Jonathan Demme: 'A storyteller of bold and muscular force' | Peter Bradshaw

The Silence of the Lambs director, who has died aged 73, was an artist of brilliance and intuition as well as a master craftsman of great character dramas

The colossally talented and productive Jonathan Demme never assumed or wanted the status of an auteur, and in fact his one consciously cinephile project, The Truth About Charlie in 2002 – a remake of the 1960s caper Charade with nods to Truffaut – was not much liked. But Demme was a ceaselessly inventive and creative film-maker, a storyteller of bold and muscular force; a director who was plugged into the energies of commercial Hollywood cinema and who had imbibed the work ethic and the play ethic of his early mentor and producer Roger Corman.

From Corman he learnt the values of populism and crowd-pleasing, and simply getting movies made on an industrial basis, and he developed this ethos which he endowed with something of the indie new wave spirit, morphing into 1980s brashness. He created cult hits like Melvin and Howard, Something Wild and Married to the Mob. But his career ascended to yet greater heights with some of the biggest hits of the 1990s: prominently Philadelphia, the HIV-Aids drama starring Tom Hanks — and of course the stone-cold grand guignol classic, The Silence of the Lambs, in 1991. This was the film which got him his best director Oscar: the hugely lucrative and award-garlanded version of Thomas Harris’s macabre novel about the serial killer Hannibal the Cannibal.

Tom Hanks and Antono Banderas in Philadelphia.
Tom Hanks and Antonio Banderas in Philadelphia. Photograph: Allstar/TRISTAR PICTURES

The movie made an A-list Hollywood star of Anthony Hopkins and cemented Jodie Foster’s reputation as a superb screen actor. And it increased Demme’s already considerable industry clout. It was Demme who orchestrated Hopkins and Foster’s great scenes together, creating big moments, big scares, big closeups. Demme shaped one of the great dialogue scenes of Hollywood history: Lecter and Clarice Starling’s tense, needling, teasing back-and-forth either side of his reinforced glass screen. Demme had found a way of linking Dr Lecter and Starling with the murky psychological forces behind myths which had mastered the public in the past: Beauty and the Beast, or King Kong and Fay Wray, or Count Dracula and Lucy Westenra. He had put a thrilling new twist on an age-old theme: a scary male predator who faces off with an apparently defenceless beautiful woman, and yet there is something ambiguously protective and even bizarrely romantic about their relationship.

And alongside all this, Demme had a parallel life as a brilliant and intuitive director of music documentaries, including a film which has actually some claim to be his masterpiece: Stop Making Sense, a concert film about Talking Heads, which he encouraged to be played at “concert volume” in cinemas, and which was a key zeitgeist text of the 1980s. Demme located something weirdly iconic in David Byrne in his “big suit”: something subversive and alien, humorous and playful and bohemian, but not hostile or confrontational, a mood which made its own accommodation with the spirit of the 1980s.

In the 1970s, Demme had become a trashsploitation apprentice to the great sorcerer Corman, moreover building the skills necessary for action and comedy. He made the women’s prison pulp feature Caged Heat – maybe that was a schooling for the caged heat that Dr Lecter was going to bring 20 years later – and the knockabout pictures Crazy Mama and Fighting Mad. His Biblical cult thriller Last Embrace in 1979 with Roy Scheider was entirely loopy, and may possibly have sown a tiny industry seed for The Da Vinci Code.

David Byrne in Stop Making Sense.
David Byrne in Stop Making Sense. Photograph: c.Island/Everett / Rex Features

In the 80s, his great character dramas emerged. Melvin and Howard was a kind of May-December bromance buddy picture, with one of the bromance mostly absent, based on a real-life news story: a humble gas station employee’s act of kindness to a hobo who turns out to be Howard Hughes, apparently puts him in line for a huge inheritance. It was a film with a lovely performance from Mary Steenburgen, who got an Oscar.

Demme worked with the great star of the time, Michelle Pfeiffer, in the very boisterous action comedy thriller Married to the Mob, in 1988 (with a musical score by David Byrne) and his Something Wild had the supercilious banker, played by Jeff Daniels, getting way out of his depth with a super-sexy woman he meets by chance, played by that other icon of 1980s Hollywood, Melanie Griffith. It became part of what was loosely called the “yuppie disaster” genre (of which Tom Wolfe’s novel The Bonfire of the Vanities, though not the woeful film version, became a key example.) Something Wild was a satire about the uptight conformism that underlay Reaganite America. Demme also gave a break to Ray Liotta in his pre-GoodFellas period.

