Acclaimed filmmaker Jonathan Demme, know to most for directing The Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia, passed away last week at the age of 73. Known for his personal approach to filmmaking, Demme left behind an extensive portfolio of work, ranging from documentaries, independent films, cult remakes, and blockbuster dramas. His early work dates back to 1970s satire films like Fighting Mad and Handle with Care. Melvin and Howard made the director a household name in 1980, and Mr. Demme went on to direct a number of films and documentaries before making history in the early 1990s with Silence and Philadelphia. Both were box-office successes and culturally significant films that touched on a number of highly debated issues.
The Silence of the Lambs featured Jodie Foster in the role of a female FBI trainee named Clarice Starling. She is assigned to interview a cannibalistic psychiatrist named Hannibal Lecter, who may hold clues that can help her hunt down the serial killer Buffalo Bill. Hannibal Lecter was portrayed by Welsh stage-actor Anthony Hopkins. Under the direction of Demme, both actors received Oscars for their performances, and the film received the Best Picture Oscar in 1991.
Silence was not only a blockbuster success, but also socially significant. It featured a young, vulnerable woman as its heroine protagonist, but also angered many in the gay community for its portrayal of a transexual as a violent, psychopathic serial killer. What followed for Demme was Philadelphia. Starring Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington, Philadelphia tells the story of a young, up-and-coming lawyer who is fired from his firm after they discover he is HIV positive. It was the first major film to discuss AIDS, homosexuality, and homophobia in a direct light, and won two Oscars in 1994 for Best Actor and Best Music/Original Song, Bruce Springsteen’s Streets of Philadelphia.
Following Silence and Philadelphia, director Demme went on to direct a variety of films throughout his career. Married to the Mob with Michelle Pfeiffer and Alec Baldwin was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar; he adapted Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved, and helmed a remake of the 1962 Cold War thriller The Manchurian Candidate. One of his other passions in film and life, however, was rock music. He directed a number of “rock-docs” on The Pretenders and Bruce Springsteen, as well as several on Neil Young, including 2006’s Heart of Gold and 2011’s Journeys. One of his final films, Ricki and the Flash, stars Meryl Streep as a wanna-be rock star who returns home to make amends with her family. Jonathan Demme may not have been behind any comic-book blockbusters or new-age comedies, but his personal style and passion as a filmmaker has helped sew the fabric of American film. He is survived by his wife and three daughters, and will surely be missed to all in film.