On Wednesday morning, news broke that acclaimed director Jonathan Demme passed away at the age of 73. In honor of the man behind so many indelible classics, The Ringer staff came together to celebrate our favorite entries in Demme’s filmography.
‘The Silence of the Lambs’ (1991)
Michael Baumann: When I was a little kid, I was terrified that my house would catch on fire and I’d burn to death in my sleep. I kept my bedroom door closed at night because I thought it might give me a few more seconds to climb out the window in the event of a fire, and some nights I’d just stare at the door looking for smoke until I was too tired to be afraid. That’s how America has treated Hannibal Lecter over the past 30-odd years — too afraid of him to look away — thanks largely to Jonathan Demme.
The best parts of Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs, certainly the most memorable, come when Clarice Starling is interrogating Lecter, and Demme, by placing them at the end of a long, dark hallway and boring his camera straight through Jodie Foster’s eyes, evinces a unique sense of fear. The erudite, professorial Lecter, with a voice that could lull you to sleep, would be a reassuring figure if he weren’t going to eat you once you nodded off. Lecter’s scary because he turns something comforting into a deadly threat, and because Demme placed us so totally in Starling’s head, making her, and us, feel so entirely alone at the end of that hallway.
And then the lights go out in Jame Gumb’s house.
From when Buffalo Bill turns out the lights to when Starling shoots him is only, somehow, about a minute and a half. A minute and a half of mostly corny, greenwashed, early-’90s night vision that is still one of the most terrifying, stressful things I’ve ever seen on film. Silence is scarier than a mysterious noise, and what you can’t see is scarier than any image, particularly when you know something’s out there. The Silence of the Lambs is great because of its story, dialogue, and characters; and because of the performances that embedded those characters in the culture for a generation; but also because Demme, who wasn’t really a horror director at all, understood the difference between fright and fear.
K. Austin Collins: Very few of us went to see Beloved, Jonathan Demme’s challenging adaptation of Toni Morrison’s even more difficult novel, when it came out in 1998. So few of us, in fact, that the movie’s producer and star, Oprah Winfrey, went into a depression after the movie bombed. It was always going to be a tough sell: Morrison + slavery + child murder + a gurgling, baby-voiced ghost played by Thandie Newton doesn’t exactly beckon audiences to the multiplex. Perhaps we ought to have known, however, to put our faith in Demme, whose remarkable talent (at least, one among many) was for giving difficult, weirdo movies a mainstream gloss that never condescended to the audience nor ever abandoned their latent strangeness for the sake of making things easier. That’s the beauty of a movie like Beloved, which anchors the lyrical surrealism of Morrison’s novel in a brutal historical reality that only a good movie can provide. Demme’s skill as a filmmaker was to meet his subjects where they were. Few movies are better proof of that than Beloved, which would seem like a complete outlier in his canon but is, in fact, the consummation of everything that makes him worth remembering, studying, and falling in love with as a filmmaker.
“La Mamma Morta” in ‘Philadelphia’ (1993)
Chris Ryan: Music was often a character in Jonathan Demme films. It was also used to illuminate character. For as groundbreaking as it felt at the time — two of the biggest movie stars in the world making a film about homophobia and the AIDS epidemic — Philadelphia is one of Demme’s most traditional efforts: a big, mainstream, issue-driven courtroom drama. Atypical of the rest of the movie, this scene of Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington’s characters listening to Maria Callas together plays like a dream. The way Demme uses camera movement and lighting to show the audience what listening to great music feels like will always stay with me. Washington, in a way, is on the outside of the moment, a spectator to Hanks’s catharsis, but in some ways he is the subject. As the scene goes on, with Hanks’s ascension with his angel Maria, Washington bears witness.
‘Stop Making Sense’ (1984)
Rob Harvilla: It all comes down to David Byrne dancing with the lamp. Stop Making Sense, Demme’s 1984 full-concert collaboration with Talking Heads at the height of the band’s powers as both pop supernovas and art-school weirdos, is beloved and iconic for a great many things. The deconstructed set, pushed onstage piece-by-piece and song-by-song, along with the musicians themselves. The way the audience is almost never shown, sparing us the corny adoring-fan reaction shots de rigueur in most concert films and hair-metal videos. The living-room spareness of the lighting, heightening both the oddity and the intimacy. The way it idolizes Byrne himself, frontman and ringmaster and cartoon character and philosopher, a warbling Gumby Aristotle. But it still comes down to “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody),” whereupon Byrne dances with the lamp.
