Jonathan Demme
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Jonathan Demme

Jonathan Demme
Demme at the Coolidge Corner Theatre in 2010
Robert Jonathan Demme

(1944-02-22)February 22, 1944
DiedApril 26, 2017(2017-04-26) (aged 73)
Alma materUniversity of Florida
Years active1968-2017
Full List
  • Joanne Howard
  • Evelyn Purcell
RelativesTed Demme (nephew)

Robert Jonathan Demme ( DEM-ee;[1] February 22, 1944 - April 26, 2017) was an American film director, producer, and screenwriter of film and television who earned widespread acclaim.

Originally beginning his career under B-movie producer Roger Corman, Demme made his directorial debut with the 1974 women-in-prison film Caged Heat, before becoming known for his casually humanist films[2] such as Melvin and Howard (1980), Swing Shift (1984), Something Wild (1986), and Married to the Mob (1988). His direction of the 1991 psychological horror film The Silence of the Lambs (1991) won him the Academy Award for Best Director. His subsequent films earned similar acclaim, notably Philadelphia (1993) and Rachel Getting Married (2008).

Demme also directed numerous concert films such as Stop Making Sense (1984), Neil Young: Heart of Gold (2006), and Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids (2016), and worked on several television series as both a producer and director.

Early life

Demme was born on February 22, 1944 in Baldwin, New York, the son of Dorothy Louise (née Rogers)[3] and Robert Eugene Demme, a public relations executive.[4][5] He was raised in Rockville Centre, New York and Miami,[6] where he graduated from Southwest Miami High School[7] before attending the University of Florida.[8]


Early films

Demme broke into feature film working for exploitation film producer Roger Corman early in his career, co-writing and producing Angels Hard as They Come (1971), a motorcycle movie very loosely based on Rashomon,[9] and The Hot Box (1972). He then moved on to directing three films for Corman's studio New World Pictures: Caged Heat (1974), Crazy Mama (1975), and Fighting Mad (1976). After Fighting Mad, Demme directed the comedy film Handle with Care (originally titled Citizens Band, 1977) for Paramount Pictures. The film was well received by critics,[10] but received little promotion,[11] and performed poorly at the box office.[12]

Demme's next film, Melvin and Howard (1980), did not get a wide release, but received a groundswell of critical acclaim and film award recognition, including Academy Award nominations, winning two of its three nominations (Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress - Mary Steenburgen, and Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay - Bo Goldman). This acclaim led to the signing of Demme to direct the Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell star vehicle Swing Shift (1984). Intended as a prestige picture for Warner Bros.[13] as well as a major commercial vehicle for Demme,[14] it instead became a troubled production due to the conflicting visions of Demme and star Hawn. Demme ended up renouncing the finished product, and when the film was released in May 1984, it was generally panned by critics and neglected by moviegoers.[13] After Swing Shift, Demme stepped back from Hollywood to make the Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense (also 1984) which won the National Society of Film Critics Award for best documentary;[15] the eclectic screwball action-romantic comedy Something Wild (1986); a film-version of the stage production Swimming to Cambodia (1987), by monologist Spalding Gray; and the New York Mafia-by-way-of Downtown comedy Married to the Mob (1988).[a]

Demme formed his production company, Clinica Estetico, with producers Edward Saxon and Peter Saraf in 1987.[16][17] They were based out of New York City for fifteen years.[18][19]

Later films

Demme won the Academy Award for The Silence of the Lambs (1991)--one of only three films to win all the major categories (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actor, and Best Actress).[20] Inspired by his friend Juan Suárez Botas's illness with AIDS[21] and fueled by his own moral convictions,[9] Demme then used his influence to make Philadelphia (1993),[22] one of the first major films to address the AIDS crisis[22] and which garnered star Tom Hanks his first Best Actor Oscar.[22] He also co-directed (with his nephew Ted) the music video for Bruce Springsteen's Best Song Oscar-winning "Streets of Philadelphia" from the film's soundtrack.[23] Jonathon used several of the same actors for both movies.

Subsequently, his films included an adaptation of Toni Morrison's Beloved (1998), and remakes of two films from the 1960s: The Truth About Charlie (2002), based on Charade, that starred Mark Wahlberg in the Cary Grant role; and The Manchurian Candidate (2004), with Denzel Washington and Meryl Streep. Demme's documentary film Man from Plains (2007), a documentary about former U.S. President Jimmy Carter's promotional tour publicizing his book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, had its premiere at the Venice Film Festival and Toronto International Film Festival.

