Filmsmiths ‘Essentials’ Series: Jonathan Demme

On April 26th, the world lost the talented and beloved writer/director/producer, Jonathan Demme. While much has been written about Demme’s fight with esophageal cancer and the outpouring of grief from his many friends and colleagues in the Hollywood community, some are still unfamiliar with Demme’s directorial work. This installment in our Essentials series serves as an introduction to Jonathan Demme’s filmography for those who haven’t been exposed to this talented man’s movies.
Jonathan Demme got his start in Hollywood under the tutelage of Roger Corman, the exploitation director and studio head who specializes in B-movies made cheaply and quickly. As many before him, Demme used his time with Corman to perfect his skills, which prepared him to work on more mainstream, Hollywood fare. But Demme always mixed it up, working in a variety of genres, including comedy, drama, documentary and live concert films. If you’re looking for an entry point into Demme’s work, here are some suggestions:


Stop Making Sense (1984)

If you want an example of how to direct a great concert film, watch Demme’s “Stop Making Sense.” Shot at Hollywood’s Pantages Theater in late 1983 over three nights, The Talking Heads, fronted by David Byrne, perform 18 songs with little audience interaction. The film starts with an empty stage, Byrne enters, and then is joined by each additional member of the band. Instruments and recording equipment are added to the once bare stage. Stop Making Sense breaks all the rules of a concert film; there are no screaming fans, no pyrotechnics, no cuts to band members talking about the songs backstage. The film helped establish The Talking Heads as one of the most innovative bands of the era, and cemented David Byrne’s image as a quirky musical visionary.


Married To The Mob  (1988)

Michelle Pfeiffer’s performance in the combination gangster film screwball farce established her as a bona fide movie star. This fish-out-of-water comedy romance follows the wife of a mob boss to New York City as she tries to discover who she is without the mob entanglements. That includes maneuvering through a web of men who don’t always have her best interests at heart, including Dean Stockwell, who plays Tony “the Tiger” Russo, and Matthew Modine, an undercover FBI agent. Critics tend to respond more positively to this film than did audiences when it was released. But trust me, give this charming film a shot. It is reminiscent of classic 1940s screwball comedies and seems to age well as a bit of nostalgia for the 1980s.


The Silence Of The Lambs  (1991)

Silence of the Lambs is truly in a league of its own. Many see this as Jonathan Demme’s crowning achievement. Is there any need at this point to summarize the plot of this film? Hannibal Lecter, Clarice Starling, a reference to fava beans and chianti. Yeah, you know the movie. I think it’s fair to call this movie a masterpiece. The story is engrossing and scary, but it’s not like your typical horror film fare. It’s smartly written, and brilliantly performed by the entire cast. Of course Jodie Foster as Clarice and Anthony Hopkins as Lecter both picked up Oscars for their work in this film. In fact, this film won the “Big Five” Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director for Demme, Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Adapted Screenplay. It was only the third film in history to sweep the top awards. And it was done with a paltry $19 million dollar budget (but went on to gross over 272 million at the box office). If for some reason you have put off watching this classic film, please do so immediately. You will not regret it.


Philadelphia (1993)

As much as I gush about the greatness of Silence of the Lambs, Demme’s follow up is just as good. Released in 1993, Philadelphia was one of the first widely released Hollywood studio pictures to tackle the HIV/AIDS epidemic. At that time, being diagnosed as HIV positive was basically a death sentence. Little funding and research had been dedicated to fighting the disease, due to widespread homophobia, and hate-fueled inaction by politicians like Jesse Helms, who openly stated that AIDS victims deserved their fate.
The film focuses on Andrew Beckett, played brilliantly by Tom Hanks. He is diagnosed with AIDS, and when his high-priced law firm catches wind of his diagnosis and sexual orientation, he is fired. Beckett sues the powerful firm with the help of the ambulance-chaser Joe Miller. Denzel Washington portrays Miller with a realism that cut to the heart of American homophobia. Miller has to overcome his own bias, and does so over the course of the film. Washington’s performance is moving and the perfect counterpoint to Hanks’ turn as Beckett.
Of course, it’s important to note that this film was also criticized by LGBTQ+ activists, including Larry Kramer (founder of ACT UP) as being too conservative. The film portrays a tender and loving relationship between Hanks’ Beckett and his partner Miguel (Antonio Banderas), but not a physically romantic one. The film also takes no strong stance regarding the lack of AIDS research funding. However, in hindsight, casting Hanks and Washington in the lead roles allowed the film to be accessible to a huge audience. Scenes of Hanks and Banderas in bed together were cut. But Hanks’ moving portrayal and connection with the audience drove home the horrors of both the disease, and homophobia (another disease plaguing the country).

Demme achieved something special in the scene featuring Hanks and, the Maria Callas’ opera, as the room is enveloped in red light. Callas’ voice mixes with Hanks’ performance in way that heightens the emotion and effectiveness of the monologue. Hanks went on to win a Best Actor Oscar for his turn as Andrew Beckett. How Denzel Washington wasn’t nominated remains a mystery.


Rachel Getting Married (2008)

For some reason, this quiet Demme film gets very little attention these days. But that’s a shame, because it’s a solid dramatic turn for the director. Working with a low-key, but powerful script written by Jenny Lumet (daughter of director Sydney Lumet and granddaughter of Lena Horne), Demme introduces us to Kym Buchman (Anne Hathaway), who gets a reprieve from drug rehab to attend her sister Rachel’s (Rosemarie DeWitt) wedding. The film is a brilliant deep dive into dysfunctional family dynamics, addiction, and the impact of a guilty conscience. Hathaway was nominated for an Oscar for her performance, and the film was widely lauded by critics.

Other work by Demme you might want to check out includes his remake of The Manchurian Candidate (2004), Man from Plains (2007), I’m Carolyn Parker (2011), and Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids (2016).

Patty Williamson

I teach media-related stuff at Central Michigan University, and have been ruining film for students for nearly 20 years.

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Robert C. Mercieca

This is a wonderful tribute to a great filmmaker. Thanks, Patty. Well done…applause applause…