more showy contemporaries. Perhaps now, in death, he will get the recognition he deserved all along.