His art-house hit Rachel Getting Married (2008) was compared by many critics to Demme's films of the late 1970s and 1980s.[24][25][26] It was included in many 2008 "best of" lists, and received numerous awards and nominations, including an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress by lead Anne Hathaway. In 2010, Demme made his first foray into theater, directing Family Week, a play by Beth Henley. The play was produced by MCC Theater and co-starred Rosemarie DeWitt and Kathleen Chalfant.[27]

At one time, Demme was signed on to direct, produce, and write an adaptation of Stephen King's sci-fi novel 11/22/63, but later left due to disagreements with King on what should be included in the script.[28]

He returned to the concert documentary format with Justin Timberlake + the Tennessee Kids (2016), which he described as a "performance film, but also a portrait of an artist at a certain moment in the arc of his career",[21] and his last project was a history of rock & roll for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame compiled from footage from Hall of Fame induction ceremonies set to debut in summer 2017.[21]

Demme directed music videos for artists such as Suburban Lawns, New Order, KRS-One's H.E.A.L. project and Bruce Springsteen. He also produced a compilation of Haitian music called Konbit: Burning Rhythms of Haiti that was released in 1989. (Lou Reed selected Konbit... as one of his 'picks of 1989').[29]

Demme was on the board of directors at Jacob Burns Film Center in Pleasantville, New York. In addition to his role on the board, he curated and hosted a monthly series called Rarely Seen Cinema.[30]


Throughout 1986-2004, Demme was known for his dramatic close-ups in films. This style of close-ups involves the character looking directly into the camera during crucial moments, particularly in the "Quid pro quo" scene in Silence of the Lambs. According to Demme, this was done to put the viewer into the character's shoes. Beginning with Rachel Getting Married (2008), Demme adopted a documentary style of filmmaking.[31][32]

Writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson has paid homage to Demme in his films and has cited him as a major influence in his work. In an interview, Anderson jokingly stated that the three filmmakers who inspired him the most are "Jonathan Demme, Jonathan Demme and Jonathan Demme."[33][34] Other directors such as Alexander Payne and Wes Anderson have been known to copy his close-ups in their own work.[35][36]

Political activism

Demme was involved in various political projects. In 1981, he directed a series of commercials for the liberal advocacy group People for the American Way. The spots, titled "Eggs",[37] "Music",[38][39] and "Sports",[40] were produced by Norman Lear and featured Muhammad Ali, Carol Burnett, and Goldie Hawn celebrating Freedom of Expression.[41] In 1985, he directed a video for Artists United Against Apartheid. The short, featured various international musicians including Afrika Bambaataa, Rubén Blades, Jimmy Cliff, Herbie Hancock, Little Steven, Run-D.M.C., and Bruce Springsteen, calling for a boycott of the South African luxury resort Sun City during Apartheid. His documentary Haiti Dreams of Democracy (1988) captured Haiti's era of democratic rebuilding after dictatorship, while his documentary The Agronomist (2008) profiled Haitian journalist and human rights activist Jean Dominique. Demme spent six years on the documentary I'm Carolyn Parker (2011), which highlighted rebuilding efforts in New Orleans Lower Ninth Ward after Hurricane Katrina.

Personal life

Demme was married twice, first to Evelyn Purcell and then Joanne Howard, with whom he had three children: Ramona, Brooklyn, and Jos.[6] He was the uncle of film director Ted Demme, who died in 2002.[42] Demme's cousin was the Rev. Robert Wilkinson Castle Jr., an Episcopal priest who appeared in some of Demme's films.

Demme was a member of the steering committee of the Friends of the Apollo Theater, Oberlin, Ohio, along with Danny DeVito and Rhea Perlman.[43] In 2013, he returned to Oberlin as part of an alumni reunion during the class of 2013 graduation ceremony and received the award for Honorary Doctor of Fine Arts.[44]

In 2009, Demme signed a petition in support of film director Roman Polanski, calling for his release after Polanski was arrested in Switzerland in relation to his 1977 charge for drugging and raping a 13-year-old girl.[45]

Demme was an avid collector and devotee of Haitian art; in particular of Hector Hyppolite; so much so that he called it "an addiction". In 2014, he held an auction in Philadelphia selling thousands from his collection, much of which was donated to a cultural center in Port-au-Prince.[46]


Demme died at his home in Manhattan on April 26, 2017, from complications from esophageal cancer and heart disease; he was 73.[47][6]

"I am heart-broken 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. Just as passionate about music as he was about art, he was and will always be a champion of the soul. JD, most beloved, something wild, brother of love, director of the lambs. Love that guy. Love him so much."

