Inside the award-winning film career of Jonathan Demme
The film world lost one of its greats Wednesday with the death of Jonathan Demme, the eclectic director of Oscar winners “Silence of the Lambs” and “Philadelphia,” who also helmed the groundbreaking Talking Heads concert film “Stop Making Sense.” He was 73.
The Baldwin, LI-born director died in his New York apartment of complications from esophageal cancer, his publicist said.
While 1991’s “Lambs” seemed an unlikely film to win the “Big 5” at the Academy Awards (Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress and Screenplay) — being about a Chianti-drinking cannibal and the fledgling FBI agent who needs his help — it did, one of three films ever to complete the sweep.
“I was madly in love with close-ups because I’m madly in love with actors,” Demme said. “And a basic premise of ‘Silence of the Lambs’ is the story about two people, fighting their way into each others’ heads.”
His early comedies delved deeply into the humanity the director would come to make the central focus of everything he did.
“Melvin and Howard,” with Jason Robards as Howard Hughes, did double duty as comedy and portrait of a particular brand of all-American striver.
“Swing Shift,” ostensibly a rom-com with a real-life couple, Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell, “may be the first buddy movie about women,” Roger Ebert wrote in his 1984 review, noting the dynamic between Hawn and co-star Christine Lahti.
Demme honed his close-up work with 1986’s “Something Wild,” a sexy romp that introduced the world to Ray Liotta, in a breakout role as Melanie Griffith’s psychotic ex-husband.
Meanwhile, he was developing another arm of his career as a music documentarian. His 1984 concert film, “Stop Making Sense,” captures the Talking Heads at their creative apex and is regarded as perhaps the genre’s finest work.
Demme trained his lens on a sprawling range of American stories throughout his career, from the 1993 AIDS drama “Philadelphia” to monologue genius Spalding Gray in 1987’s “Swimming to Cambodia.” He poked at Mafia wives in the 1988 comedy “Married to the Mob,” adapted Toni Morrison’s post-slavery ghost story, “Beloved,” in 1998 and captured intricate family politics in 2008’s “Rachel Getting Married.”
A longtime resident of Upper Nyack, Demme was an active film-community member in Manhattan and at Pleasantville’s Jacob Burns Arts Center.
He is survived by his wife Joanne Howard and their three children.