[Marxism] Jonathan Demme, Oscar-Winning Director, Is Dead at 73
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
By BRUCE WEBER
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
“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
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
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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