-- Jodie Foster's statement following Demme's death.[48]

Director Brady Corbet dedicated his 2018 film Vox Lux to Demme's memory,[49] as did Luca Guadagnino with his 2018 film Suspiria and Paul Thomas Anderson with his 2017 film Phantom Thread starring Daniel Day Lewis. Demme is thanked in the credits of Spike Lee's 2020 concert film American Utopia starring David Byrne. The album A Beginner's Mind by musicians Sufjan Stevens and Angelo De Augustine is dedicated to Demme, with one of its songs, "Cimmerian Shade", mentioning him and referencing The Silence of the Lambs within its lyrics.


Awards and nominations


  1. ^ Weber, Bruce. "Jonathan Demme, Oscar-Winning Director, Is Dead at 73," The New York Times, Wednesday, April 26, 2017.
  2. ^ Seitz, Matt Zoller (April 26, 2017). "A musical soul: Jonathan Demme, 1944-2017". Ebert Digital LLC. Retrieved 2020. Demme's laid back brand of optimistic humanism wasn't always a great fit for Hollywood projects, though he applied his talents to them so conscientiously and inventively that he briefly became an A-list director anyhow.
  3. ^ "Dorothy Demme; Character Actress in Son's Movies". LA Times. December 9, 1995. Retrieved 2017.
  4. ^ "Bonnie-B-Allen - User Trees -". Archived from the original on December 22, 2014. Retrieved 2017.
  5. ^ "Jonathan Demme Biography (1944-)". Film Reference. Retrieved 2009.
  6. ^ a b c Weber, Bruce (April 26, 2017). "Jonathan Demme, Oscar-Winning Director, Is Dead at 73". The New York Times. Retrieved 2017.
  7. ^ "14902: The silenced voice of Radio Haiti speaks again on film (fwd)". Archived from the original on March 1, 2014. Retrieved 2014.
  8. ^ Gilbey, Ryan (April 26, 2017). "Jonathan Demme obituary". The Guardian. Retrieved 2017.
  9. ^ a b DeCurtis, Anthony (March 24, 1994). "The Rolling Stone Interview: Jonathan Demme on Philadelphia, Tom Hanks, homophobia". Rolling Stone. Archived from the original on April 26, 2017. Retrieved 2017. Philadelphia was fueled by three of the director's staunchest convictions: that helping out people who are having a hard time is less a duty than a pleasure; that bigotry is more the result of ignorance than evil; and that for all the country's political outrages, goodness is deep in the American grain.
  10. ^ Sragow, Michael (1984), "Jonathan Demme on the Line", American Film (January/February), archived from the original on July 7, 2004, retrieved 2009, Although his best two movies to date, Citizens Band (AKA Handle With Care, 1977) and Melvin and Howard (1980), were hailed for bringing the heartiness and sensitivity of a homegrown Jean Renoir into latter-day American film comedy, they failed to score at the box office.
  11. ^ Kaplan, James (March 27, 1988), "Jonathan Demme's Offbeat America", The New York Times, p. 6.48, retrieved 2009, Paramount figured it might just have a sleeper hit in the small movie, but it took a wait-and-see attitude, spending little on advertising and promotion, and hoping the movie would hook onto the C.B. craze and catch.
  12. ^ Williams, Phillip (October 11, 2002), "The Truth About Jonathan Demme", MovieMaker, archived from the original on September 7, 2012, We had a great time doing it and we were invited to the New York Film Festival, despite the fact that the film tanked horrendously--and famously--at the box office.
  13. ^ a b Vineberg, Steve, "Swing Shift: A Tale of Hollywood", Sight & Sound, British Film Institute, archived from the original on May 18, 2003, retrieved 2009
  14. ^ Uhlich, Keith (August 2004), "Jonathan Demme", Sense of Cinema, ISSN 1443-4059, archived from the original on December 25, 2010, retrieved 2009
  15. ^ Benson, Sheila (January 4, 1985). "1984 Film Critics Awards: 'Everybody' Proves A Winner". Retrieved 2017.
  16. ^ "Clinica Estetico". Retrieved 2017.
  17. ^ "Production". Archived from the original on April 27, 2017. Retrieved 2017.
