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Jonathan Demme (1944 - 2017)

AP Photo / Domenico Stinellis

Jonathan Demme (1944 - 2017)

Director Jonathan Demme, who won an Academy Award for “The Silence of the Lambs,” died Wednesday, April 26, 2017, at 73. His publicist told multiple news outlets that Demme died from complications of cancer.

In a 46-year career in Hollywood, Demme is best known for directing 1991’s “The Silence of the Lambs” and 1993’s “Philadelphia.” His most recent feature was 2015’s “Ricki and the Flash,” which starred Meryl Streep as an aging rock star.

After starting out directing television commercials, Demme’s film career began in the early 1970’s, writing and directing for B-movie producer Roger Corman. His earliest film credit is as a screenwriter on 1971’s biker movie “Angels Hard as They Come,” and 1974’s “Caged Heat,” written by Demme to satisfy Corman’s desire to fill the “women in prison” niche of exploitation films, was Demme’s directorial debut.

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1980’s “Melvin and Howard” was Demme’s first film to win critical acclaim. “Melvin and Howard” is a fictionalized account of a true story, an encounter between reclusive movie mogul Howard Hughes (played by Jason Robards) and a Utah gas station attendant, Melvin Dummar (Paul Le Mat). The film also starred Mary Steenburgen, who won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance. 

“Melvin and Howard,” widely praised by critics including Roger Ebert and Pauline Kael and nominated for a number of Academy Awards and Golden Globes, marked the beginning of a string of successful films for Demme, including 1984’s Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn vehicle “Swing Shift,” 1986’s “Something Wild,” starring Melanie Griffith and Jeff Daniels, and the 1988 comedy “Married to the Mob,” which featured Michelle Pfeiffer as a mobster’s wife attempting to detach herself from the mafia.

At the same time, Demme was also directing a number of successful documentaries, including the 1984 Talking Heads concert film “Stop Making Sense,” praised by critic Pauline Kael as “close to perfection;” and the Spalding Gray monologue “Swimming to Cambodia” (1987).

But it was 1991’s thriller “The Silence of the Lambs” and 1993’s “Philadelphia” that cemented Demme’s place in the pantheon of great film directors. “The Silence of the Lambs,” based on a novel of the same name by Thomas Harris, starred Jodie Foster as FBI agent Clarice Starling, who must consult with imprisoned serial killer Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) to track down another killer. The film was a huge critical and popular success, one only three films to win all five major Academy Awards:  Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Screenplay. 

In the years since its release, “The Silence of the Lambs” has only grown in stature. The American Film Institute included it in its 1998 list of the 100 greatest films in the past 100 years. The AFI also named Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter the greatest villain in film history. One of Demme’s directorial trademarks, extreme facial close-ups in which the subject looks directly into the camera, is particularly well displayed in a scene from “The Silence of the Lambs”: 

Demme followed up “The Silence of the Lambs” with the 1993 drama “Philadelphia,” starring Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington. “Philadelphia,” one of the first major movies to deal in depth with the topics of HIV/AIDS and homophobia, is loosely based on a 1987 lawsuit alleging wrongful dismissal because of AIDS discrimination. Roger Ebert called the film “a ground-breaker like ‘Guess Who's Coming to Dinner,’” and Tom Hanks won the Best Actor Academy Award and Golden Globe for his performance.

Demme’s films since “Philadelphia” include 1998’s “Beloved,” a thriller based on a Toni Morrison novel; a 2004 remake of “The Manchurian Candidate,” 2007’s “Man from Plains,” a documentary about former U.S. President Jimmy Carter; and 2008’s “Rachel Getting Married,” widely seen as a return to successful return to the style of Demme’s early 1980s films. 

Demme was diagnosed with and successfully treated for esophageal cancer in 2010. He continued working, most recently directing 2015’s “Ricki and the Flash,” in which Meryl Streep plays an aging musician attempting to make amends with her family, and the 2016 concert movie  “Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids.” 

Demme’s cancer recurred in 2015 and he had been in a period of declining health since then. He is survived by his wife, Joanne Howard, and three children. He had previously been married to fellow director Evelyn Purcell.

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