News is spreading quickly that movie director Jonathan Demme has died to esphogeal cancer at the relatively young age of 73. Bummer. He was truly an original talent. That said, Demme’s career took a very interesting turn with the 1991 release of The Silence of the Lambs. Unfortunately, it was not necessarily a turn for the better. While this may sound a bit harsh, especially considering the poor man’s body isn’t yet cold, hear me out.
As you’ll recall, Demme directed Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins in that incredibly grim 1991 thriller, which was based on the incredibly grim 1988 novel of the same name by Thomas Harris. All three won Academy Awards for their efforts. (Which, in the case of Anthony Hopkins, is interesting. Personally, I’d take Brian Cox’ take on Hannibal Lector from the 1986 Michael Mann film Manhunter over Hopkins’ any day of the week. But that’s just me.)
While never less than entertaining (in a very macabre way), The Silence of the Lambs, both in subject and tone, couldn’t be further from Demme’s filmic personality. Until then, he’d been known as a director of wonderfully quirky films such as Citizen’s Band (1977), Melvin and Howard (1980), Something Wild (1986), Married to the Mob (1988), not to mention a couple of classic works of non-fiction: Stop Making Sense (1984), the famous Talking Heads concert film, and Swimming to Cambodia (1987), a filmed version of Spaulding Gray’s monologue centered around his experience as an actor in the 1985’s The Killing Fields.
Although some of these earlier movies contained the threat of violence (Something Wild, in particular, it’s tone shifting dramatically towards the end thanks to Ray Liotta’s badass character, Ray Sinclair), any true nastiness would always be offset by quirkiness and humor. In other words, Demme had a deft and light touch, which is also reflected in the performances he was able to coax from his actors—from Paul Le Mat and Mary Steenburgen in Melvin and Howard, to Melanie Griffith and Jeff Daniels in Something Wild, to Michelle Pfeiffer and Dean Stockwell in Married to the Mob, everyone seemed to step up their game under Demme’s directorial gaze in these pre-1991 films.
The Silence of the Lambs, on the other hand, while effective, is a bit of a humorless downer. Everything—from the art direction to the cinematography to the score to the performances—is so serious. (Not that that seemed to faze the members of Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences who showered it with five Oscars).
From this film hence, Demme, possibly under the influence of Oscar-itis (a rare affliction that causes film directors to dig further into ultra-serious material to perhaps ascend the podium once more), started making movies that further departed from his quirky sweet spot.
Thus we get, among others, Philadelpia, the 1993 Tom Hanks AIDS downer; Beloved, the self-important, Oprah-produced, 1998 film adaptation of Toni Morrison’s 1987 novel; The Truth about Charlie, a completely unnecessary 2002 remake of Stanley Donen’s 1963 classic Charade (the remake starring Mark Wahlberg and Thandie Newton, the original Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn—talk about diminished star wattage!); and The Manchurian Candidate, a completely unnecessary 2004 remake of John Frankenheimer’s 1962 classic of the same name.
But on the day of his death, let’s focus on his triumphs, which were many. Rent any of his earlier films (Citizen’s Band, Melvin and Howard, Something Wild, Married to the Mob, Stop Making Sense or Swimming to Cambodia) and you’re in for a treat. They’re fun, light on their feet, full of great performances and totally unique.
Better yet, a handful (Something Wild, Married to the Mob, Stop Making Sense) have soundtracks almost as memorable as the films themselves. Sinead O’Connor, New Order, Chris Isaak, Debbie Harry, Tom Tom Club, Fine Young Cannibals, UB40, Oingo Boingo, Jimmy Cliff, Jerry Harrison, Talking Heads—like John Hughes, Demme had a great ear for popular music.