Jonathan Demme emerged from the halcyon days of low-budget genre filmmaking—he began as a member of Roger Corman's stable of writers in the 1970s—to become one of Hollywood's most critically admired directors in the 80s and 90s. He learned the craft of directing making cheapie action crime films such as CAGED HEAT (1974) and CRAZY MAMA (1975). Demme enhanced his reputation with a series of lyrical sketches on rural Americana but is now best known for his fast-paced, hip, urban style. THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1991) finally brought him huge commercial success, the strongest reviews of his career, and several major awards, including an Oscar for Best Director.
After a few semesters at the University of Florida marked by his success as a film reviewer for his college newspaper, Demme moved to New York, where from 1966 to 1968 he was a publicist at Embassy Pictures. During this period he also wrote movie reviews for Film Daily and rock reviews for Fusion and made the 16mm short film, GOOD MORNING, STEVE. During a brief stint as a producer of TV commercials in 1969, Demme earned his first feature film credit, as music coordinator on the Irving Allen-produced SUDDEN TERROR (1970)/EYEWITNESS. A meeting with producer Roger Corman led to Demme's first feature as co-producer and co-screenwriter (with director Joe Viola), ANGELS HARD AS THEY COME (1971), for Corman's recently-formed New World Pictures. Demme worked on four more features under Corman's auspices, making his directorial debut in 1974 with CAGED HEAT before branching out on his own. CITIZEN'S BAND (1977), later retitled HANDLE WITH CARE, is a series of vignettes, ranging from the mundane to the whimsical to the disturbing, concerning CB radio operators who are dominated by their radio personae. The film, which wavers between glorifying, lampooning and seriously questioning the implications of the CB craze, earned critical acclaim but generated little box-office enthusiasm.
He continued his exploration of the American condition in MELVIN AND HOWARD (1980), a relaxed yet revealing account of an unlikely encounter between a working-class everyman (gas station owner Melvin Dummar) and an eccentric millionaire (Howard Hughes, whom Dummar claimed had named him sole heir to his fortune). Named best picture by the National Society of Film Critics, this satiric yet tolerant look at the American class structure also won Demme the New York Film Critics Society's best director award. SWING SHIFT (1984) had the potential to be a probing look at women factory workers during WWII, but the film suffered from disagreements between Demme and star-producer Goldie Hawn over plot development and editing. Demme tried to focus on female camaraderie and endurance in the face of domineering male employers; Hawn chose to dwell on the doomed love affair between a married woman and her supervisor. Disjointed and awkward, the film lacks Demme's typical balance, polish and wit. An enthusiastic contemporary music fan, Demme compiled footage from three concerts by rock group Talking Heads into STOP MAKING SENSE (1984). This superior performance film recreated the feel of the live performances by avoiding quick cutting and cutaways to the audience. Joyously energetic yet cool, this showcase helped propel the band to mainstream acceptance.
Demme also directed several rock videos for other bands, including UB40, New Order ("Perfect Kiss" 1985) and Fine Young Cannibals ("Ever Fallen in Love?"). These artists and quite a few others contributed songs to the lively and memorable sound track of SOMETHING WILD (1986), for which Laurie Anderson and John Cale wrote the fine score. SOMETHING WILD (1986) was a darkly comic road movie that examined contemporary America through the metaphoric relationship between a spontaneous gamine and a staid stockbroker. Rapid editing, sharp camera angles and a bouncy pace made for a breathless, dizzying movie experience. The film's hip urban sensibility marked a change for Demme, as did the return to violence largely unseen since his early days with Corman. He followed this commercial failure (but critical success) with another artful and subtle performance film, SWIMMING TO CAMBODIA (1987), featuring the celebrated monologuist Spalding Gray telling a memorable story ostensibly about his experiences playing a minor role in THE KILLING FIELDS (1984).
Demme achieved his greatest critical and commercial success with THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1991), superbly adapted from the novel by Thomas Harris. A genuinely terrifying thriller, the film centers on an FBI trainee (Jodie Foster) who enlists the help of one psychopath (Anthony Hopkins) in order to track down another (Ted Levine). Despite the grisly nature of the story—one killer who eats his victims, another who skins them, etc.—Demme resisted the possibilities for exploitation and instead fashioned a compelling psychological drama with a courageous, independent female protagonist. He also elicited landmark performances from both Foster and Hopkins. Following in the footsteps of IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT (1934) and ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST (1975), the film went on to win the five top Oscars: Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay. Often associated with progressive causes, Demme has lent his talents to projects that reflect his political concerns, such as HAITI DREAMS OF DEMOCRACY (1988), which he co-wrote, co-produced and co-directed. He also helmed and appeared in COUSIN BOBBY (1991), a documentary about his cousin, the Reverend Robert Castle, a progressive priest based in Harlem. Demme was stung by the charges of homophobia leveled at THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS from some members of the gay press who were concerned about how the general public would interpret the complex sexuality of the film's killer. Many view Demme's decision to film PHILADELPHIA (1993), a moving courtroom drama dealing with discrimination against gays and PWAs (People with AIDS), as an atonement. In any event, the film was a landmark in mainstream Hollywood history. Though it was greeted with mixed reviews, PHILADELPHIA provided an attention-getting dramatic role for Tom Hanks as the AIDS-afflicted gay lawyer who loses his job when he becomes symptomatic.
Demme has begun to establish himself as a producer, overseeing such diverse features as MIAMI BLUES (1990), AMOS & ANDREW and HOUSEHOLD SAINTS (both 1993). However, his primary interest remains directing. Of his work, Demme has said, "There's nothing I'd rather do than direct, because directing combines three of my favorite things in life: people, imagery and sound—not just music, but the sounds of life."
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