[Marxism] Jonathan Demme, Oscar-Winning Director, Is Dead at 73

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Apr 26 14:37:39 MDT 2017

Besides being a fan of his movies, I always appreciated that he was a 
donor to Tecnica, the technical aid for Nicaragua project I was involved 
with 30 years ago.

NY Times, April 26 2017
Jonathan Demme, Oscar-Winning Director, Is Dead at 73

Jonathan Demme, the Oscar-winning filmmaker who observed emphatically 
American characters with a discerning eye, a social conscience and a 
rock ’n’ roll heart, achieving especially wide acclaim with “The Silence 
of the Lambs” and “Philadelphia,” died on Wednesday at his home in 
Manhattan. He was 73.

His publicist, Leslee Dart, confirmed the death. Mr. Demme disclosed 
that he had cancer in 2015.

Mob wives, CB radio buffs and AIDS victims; Hannibal Lecter, Howard 
Hughes and Jimmy Carter: Mr. Demme (pronounced DEM-ee) plucked his 
subjects and stories largely from the stew of contemporary American 
subcultures and iconography. He created a body of work — including 
fiction films and documentaries, dramas and comedies, original scripts, 
adaptations and remakes — that resists easy characterization.

A personable man with the curiosity gene and the what-comes-next 
instinct of someone who likes to both hear and tell stories, Mr. Demme 
had a good one of his own, a Mr. Deeds kind of tale in which he wandered 
into good fortune and took advantage of it. A former movie publicist, he 
had an apprenticeship in low-budget B-movies with the producer Roger 
Corman before turning director.

Mr. Demme became known early in his career for quirky social satires 
that led critics to compare him to Preston Sturges. They included 
“Handle With Care” (1977), originally titled “Citizens Band,” about an 
eccentric network of rural Americans linked by trucks and CB radios, and 
“Melvin and Howard” (1980), a tale inspired by true events, which 
starred Jason Robards as the billionaire recluse Howard Hughes and Paul 
Le Mat as an earnest, good-natured gas station owner who picks him up in 
the desert after Hughes has had a crash on his motorcycle. Hughes 
ostensibly leaves a colossal fortune to the man, who never gets the 
money, of course, losing his claim to it in court.

“Mr. Demme and Bo Goldman, his screenwriter, take Melvin’s tale at face 
value and present the movie as Melvin’s wildest dream,” Vincent Canby 
wrote in a review in The New York Times. “The comic catch is that this 
wild dream is essentially so prosaic. It’s also touched with pathos 
since Melvin — in spite of himself — knows that it will never be 
realized. This is the story of his life.”

Later, as a known commodity, Mr. Demme directed prestige Hollywood 
projects like “Beloved” (1998), an adaptation of Toni Morrison’s novel 
about the lingering, post-Civil War psychological horror of slavery, 
with Oprah Winfrey and Danny Glover in starring roles, and “The 
Manchurian Candidate” (2004), a remake of the 1962 Cold War drama of the 
same title about a brainwashed American prisoner of war. Mr. Demme’s 
updated version, starring Denzel Washington, Meryl Streep and Liev 
Schreiber, takes place during the Persian Gulf war.

Mr. Demme may be best remembered for two films from the 1990s that were, 
at the time, his career’s biggest anomalies. The first, “The Silence of 
the Lambs” (1991), was a vivid thriller based on the novel by Thomas 
Harris that earned five Oscars, including best picture and best 
director. Unlike his previous films, with their mischievous pleasure and 
tender melancholy, this was straightforward and serious storytelling 
with only a few moments of shivery humor.

The story is told largely from the perspective of an F.B.I. trainee who 
becomes a key figure in the pursuit of a serial killer known as Buffalo 
Bill when she is assigned to conduct a prison interview with Hannibal 
Lecter, a mad and murderous psychiatrist, hoping to extract from him 
clues to Bill’s identity.

Lurid and titillating, the film is full of the perverse details of 
heinous crimes and marked by a seductively ambiguous bond that forms 
between the young agent-to-be, Clarice Starling, and the brilliant 
monster Lecter. Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins both won Oscars for 
their memorably distinct character portrayals. The movie is also marked 
by Mr. Demme’s characteristically restless camera and the prominent use 
of music. The score, with its eerie leitmotif, is by Howard Shore.

