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Jonathan Demme

Jonathan Demme


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Also Known As: Robert Jonathan Demme, Rob Morton Died: April 26, 2017
Born: February 22, 1944 Cause of Death:
Birth Place: Baldwin, New York, USA Profession: director, producer, screenwriter, music reviewer, publicist, film salesman, film reviewer, actor, usher, kennel worker, animal hospital worker, salesman


An incredibly energetic, optimistic and versatile director of character-driven films, Jonathan Demme emerged from the crucible of B-moviemaking at Roger Corman's New World Pictures in the early 1970s to become one of Hollywood's most critically admired filmmakers. Though he cut his teeth on a few cheapie action flicks like "Caged Heat" (1974) and "Crazy Mama" (1975), Demme tapped into the influence of foreign filmmakers like Francois Truffaut to use sly humor and an oddball style to explore human nature in fiercely intimate films like "Citizen's Band" (1977), "Melvin and Howard" (1980) and the troubled "Swing Shift" (1984). Though mainly interested in fictional storytelling, Demme also carved out a career in non-fiction filmmaking, including the critically acclaimed "Stop Making Sense" (1984), a rock documentary featuring Talking Heads that was widely considered to be one of the best examples of the genre. But Demme reserved his finest work for his most mainstream fare, particularly "The Silence of the Lambs" (1991), which became one of only three films to win Academy Awards in all five major Oscar categories and cemented his reputation as being one of the most versatile and accomplished filmmakers...

An incredibly energetic, optimistic and versatile director of character-driven films, Jonathan Demme emerged from the crucible of B-moviemaking at Roger Corman's New World Pictures in the early 1970s to become one of Hollywood's most critically admired filmmakers. Though he cut his teeth on a few cheapie action flicks like "Caged Heat" (1974) and "Crazy Mama" (1975), Demme tapped into the influence of foreign filmmakers like Francois Truffaut to use sly humor and an oddball style to explore human nature in fiercely intimate films like "Citizen's Band" (1977), "Melvin and Howard" (1980) and the troubled "Swing Shift" (1984). Though mainly interested in fictional storytelling, Demme also carved out a career in non-fiction filmmaking, including the critically acclaimed "Stop Making Sense" (1984), a rock documentary featuring Talking Heads that was widely considered to be one of the best examples of the genre. But Demme reserved his finest work for his most mainstream fare, particularly "The Silence of the Lambs" (1991), which became one of only three films to win Academy Awards in all five major Oscar categories and cemented his reputation as being one of the most versatile and accomplished filmmakers of his day. Following the equally high profile AIDS story "Philadelphia" (1993) and Oprah Winfrey-starring Toni Morrison adaptation "Beloved" (1998), Demme returned to his quirkier roots with a series of documentaries focusing on rocker Neil Young, a remake of the conspiracy thriller "The Manchurian Candidate" (2008) and the small-scale indie "Rachel Getting Married" (2008). When Jonathan Demme died of complications from esophageal cancer on April 26, 2017, peers and fans across the globe mourned the loss of one of the most eclectic and unique filmmakers of his generation.

Born on Feb. 22, 1944 in Baldwin, NY, Demme was raised by his father, Robert, a public relations executive for the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami, FL, and his mother, Carol, an actress. After his parents moved to Florida, Demme began carving out a career as a veterinarian by working at a local vet cleaning cages and caring for the animals. But when he was unable to master the most basic concepts of chemistry at the University of Florida, Demme gave up his dream of becoming a veterinarian and began writing film reviews for the college's newspaper, The Alligator. After writing a rave review of "Zulu" (1964), his father arranged an introduction to the film's producer Joseph E Levine, who was charmed by Demme's enthusiastic thumbs up and immediately hired him to write press releases. Demme moved to New York, where he spent the next two years as a movie publicist for United Artists and Embassy Pictures. It was during this time that he met and befriended French director François Truffaut, who was in New York promoting "The Bride Wore Black" (1968). Truffaut recognized the young publicist's affection for film and planted the directing seed into Demme's mind.

