The Watchers

The Watchers

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Jonathan Demme (1944-2017)

We at the Watchers were saddened to hear of the death of Jonathan Demme. The Oscar-winning director passed away today at the age of 73 due to complications from oesophagal cancer.

Born in 1944 in Baldwin, Long Island, Demme started his film career working for Roger Corman, writing and producing Angels Hard As They Come and The Hot Box. He made his feature directorial debut in 1974 with Caged Heat, a women-in-prison movie, and followed it up with Crazy Mama, a comedy road movie staring Cloris Leachman and Ann Sothern. His final film for Corman's New World Pictures studio was Fighting Mad (1976), a drama about an Arkansas farmer (Peter Fonda) who wages a one-man war against corrupt land developers. 

Jason Robards and Paul Le Mat in Melvin And Howard
His next features- comedy Handle With Care (1977) and neo-noir Last Embrace (1979)- were relatively ignored but Demme began to make his name with the 1980 comedy-drama Melvin And Howard, the outrageous story of Utah service station owner Melvin Dummar who was listed as the beneficiary for a multi-million-dollar will allegedly written by the eccentric, reclusive millionaire Howard Hughes. Starring Paul Le Mat as Melvin and Jason Robards as Hughes, the fim was nominated for three Oscars, winning two (for Best Original Screenplay and Best Supporting Actress for Mary Steenburgen).

Demme's success with Melvin And Howard led to him being signed to direct Swing Shift. A romantic drama set during World War II, it stars Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell. Whilst it was intended to be a prestige picture for Warner Brothers, as well as a major commercial movie for Demme, it didn't end up as either; Demme clashed with Hawn (who was also producing) about the tone of the film- he wanted it serious, she saw it as a more lighthearted comedy- and he eventually renounced the finished product. Allegedly, a bootleg VHS of Demme's director's cut of the film exists which is radically different to the theatrical release. Despite the troubled production, the film received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress (for Christine Lahti's performance as Hazel).

After Swing Shift, Demme moved on to other projects- creating the concert movie Stop Making Sense for the band Talking Heads, filming Spalding Gray's monologue Swimming To Cambodia and directing a documentary about Haiti's democratic rebuilding after dictatorship. In 1989, he directed crime comedy Married To The Mob starring Michelle Pfeiffer, Matthew Modine and Dean Stockwell (who got a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nod for his performance as a mafia boss infatuated with Pfeiffer's character). 

Demme's career by this point was already incredibly eclectic and, in 1991, he added another genre to his filmography- thriller- when he directed The Silence Of The Lambs. The film adaptation of Thomas Harris' 1988 thriller, The Silence Of The Lambs is widely considered as one of the best book-to-screen adaptations. It is also a masterclass in tension, character and pace. Demme's direction is superb and he gets superlative performances from his entire cast with Anthony Hopkins' chilling yet urbane turn as Hannibal Lecter cementing him in cinematic history. Released on Valentine's Day 1991, the movie grossed over $270 million dollars at the box office and is one of only three films to win the Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Screenplay. The Silence Of The Lambs was Demme's first and only nomination for Best Director. 

Demme with Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins at the 1992 Oscars
From serial killer thriller to courtroom drama as Demme's next film was Philadelphia (1993), with Tom Hanks as the HIV-positive lawyer suing his employers for wrongful dismissal.  Hanks went on to win the Best Actor Oscar for his thoughful and heartfelt performance. In 1998, Demme directed the film adaptation of Toni Morrison's novel Beloved with Oprah Winfrey, Danny Glover and Thandie Newton in the cast and, in 2002, he directed The Truth About Charlie (a loose remake of the 1963 Cary Grant movie Charade). 


Demme then directed the 2004 remake of The Manchurian Candidate with Denzel Washington, Liev Schreiber and Meryl Streep. As remakes go, it's pretty good- updating the Cold War paranoia of the 1960s to a post-9/11 world. After this, he worked on documentaries about singer Neil Young and former US President Jimmy Carter before returning to feature films in 2008 with the low-budget drama Rachel Getting Married, a story of addiction and deep family secrets. Anne Hathaway received her first Oscar nod for her lead role as Kym.

Demme continued to make documentaries- including two more about Neil Young, one about musician Kenny Chesney and one about Carolyn Parker (the last woman to leave her neighbourhood when Hurrican Katrina struck New Orleans). He also directed for TV, shooting episodes of A Gifted Man, Enlightened and two episodes of the US version of The Killing. He also directed A Master Builder and the 2015 Meryl Streep movie Ricki And The Flash. His last completed film before his passing was a musical documentary about Justin Timberlake.  

Aside from feature and documentary work, Demme also directed music videos, including 'I Got You Babe' by UB40 and Chrissie Hynde, 'Streets of Philadelphia' and 'Murder Incorporated' by Bruce Springsteen,  'The Perfect Kiss' by New Order and 'Gidget Goes To Hell' by Suburban Lawns. 

Few directors can lay claim to such a varied and eclectic filmography but, as Edgar Wright said him his tribute, 'he could do anything'. Demme could never be pigeonholed as a drama director, a thriller director. He was successful at all genres, always able to get strong performances from his cast and working well with his cinematographers to get a strong visual style. Tributes have been paid by many actors, writers and directors with Kevin Smith praising Demme's 'honest cinematic storytelling' and Jim Jarmusch calling him an 'inspiring filmmaker... and truly wonderful and generous person'.

He is survived by his wife and three children. Our thoughts are with them at this very sad time.

The Watchers
(Rhys, Matt & Tez)

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