Mr. Demme’s next narrative venture, “Philadelphia” (1993), brought to 
the fore the strain of advocacy in his work that was otherwise evident 
in his documentaries about Haiti; former President Jimmy Carter; New 
Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina; and his cousin Robert W. 
Castle, a white activist priest in Harlem.

“Philadelphia,” from a script by Ron Nyswaner, starred Tom Hanks, as an 
ambitious lawyer who is fired from his prestigious firm when the 
partners learn he has H.I.V., and Denzel Washington, as the scrappy 
independent lawyer who represents him in a suit against the firm.

It was the first big-budget Hollywood film about AIDS, and with its 
forthright depiction of homosexuality, homophobia and the disease that 
was rampaging through gay communities, it became a turning point in the 
way mainstream American movies treated gay men and lesbians, whose 
sexual orientation had previously been handled with hush-hush delicacy 
or flamboyant caricature.

Mr. Hanks won an Oscar, and so did Bruce Springsteen, for the song that 
introduces the film, “Streets of Philadelphia.”

Rock music — music in general, really, but rock and its Caribbean 
siblings most of all — is central to many of Mr. Demme’s films. Among 
them was one of his last, “Ricki and the Flash” (2015), which starred 
Meryl Streep as the aging singer of a bar band in California who is the 
ex-wife of a well-to-do Indianapolis businessman (Kevin Kline) and the 
estranged mother of their children.

Rock ’n’ roll plays a heroic role in the film, knitting the family back 
together as Ms. Streep, playing with Rick Springfield among others, 
covers several rock standards, including Mr. Springsteen’s “My Love Will 
Not Let You Down” and Tom Petty’s “American Girl,” a song featured in at 
least two of Mr. Demme’s other movies as well.

“Music was my first love, movies came second,” Mr. Demme once told the 
long-defunct New York newspaper The SoHo News. In a 1988 interview with 
Premiere magazine, he said: “I grew up with rock ’n’ roll — literally,” 
adding, “The first rock song I remember was ‘Sh-Boom,’ and since then 
I’ve never stopped obsessing on at least something.”

The synchronization with music and narrative is most evident in 
“Something Wild” (1986), a “really screwball” comedy, as Pauline Kael of 
The New Yorker described it, that “breaks conventions and turns into a 
scary slapstick thriller.” The beginning, set in New York City, features 
a telling establishing shot, perfect for the time and place — the Reagan 
’80s, with its ostentatious masters of the universe and a teeming, 
disdainful underclass — in which the head of a young man with a boom box 
on his shoulder is held briefly but firmly in the frame before the 
camera moves.

“I can’t think of any other director who is so instinctively and 
democratically interested in everybody he shows you,” Kael wrote.

The movie tells the story of Charlie Driggs (Jeff Daniels), a 
straight-arrow tax consultant who is seduced away from his humdrum 
office life by a hedonistic and charmingly flaky young woman played by 
Melanie Griffith. Calling herself Lulu, she inveigles him into a road 
trip that takes them from rebellious delight into danger and violence 
(in the form of Lulu’s ex-husband, an ex-con played by Ray Liotta in his 
movie debut) before its rather pallid Hollywood denouement.

What elevates the ending from disappointing sentiment to a winking, 
it’s-only-a-movie joy is the credit sequence, in which the singer Sister 
Carol, who plays a minor role in the film, sways against a 
graffiti-splashed wall and performs a reggae variation on the 1960s 
standard “Wild Thing.” The song was one of 49 to be featured in the 
movie, which also included music by Jimmy Cliff, Oingo Boingo, Fine 
Young Cannibals and David Byrne of Talking Heads.

Mr. Byrne and Mr. Demme worked together frequently, notably on “Stop 
Making Sense,” a 1984 concert film about Talking Heads that many critics 
(and filmgoers) found mesmerizing, though it had few filmic bells and 
whistles. (Mr. Demme preferred to call it a “performance film” because, 
he said, it wasn’t about the concert experience — he didn’t show the 
audience until the end.)