In 1968, Demme left the publicist business and moved to London, where he continued writing reviews, only this time for the music business, which ironically helped to open the door on his feature film career. Hired by producers Paul Maslansky and Irwin Allen to create the music for "Eyewitness/Sudden Terror" (1970), Demme worked with British rock groups Van Der Graaf Generator and Kaleidoscope as the score's music coordinator. It was during this time that he came to the attention of low-budget impresario Roger Corman. At the producer's invitation, Demme relocated to Los Angeles to write screenplays for the recently-formed New World Pictures, completing his first script, "Angels Hard as They Come" (1971), with friend Joe Viola. Demme graduated to second unit director on "The Hot Box" (1972) before making his full-fledged directorial debut with the tongue-in-cheek "Caged Heat" (1974), a fairly typical women's prison flick in which the director inserted a socially-conscious secondary plot about the medical exploitation of prisoners. Demme helmed two more pictures for Corman, "Crazy Mama" (1975), a rich crime comedy about a wild woman (Cloris Leachman) on an absurdist crime spree from California to Arkansas, and "Fighting Mad" (1976), starring Peter Fonda as a man driven to violence by a ruthless landowner who wants to take over his farm.

After "Fighting Mad," Demme left the comfortable confines of New World Pictures to make movies on his own. He beat out several directors to helm "Citizen's Band" (1977), an adventurous comedy which wavered between glorifying, lampooning and seriously questioning the implications of the CB radio craze of the era. Retitled "Handle with Care," the movie was a series of mundane, whimsical and disturbing vignettes that featured a gang of loony CB operators which bombed at the box office despite good reviews, leaving Demme scrounging for work. After making "Last Embrace" (1979), an accomplished thriller in the Hitchcockian mold, Demme continued his exploration of the American condition in "Melvin and Howard" (1980), a laidback but revealing account of an unlikely encounter between a working-class everyman, Melvin Dummar (Paul LeMat), and eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes (Jason Robards), whom Dummar claimed named him sole heir to his fortune. Named Best Picture by the National Society of Film Critics, this satiric, tolerant look at the American class structure also won Demme the New York Film Critics' Best Director award, as well as Oscars for co-star Mary Steenburgen and writer Bo Goldman. But once again, Demme failed to ignite the box office.

For his next film, "Swing Shift" (1984), Demme envisioned a probing look at women factory workers during World War II (his grandmother had worked on the assembly line making fighter planes.) But the film's executive producer and female lead, Goldie Hawn, saw a star vehicle instead. Hating the director's cut emphasizing female camaraderie and endurance in the face of domineering male employers, Hawn presented the director with 28 pages of new material, which he half-heartedly shot. As soon as the picture had been through two previews in its original form, Hawn decided to re-cut the film on her own, playing up the script's romantic angle. Demme and his editor Craig McKay quit the project rather than insert the new scenes. Though its critical and commercial failure vindicated him in a way, the pain of the experience lingered for well over a year. New Yorker critic Pauline Kael - who originally gave "Swing Shift" a negative review - later said, "I saw his cut on videotape, and thought it was wonderful."

During the early stages of editing "Swing Shift," Demme had attended a Talking Heads concert in Los Angeles and had been blown away by their performance. He sold the band's leader David Byrne on his vision of honoring the excitement of the live performance by avoiding tricky shots, flashy editing techniques, and anything that would constitute a digression from the performance itself, like cutaways to the audience. Compiled from three concerts in December 1983, "Stop Making Sense" (1984) was a joyously energetic, yet downtown-cool showcase which helped propel Talking Heads to mainstream stardom. Demme also directed several rock videos for other bands, including an acclaimed clip for New Order's "Perfect Kiss" that consisted primarily of extreme close-ups of the band members' faces and hands as they performed the song.

Demme's eclectic musical taste also informed the lively "Something Wild" (1986), a screwball comedy that takes a surprising turn into thriller territory. "Something Wild" was Demme's contribution to the disaffected yuppie genre, which had already yielded Albert Brooks' "Lost in America" (1985) and John Landis' "Into the Night" (1985), in which Demme had appeared in a cameo role. The film's hip urban sensibility seemed a change for Demme, as did the return to violence largely unseen since his early days with Corman. But the film was actually consistent with the director's examination of self-determination that had begun with the women prisoners of "Caged Heat" and continued with the munitions workers of "Swing Shift." His concern with the heroic struggle of the central female character who fights to establish herself against unyielding patriarchal attitudes helped contribute to his reputation as a feminist filmmaker.

Demme showed his mettle with another artful and subtle performance film, "Swimming to Cambodia" (1987), featuring celebrated monologist Spalding Gray. He next spoofed the Mafia in "Married to the Mob" (1988), another dark comedy more garishly colored and cheerful than "Something Wild." Dean Stockwell's comic turn as Mafioso Tony 'The Tiger' Russo and the right-on performance of Michelle Pfeiffer in the lead role were standouts among a formidable cast boasting Matthew Modine, Mercedes Ruehl, Alec Baldwin and frequent Demme player Charles Napier.