How bizarre, how beautiful. Demme worked with a great many rock and pop stars, from Neil Young to Justin Timberlake, but this is his crowning glory, and the band’s, and the whole concert-doc medium’s. It’s also my favorite version of my favorite song from one of my favorite bands. Stop Making Sense vaporized the physical and emotional barriers between The Band and The Crowd, plus The Listener and The Music, plus The Man and The Lamp. Stars are just like us, and we’re just like stars.
‘Rachel Getting Married’ (2008)
Kate Knibbs: When I first saw Rachel Getting Married in college, my friends and I talked about how we’d love to have an intimate, multicultural, tender wedding like Rachel’s — without her family and its baggage, of course. Jonathan Demme’s genius was that he knew you couldn’t have one without the other, which is why Rachel Getting Married is one of the most honest-feeling films about family ever, simultaneously hectic and meditative, joyful and agonized. Demme’s documentary style anchors the film away from saccharine moments or too much melodrama, and allows much of the cast to do career-best work. It’s still incredibly bizarre to me that Anne Hathaway won an Oscar for crying while bald in the most forgettable version of Les Mis when her turn as the ruinous narcissist Kym in Rachel Getting Married is far and away her finest performance. I can barely look at Bill Irwin now without getting weepy remembering his turn as a gentle, damaged father. Also, WHY isn’t Tunde Adebimpe in more movies? Rachel Getting Married features the single most romantic wedding-vows scene ever committed to film and I’d like to award Adebimpe and Demme (posthumously) a joint Oscar for Making Monogamy Extremely Appealing.
‘Something Wild’ (1986)
Lindsay Zoladz: The best musical moment in a Jonathan Demme movie that does not involve David Byrne happens in his freewheeling, opposites-attract, road-trip caper Something Wild, when New Jersey cult favorites the Feelies appear as the house band at a high school reunion, playing the weirdest cover of Bowie’s “Fame” ever put to film. It’s a total casting curveball, and it’s perfect. Jeff Daniels, Melanie Griffith, and Ray Liotta all dance jauntily to the rhythms of the beloved post-punk band — a bit of world-clashing magic that only a filmmaker with Demme’s underground cachet and knowledge could pull off. Something Wild was the American Breathless of the 1980s, a gleefully sloppy road film propelled by the odd-couple energy of its leads and the kitschy, loaded reference points lingering in the details. It’s not the most important movie Demme ever made, but its caustic comedy, worn-in texture, and ramshackle rhythms make it, for me at least, the easiest one to love.
‘Married to the Mob’ (1988)
Sean Fennessey: It’s become common for film fans to complain about the loss of the middle — the adult drama, the erotic thriller, the romantic comedy — the movies that carried movie water between installments of the major studios’ franchise rollouts. What’s missing from those panicked expressions is the uncategorizable. Demme specialized in those kinds of movies — he played with tone and expectation as much as any American filmmaker in the 1980s and ’90s.
On its face, Married to the Mob looks like one more high-concept Reagan-era comedy — like Twins or Crocodile Dundee. But it is more than that — a violent melodrama, a Vaudevillian performance piece, and a revival of what was once known as “a woman’s picture.” Michelle Pfeiffer plays the fed-up suburban wife of a rising Mafia member (a slick and serpentine Alec Baldwin), who moves to New York City after his murder to escape the gangster lifestyle. Demme was uncommonly deft at crafting films with complicated, smart women at the center — The Silence of the Lambs, Something Wild, Beloved, Rachel Getting Married — and despite the goofy “Mambo Italiano” casing this movie is wrapped in, there is something steely and real about Pfeiffer’s character’s pursuit. Pfeiffer would be nominated for an Oscar for another role that year, Dangerous Liaisons, but Married to the Mob is her at her best. She would be nominated for six consecutive Golden Globes starting with Mob, and this movie essentially started her run as a major film actress. (An unusual, typically Demme-ian fact: none of the stars in the movie are of Italian descent.)
Married to the Mob was released two years before Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, and three years before Demme’s masterwork, The Silence of the Lambs. It may not have seemed like it at the time, and it wasn’t a huge financial success, but the movie presaged a series of suburban gangster stories with discomfiting comedy at their center, culminating in The Sopranos 10 years later. As usual, Demme was ahead of the curve.