Mr. Byrne also scored Mr. Demme’s “Married to the Mob,” a gaudy 1988 
farce in which Michelle Pfeiffer plays the wife of a Long Island 
gangster (Alec Baldwin) who tries to exit the mob life after her husband 
is bumped off when he dallies with the girlfriend of the local boss 
(Dean Stockwell). Things get especially dicey when she moves with her 
young son into a shabby Manhattan apartment and strikes up a romance 
with an F.B.I. agent (Matthew Modine) who has her under surveillance.

In her review of the film, Janet Maslin of The Times took note of the 
mélange of Mr. Demme’s filmmaking eccentricities — not just the music, 
“which drifts mischievously through the film,” but the details of 
costume and language and performance that are all pitched to a 
particular note of fond, giggly amusement.

“Jonathan Demme is the American cinema’s king of amusing artifacts: 
blinding bric-a-brac, the junkiest of jewelry, costumes so frightening 
they take your breath away,” Ms. Maslin wrote. “Mr. Demme may joke, but 
he’s also capable of suggesting that the very fabric of American life 
may be woven of such things, and that it takes a merry and adventurous 
spirit to make the most of them.”

Robert Jonathan Demme was born on Long Island, in Baldwin, on Feb. 22, 
1944, and grew up mostly in nearby Rockville Centre, where he listened 
to music and went to the movies.

His father, Robert, was a publicist in the travel industry; his mother 
was the former Dorothy Rogers. (Years later, at 71, Dorothy Demme 
appeared in a music video for UB40 and Chrissie Hynde, directed by her 
son. She later appeared in some of his films, including “Something Wild” 
and “Philadelphia.” She died in 1995.)

The family moved to Miami, where Jonathan went to high school and worked 
for a time in a kennel and an animal hospital. Wanting to be a 
veterinarian, he attended the University of Florida with that in mind 
until he failed chemistry, at which point he went to the university 
newspaper, discovered it had no movie critic, and assumed the job 
himself, he told interviewers, so he could go to the movies with free 

He also became a critic for a shopping guide in Coral Gables, for which 
he wrote a glowing notice for “Zulu” (1964), about a bloody 19th-century 
battle between British soldiers and African warriors, a film whose 
executive producer was Joseph E. Levine, the founder of Embassy 
Pictures, the film’s American distributor.

It happened that Mr. Levine was on vacation in Miami Beach, staying at 
the Fontainebleau Hotel, where he had become acquainted with the hotel’s 
publicist, Robert Demme. The elder Demme introduced Mr. Levine to his 
son, whose review of “Zulu” impressed him. Mr. Levine offered him a job.

Mr. Demme worked in the Embassy publicity department (the company 
changed its name to AVCO Embassy in 1967) in New York and also held 
other jobs in and around the film business, including writing film and 
music reviews, before moving to London in 1969. There he earned his 
first film credit, as music coordinator for “Sudden Terror” (1970), a 
thriller about a boy who believes he is being hunted by a killer, for 
which he corralled several rock bands and put together a score.

In 1971, he took a job as a unit publicist in Ireland for a Roger Corman 
film, “Von Richthofen and Brown,” about a German flying ace. Shortly 
after that, he began making films of his own for Corman’s production 
company. He wrote (with Joe Viola) and produced a biker film, “Angels 
Hard as They Come,” and wrote and directed a handful of others, 
including “Caged Heat” (1974), a heavy-breathing women’s prison movie; 
“Crazy Mama” (1975), a campy road story with a ’50s rock score that 
starred Ann Sothern and Cloris Leachman as mother-and-daughter outlaws; 
and “Fighting Mad” (1976), starring Peter Fonda as a farmer battling 
corrupt land developers in Arkansas.

After several other directors passed on “Citizens Band,” a script by 
Paul Brickman, Paramount hired Mr. Demme to direct it.

The movie had the wry humor of François Truffaut, one of Mr. Demme’s 
idols, and an interconnected group story that echoed Robert Altman’s 
“Nashville,” but it flopped at the box office (both immediately and 
later, when it was rereleased as “Handle With Care”). Still, movie 
insiders recognized the touch of a sly and promising director.