Demme on the set of Rachel Getting Married, with Anne Hathaway.
Demme on the set of Rachel Getting Married, with Anne Hathaway. Photograph: Allstar/Sony Pictures Classics

And it all culminated, professionally, personally, artistically, in that crazy operatic megahit The Silence of the Lambs, which brought together Demme’s gift for pulp horror, his way with high-impact scenes and shrewd characterisation.

After this, he made an interestingly intended, but flawed attempt at remaking John Frankenheimer’s 60s conspiracy thriller The Manchurian Candidate — a project whose time had, arguably, not yet come. It would have beeen wonderful to see Demme do that movie now, in the era of Putin, Trump and kompromat. And in 2008, Demme boldly returned to his lo-fi indie roots with his Rachel Getting Married, a film whose reputation continues to grow: his handheld digital video style of shooting gave a rough immediacy to the troubled, egotistical substance abuser, very plausibly played by Anne Hathaway, who is allowed out of her residential facility to attend her sister’s wedding and may well wreck the whole thing. Demme again crafted a great springboard for a fascinating female performance.

Demme was a talent who bears comparison with Spielberg and Scorsese; he came up the same way they did, in many respects, but he perhaps did not have an authorial signature like theirs. Paul Thomas Anderson was a film-maker who admired Demme, and the punch and the speed of his early 90s pictures Hard Eight and Boogie Nights have a lot of Demme in them. Demme was an artist as well as a craftsman, with a flair for grabbing the audience and not letting go.


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Silence of the Lambs director Jonathan Demme dies aged 73
Oscar winning film-maker emerged from the American independent scene, and went on to direct a string of major social-issue films

Andrew Pulver

26, Apr, 2017 @3:44 PM

Article image
Happy birthday, Hannibal: The Silence of the Lambs turns 25
David Barnett: It's been a quarter of a century since Thomas Harris's cultured cannibal exploded on the thriller scene, winning fictional killers a place in our hearts for ever

David Barnett

01, Aug, 2013 @12:11 PM

Article image
The Silence of the Lambs review – psycho-killer Hannibal still chills
Jonathan Demme’s thrilling masterpiece holds up terrifically well after 26 years, as Anthony Hopkins plays perilous mind games with Jodie Foster

Peter Bradshaw

01, Nov, 2017 @3:00 PM

Article image
David Byrne pays tribute to Jonathan Demme: 'He was open, warm and energetic'
The Talking Heads frontman, who collaborated with Demme for the 1984 classic Stop Making Sense, recalls a director whose films were ‘different and special’

Guardian music

27, Apr, 2017 @8:48 AM

Article image
The 88 movies we're most excited about in 2015
Think 2014 was a good year for film? Think again. This year is shaping up to be one of the classics. Here’s what’s on our radar

Guardian Film

06, Jan, 2015 @3:23 PM

Article image
The Silence of the Lambs at 30: a landmark thriller of horror and humanity
Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins gave indelible performances in the Oscar-sweeping adaptation of Thomas Harris’s terrifying novel

Scott Tobias

14, Feb, 2021 @7:03 AM

Article image
Can Jonathan Demme give Stephen King's 11/22/63 a time-travelling twist?
Ben Child: The Silence of the Lambs director is taking on King's forthcoming novel about a man who goes back in time to save JFK. But will it just be Back to the Future with politics?

Ben Child

12, Aug, 2011 @10:53 AM

Article image
Curtis Hanson: a thrilling film-maker and effective exponent of mainstream Hollywood style
Hanson got Meryl Streep whitewater rafting, Eminem to act and brought James Ellroy’s cult novel LA Confidential brilliantly to life on film

Andrew Pulver

21, Sep, 2016 @2:02 PM

Article image
Video: In the director's chair with Jonathan Demme, director of Rachel Getting Married

The director of Rachel Getting Married talks to Jason Solomons about Anne Hathaway's character, The Silence of the Lambs and David Byrne's suit

Jason Solomons

16, Feb, 2009 @4:25 PM

Article image
The most exciting movies of 2020 – dramas
Paul Thomas Anderson announces his new film, Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci play a long-term couple and Tom Hanks maximises his awards chances with three releases

Guardian Film

30, Dec, 2019 @2:47 PM