Filmmaker Jonathan Demme, whose Oscar-winning thriller The Silence of the Lambs terrified audiences and introduced one of the most indelible villains in movie history, died yesterday morning in New York of complications from esophageal cancer. His publicist said,
“Sadly, I can confirm that Jonathan passed away early this morning in his Manhattan apartment, surrounded by his wife, Joanne Howard, and three children. There will be a private family funeral.”
Demme was the director of such diverse films as the Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense, Philadelphia, and Beloved, based on Toni Morrison‘s bestseller about a 19th century slave haunted by the ghost of her daughter.
But he’s best known for Silence of the Lambs, based on Thomas Harris‘ novel, which swept the Academy Awards the following year, winning Oscars for best picture and its two stars, Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins and one for Demme as best director.
Demme’s big breakthrough was Melvin and Howard, a 1980 film about a much-disputed encounter between gas station owner Melvin Dummar and reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes.
Unlike many directors of his generation, Demme didn’t go to film school. He broke into the industry through a friendship with cult filmmaker Roger Corman, who hired him to write and direct low-budget genre movies like Caged Heat, about inmates in a women’s prison.
Over a career that spanned four decades Demme directed an eclectic mix of films, including the Michelle Pfeiffer comedy Married to the Mob, the Melanie Griffith –Jeff Daniels road-trip adventure Something Wild, and a remake of political thriller The Manchurian Candidate with Denzel Washington and Meryl Streep. His final film was 2015’s Ricki and the Flash starring Streep as an aging rocker.
Yesterday tributes pouring out of Hollywood. Jodie Foster said in a statement to Rolling Stone,
“I am heartbroken to lose a friend, a mentor, a guy so singular and dynamic you’d have to design a hurricane to contain him. Jonathan was as quirky as his comedies and as deep as his dramas. He was pure energy; the unstoppable cheerleader for anyone creative.”
Tom Hanks, who won an Oscar for Philadelphia, said in a statement to EW,
“Jonathan taught us how big a heart a person can have, and how it will guide how we live and what we do for a living. He was the grandest of men.”
The watershed movie for the gay community and AIDS, was Philadelphia, based in part on the life of the late illustrator Juan Botas who was a good friend of mine and who went to school with Demme’s wife, Joanne. Juan was spanish and his boyfriend, my pal Billy Cole was from Philly, so when the story was written the roles were reversed, with Antonio Bandares as Billy and Tom Hanks as Juan. The last shot in Philadelphia of Hank’s memorial are of Juan’s work and an altar with candles. After Juan’s death I made a memorial poster –like ones I did for Andy Warhol and Salvador Dali– and Jonathan used it as the last shot in his documentary about Juan’s life called, One Foot on a Banana Peel (the Other in the Grave).
Jonathan Demme was 73.