Thom Mount, at the time the head of production at Universal, called Mr. 
Demme to direct “Melvin and Howard” after Mike Nichols had dropped out 
of the project. The movie opened the New York Film Festival and drew 
rave reviews, a pair of Oscars (for Mr. Goldman’s script and for Mary 
Steenburgen’s supporting role as Melvin’s beleaguered wife) and a best 
picture citation by the National Society of Film Critics.

Mr. Demme’s first marriage, to Evelyn Purcell, ended in divorce. He 
later married Joanne Howard, an artist. She survives him along with 
three children, Brooklyn, Ramona and Jos. Complete information on 
survivors was not immediately available. Mr. Demme also had a home in 
Nyack, N.Y.

Mr. Demme’s other films include documentaries about the folk-rock singer 
and songwriter Neil Young; concert films featuring the country singer 
Kenny Chesney and the pop star Justin Timberlake; and “Swimming to 
Cambodia” (1987), Spalding Gray’s monologue ruminating about Cambodia 
under the Khmer Rouge and his experience appearing in the film “The 
Killing Fields.”

Mr. Demme was a member of the alternative arts scene of Lower Manhattan, 
which included Mr. Gray, who died in 2004, as well as Mr. Byrne and the 
composer and performer Laurie Anderson, who scored “Swimming to Cambodia.”

His other narrative features included “Swing Shift” (1984), a story 
about female factory workers during World War II that starred Goldie 
Hawn, Kurt Russell and Christine Lahti. Mr. Demme and Ms. Hawn clashed 
over the film’s editing, and the result was a movie generally seen as 

Better was “The Truth About Charlie” (2002), a well-paced remake of 
“Charade,” the 1963 thriller set in Paris about a woman (Thandie Newton 
was Mr. Demme’s answer to Audrey Hepburn) pursued by men who are out to 
reclaim a treasure filched by her husband, who has turned up dead.

And even better was “Rachel Getting Married” (2008). Set during a 
weekend in which Rachel (Rosemary DeWitt), a white woman, is to wed her 
black fiancé, Sidney (Tunde Adebimpe), the film presents a protean and 
diverse gathering of the two families and various friends within and 
around the sprawling Connecticut home of Rachel’s father (Bill Irwin) 
and his second wife (Anna Deavere Smith).

The main element of friction in the film is Rachel’s sister, Kym (Anne 
Hathaway), an intelligent and breathtakingly needy young woman who 
arrives on furlough from nine months in drug rehab.

Filmed in a documentarylike style with an array of musical genres on the 
soundtrack — though it is only music that the wedding guests hear — 
“Rachel Getting Married” recalls another Altman film about a similar 
occasion, “A Wedding,” in its piling up of characters and snatches of 
conversation. It gives viewers a sense of being wedding guests 
themselves — “an experience we’ve all had,” as the critic Roger Ebert 
wrote. He added, “We don’t meet everyone at a wedding, but we observe 

In many ways, “Rachel Getting Married” synthesizes the main 
characteristics and concerns of Mr. Demme’s body of work. Among the 
wedding guests are several character actors who make appearances in 
other Demme films, so there’s a family within a family on the screen. 
And in its obvious but casual multiethnicity, the movie recognizes, with 
the progressive hopefulness often present in his films, an American 
whole after providing many close-ups of individual slices.

“It might seem that this tableau is a kind of utopian wish fulfillment, 
the naïve projection of a longed-for harmony that does not yet exist,” 
A. O. Scott wrote in his Times review. “To some extent this may be true, 
but the texture of ‘Rachel Getting Married’ is so loose and lived in, 
its faces (many of them belonging to nonprofessional actors) so 
interesting and real, that it looks more plausibly like a mirror of the 
way things are.

“It is not that racial division is willed away or made to disappear,” 
Mr. Scott continued, “but rather that, on this particular weekend, other 
matters are more important. A wedding, after all, represents a symbolic 
as well as an actual union, an intimation of possible perfection in a 
decidedly imperfect world.”

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