Demme's career finally reached full fruition both critically and commercially with "The Silence of the Lambs" (1991), adapted from the novel by Thomas Harris. Despite the grisly nature of the story, Demme resisted the possibilities for exploitation and instead fashioned a compelling and impressively sensitive psychological drama with a courageous, independent female protagonist. He also elicited landmark performances from both Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins. Following in the footsteps of "It Happened One Night" (1934) and "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" (1975), "Silence of the Lambs" went on to win the five top Academy Awards - Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay - an immense accomplishment for what was essentially a big-budget horror film.

Often associated with progressive causes, Demme lent his talents to projects that reflected 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" (1992), a documentary about his relative, the Reverend Robert Castle, a radical, Harlem-based clergyman. Though many viewed the director's decision to film "Philadelphia" (1993) as a mea culpa in response to the charges of homophobia in "The Silence of the Lambs," Demme had actually been working on the project with screenwriter Ron Nyswaner as early as 1988. Nonetheless, the moving courtroom drama was a landmark in mainstream Hollywood history. "Philadelphia" provided an attention-getting and Oscar-winning role for Tom Hanks as the afflicted gay lawyer who loses his job when he becomes symptomatic from AIDS. Despite some acclaim, the film was criticized for lacking the strong character development and sense of the unexpected that characterized Demme's best work.

In the 1990s, Demme, like his mentor Corman, increasingly concentrated on producing, beginning with George Armitage's "Miami Blues" (1990). He upped his output considerably after 1993, producing 10 pictures in five years. He returned to the director's chair for the film version of Toni Morrison's Pulitzer Prize-winning "Beloved" (1998), reinforcing the novel's best insights with a startling breadth of vision. Demme had been looking for a project that addressed race relations for a long time and "Beloved" fit that bill with its story about the disfiguring effects of slavery and its aftermath. As a reflection of his lifelong passion for rock 'n' roll, he also helmed "Storefront Hitchcock" (1998), a concert film featuring legendary cult figure Robyn Hitchcock.

After a lengthy hiatus away from the camera, Demme returned to helm "The Truth About Charlie" (2002), a remake of one of his favorite films, "Charade" (1963), starring Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn and directed by the legendary Stanley Donen. Essentially casting the central locale of Paris as a third lead character, Demme reunited with some longtime collaborators such as Tak Fujimoto and paid tribute to the influences of the French New Wave that long guided his sensibility. The film was poorly received by both critics and audiences, which failed to stop Demme from choosing another remake of a classic film, 1962 conspiracy thriller "The Manchurian Candidate." Demme's 2004 spin featured a carefully tweaked screenplay with some new surprises and dimensions, and a masterful cast: Denzel Washington, Meryl Streep, Liev Schreiber and Kimberly Elise.

Returning to documentary films, Demme directed "The Agronomist" (2002), a profile of Haitian radio journalist and human rights activist Jean Dominique, who spent his lifetime campaigning to reform the oppressed nation until his assassination in 2000. Demme next delivered the rock documentary, "Neil Young: Heart of Gold" (2005), which depicted the famed singer-songwriter during two special performances at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium commemorating the release of his acclaimed 2005 album, Prairie Wind. For his third consecutive documentary, Demme turned to politics with "Jimmy Carter: Man from Plains" (2007), an experimental look at the former president during his book tour promoting Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, which featured speeches on how to achieve peace in the Middle East. After four years, Demme went back to feature filmmaking with "Rachel Getting Married" (2008), a dramatic comedy about the troubled black sheep of a family (Anne Hathaway) returning home for her sister's wedding, which touches off long-simmering tensions. Demme earned Independent Spirit Award nominations for Best Director and Best Feature. Demme next united with Young for two more documentaries, the concert film "Neil Young Trunk Show" (2009) and the cinema-vérité "Neil Young Journeys" (2011). Moving back to television for the first time in decades, Demme directed two episodes each of the acclaimed comedy-drama "Enlightened" (HBO 2011-13) and crime drama "The Killing" (AMC/Netflix 2011-14) and an hour-long drama, "Line of Sight" (AMC 2014). The concert film "Kenny Chesney: Unstaged" (2012) continued his music-related work. In 2013, Demme filmed Wallace Shawn's adaptation of the Henrik Ibsen play "A Master Builder." Demme returned to the big screen with "Ricki and the Flash" (2015), a comedy-drama about a struggling rocker (Meryl Streep) who reconnects with the suburban family she had abandoned at the outset of her career. It was followed by another concert film, "Justin Timberlake + the Tennessee Kids" (2016), showcasing the pop-R&B singer in Las Vegas during the final show of his 2014 tour. Returning to television, Demme shot an episode of Gina Prince-Bythewood's 10-part procedural drama "Shots Fired" (Fox 2017). Jonathan Demme died of complications from esophageal cancer on April 26, 2017.


Milestones close milestones

Directed "Cousin Bobby," a documentary of radical Harlem clergyman Robert Castle, the director's cousin
Directed a remake of the 1962 thriller "The Manchurian Candidate," based on the novel by Richard Condon
Directed the PBS teleplay, "Who Am I This Time?" starring Susan Sarandon and Christopher Walken
Acted in the film "The Incredible Melting Man"
Directed "The Truth About Charlie," a remake of the classic "Charade"
Directed a concert film starring cult rocker Robyn Hitchcock, "Storefront Hitchcock"
Directed the family drama "Rachel Getting Married" starring Anne Hathaway and Debra Winger
First credit as Rob Morton for his contributions to the screenplay of "Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains"
Executive produced and helmed "Subway Car From Hell" segment of HBO's anthology movie "Subway Stories: Tales From the Underground"
Helmed the documentary "Man from Plains," featuring Jimmy Carter as Carter promotes his book <i>Palestine:Peace not Apartheid</i>
Helped photograph Adam Brooks' independent film "Ghost Sisters"
Contributed a cameo to John Landis' "Into the Night"
Co-wrote and directed World War II-set comedy "Swing Shift"; star and executive producer Goldie Hawn took over final cut and hired another director to re-shoot parts of the film
Directed the Hitchcockian suspense thriller "Last Embrace"
Directed the Mafia farce "Married to the Mob" starring Michelle Pfeiffer
Made 16mm short film, "Good Morning, Steve"
Made TV directorial debut with "Murder Under Glass," an NBC TV-movie episode of the Peter Falk "Columbo" series
Directed concert documentary "Neil Young Trunk Show"
Provided the funding so that his wife's best friend, AIDS-stricken artist Juan Botas, could make his documentary "One Foot on a Banana Peel, the Other Foot in the Grave"
Re-teamed with Viola to make "The Hot Box"
Sold films for Pathe Contemporary Films in NYC
Directed music documentary "Neil Young Journeys"
Directed two episodes of HBO comedy-drama "Enlightened," starring Laura Dern
Directed music documentary "Kenny Chesney: Unstaged"
Directed "A Master Builder," Wallace Shawn's adaptation of the play by Henrik Ibsen
Directed hour-long TV movie "Line of SIght" for AMC
Directed documentary "Justin Timberlake + the Tennessee Kids"
Debut as co-screenwriter, co-producer and second unit director, "Angels Hard as They Come"; directed by Joe Viola and produced by Corman
Directed "Swimming to Cambodia," Spalding Gray's monologue about his participation in the film, "The Killing Fields"
Directed an adaptation of Toni Morrison's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel "Beloved"; starring and co-produced by Oprah Winfrey
Directed first blockbuster, "The Silence of the Lambs"
Re-teamed with Le Mat (as Melvin Dummar) in "Melvin and Howard"; first association with Jason Robards Jr. (as Howard Hughes)
Feature directing debut, "Caged Heat"; also wrote screenplay; first collaboration with director of photography Tak Fujimoto
First collaboration with actor Paul Le Mat, "Citizens Band/Handle With Care"
First film credit as a musical coordinator on the Irwin Allen production "Sudden Terror/Eyewitness"
Met and befriended Francois Truffaut, who was then publicizing "The Bride Wore Black" (1968) in NYC
Produced and directed the comedy thriller "Something Wild"
Introduced by his father to producer Joseph E. Levine who, pleased by Demme's review of "Zulu" (1964), hired him to write press releases
Produced and directed "Philadelphia," a look at the AIDS epidemic and American homophobia starring Tom Hanks
Shot Talking Heads concert film, "Stop Making Sense"
Directed what would be his final feature, the comedy-drama "Ricki and the Flash" starring Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline and Mamie Gummer.
Directed the pilot of "The New Yorker Presents"
Directed his final work: an episode of TV series "Shots Fired"


University of Florida: Gainesville, Florida -


Demme used the pseudonym Rob Morton for screenwriting credit on the films "Swing Shift" (which he directed under his real name) and "Ladies and Gentleman . . . The Fabulous Stains."

Awarded an honorary degree by Wesleyn University June 3, 1990

"The most important thing Roger [Corman] did for me was to sit down with me right before I directed 'Caged Heat' and run down just how to do a job of moviemaking. He hit everything: have something interesting happening in the background of the shot; try to find good motivation to move the camera, because it's more stimulating to the eyes; if you're shooting the scene in a small room where you can't move the camera, try to get in different angles, because cuts equal movement; respect the characters and try to like them, and translate that into the audience liking and respecting the characters. To me, those are the fundamentals." --Jonathan Demme on making "Caged Heat" (1974) quoted in "Righteous & Outrageous--Jonathan Demme" by Paul Taylor, Monthly Film Bulletin, July 1989

"Jonathan Demme's domain is America itself--a vibrant, polychromatic, up-to-the-second place. But there isn't a slick or pat frame in any of his movies. When Jason Robards and Paul Le Mat, as Howard Hughes and Melvin Dummar, sing 'Bye Bye Blackbird' as they drive through the desert at night in "Melvin and Howard"; . . . when Jeff Daniels, pretending to be the husband of his kinky kidnapper, Melanie Griffith, goes to meet her small-town mother in "Something Wild"--Demme's films cross the line from entertainment into poetry. They contain a warmth, a largeness of spirit, a deadpan humor, and a visual and narrative unpredictability that are indebted equally to the eye-pleasing kineticism practiced by Demme's mentor, Roger Corman, the master of horror and action pictures, and to the cinematic intelligence of his early friend and influence Francois Truffaut" --from "Jonathan Demme's Offbeat America" by James Kaplan, The New York Times, 1988.

"It's amazing. I'm an Oscar-winning director. And I love it. I'm proud of it. But I honestly didn't expect to win. I came out here to have some fun, to see the event up close, to visit friends. I don't feel it's going to be a part of my identity, or change a second of my life. But, man, it sure puts the spotlight on you." --Jonathan Demme, quoted in New York Newsday, April 1, 1992

"I didn't go to film school; I didn't work toward being a filmmaker. I stumbled into writing movie reviews so I could get into the movies for free. Then my father introduced me to Joseph E Levine, and Levine offers me a job in the movie business. 'A huge stroke of luck' doesn't catch it.

"Then I wind up crossing paths with Roger Corman, and Corman has just started New World Pictures and needs scripts. My best friend is Joe Viola, one of the most gifted storytellers I've ever known. So Joe and I write a script for Corman, and then, because Joe directs commercials, suddenly Roger wants us to make this motorcycle movie. Again, 'an enormous stroke of good fortune' doesn't fully chacterize it. I mean, people bust their butts for decades to get to make a picture, and I fell backward into it." --Demme quoted in Rolling Stone, March 24, 1994

On deciding to make "Beloved": "I loved the script, the characters, the story. It's a great love story, a great ghost story, a great historical epic. It also had the dimension of addressing race relations in America, which is a subject that's very close to my heart. So I just dove in.

"I met with Oprah and asked her if she was at all concerned that because of her prominence as a public figure audiences might have some difficulty accepting her as a 19th Century farm woman haunted by her past.

"She thought that was a fair question, but felt she was capable of giving a performance and undergoing a not just physical but kind of cosmic transformation through the channeling of ancestors that would make what she could do rise above such concerns.

"And I believed her. So, we went to work on it." --Demme to NEWSDAY, October 10, 1998

The aftermath of "Beloved": "I feel haunted--in the best sense of the word--by the experience of making this film. It wasn't a difficult shoot; it was a joyful shoot. I still miss the filming so much. And the dailies every night--it was a celebration. There'd be a certain point where you'd hear Oprah go, 'I ain't ever seen no movie like this before.'" --Demme to Premiere, November 1998

Companions close complete companion listing

Evelyn Purcell. Producer, second unit director. Produced Demme's first film as a director "Caged Heat" (1974); produced and was second unit director on "Fighting Mad" (1976); divorced.
Joanne Howard. Artist.

Family close complete family listing

Dorothy Demme. Actor. Died on November 20, 1995 of emphysema at age 81; appeared in bit roles in son's films.
Rick Demme.
Peter Demme.
Robert Castle. Minister. Subject of Demme's 1992 feature documentary "Cousin Bobby"; minister at St. Mary's Episcopal Church in Harlem, NYC and a believer in liberation theology; grass roots community organizer; had lost touch with Demme for over 30 years before reuniting with him in 1989 to work on the film; subsequently acted in Demme's "Philadelphia" (1993).
Ted Demme. Director, producer. Directed the features "Who's the Man?" and "The Ref"; born on October 26, 1963; died on January 13, 2002.
Jennifer Demme. Producer. Worked for MTV.
Ramona Castle Demme. Born c. 1987.
Brooklyn James Demme. Born c. 1989.
Josephine Demme.

Bibliography close complete biography

"What Goes Around Comes Around: The Films of Jonathan Demme" Southern Illinois University Press

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