  18. ^ "Clinica Estetico, Ltd". 2010. Retrieved 2017.
  19. ^ Fleming, Michael (July 25, 2000). "Demme, Saxon to say adios". Retrieved 2017.
  20. ^ Pristin, Terry (March 31, 1992). "'Silence of the Lambs' Sweeps 5 Major Oscars". Los Angeles Times. Tribune Company. Retrieved 2014.
  21. ^ a b c Fear, David; Reed, Ryan (April 26, 2017). "Jonathan Demme, Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia director, dead at 73". Rolling Stone. Archived from the original on April 26, 2017. Retrieved 2017.
  22. ^ a b c Lang, Brent; Dagan, Carmel (April 26, 2017). "Jonathan Demme, Silence of the Lambs director, dies at 73". Variety. Archived from the original on April 26, 2017. Retrieved 2017.
  23. ^ Grierson, Tim (April 26, 2017). "Why Jonathan Demme was one of the greatest concert movie directors ever". Rolling Stone. Archived from the original on April 26, 2017. Retrieved 2017.
  24. ^ Burr, Ty (October 12, 2008), "He's back", The Boston Globe, retrieved 2009, Warm rather than cold, forgiving rather than damning, Rachel is a throwback to the fluky, generous vibe that sustained the director's films in the late 1970s and 1980s - Handle With Care (1977), Melvin and Howard (1980), Stop Making Sense (1984), Something Wild (1986) and Married to the Mob (1988).
  25. ^ Olsen, Mark (September 28, 2008), "Jonathan Demme's Rachel Getting Married", Los Angeles Times, retrieved 2009, With Rachel Getting Married, Demme, 64, has returned to the playful, deeply humanist storytelling of such early work as 1980's Melvin and Howard and 1986's Something Wild, both of which are widely acknowledged as having influenced a younger generation of filmmakers.
  26. ^ Schickel, Richard (October 2, 2008), "Rachel Getting Married, Demme Getting Messy", Time, archived from the original on October 4, 2008, retrieved 2009, Back in the '70s and '80s he was the best - or at any rate the most promising - young American director. ... Demme's new film, Rachel Getting Married, is arguably an attempt on the part of the director to wend his way back to his roots.
  27. ^ Charles Isherwood (May 23, 2010). "Beth Henley Revival Opens at Lucille Lortel". The New York Times. Retrieved 2017.
  28. ^ Gallagher, Brian (December 6, 2012). "Stephen King's 11/22/63 loses Jonathan Demme". Retrieved 2013.
  29. ^ Rolling Stone, March 8, 1990
  30. ^ Michelin, Robert. "Demme Digs Up Rarely Seen Movies at Burns Center in Pleasantville". Mount Pleasant Daily Voice (January 30, 2012). Archived from the original on April 27, 2017. Retrieved 2017.
  31. ^ "Jonathan Demme And The Simple Power Of The Close-Up". Retrieved 2017.
  32. ^ "Does Jonathan Demme's Style of Close-Up Shots Make You Feel Uncomfortable, Too?". Archived from the original on April 26, 2017. Retrieved 2017.
  33. ^ "Paul Thomas Anderson's Favorite Films". Retrieved 2017.
  34. ^ Hollwedel, Zach. "Watch: 27-Minute Talk Between Paul Thomas Anderson & Jonathan Demme - IndieWire". Retrieved 2017.
  35. ^ "Jonathan Demme Dead At 73". April 26, 2017. Archived from the original on April 26, 2017. Retrieved 2017.
  36. ^ Wickman, Forrest (April 14, 2015). "What Wes Anderson and P.T. Anderson Have Taken From Jonathan Demme". Slate. Retrieved 2017.
  37. ^ PFAWdotorg (July 25, 2008). "Goldie Hawn et. al. on Eggs and the American Way". Archived from the original on September 19, 2021. Retrieved 2017 – via YouTube.
  38. ^ PFAWdotorg (July 25, 2008). "Muhammad Ali, Goldie Hawn, etc. on Music and the American Way". Archived from the original on September 19, 2021. Retrieved 2017 – via YouTube.
  39. ^ PFAWdotorg (July 25, 2008). "Carol Burnett, Ned Beatty, etc. on Music and the American Wa" – via YouTube.
  40. ^ PFAWdotorg (July 25, 2008). "Muhammad Ali et. al. on Sports and the American Way". Archived from the original on September 19, 2021. Retrieved 2017 – via YouTube.
  41. ^ PFAWdotorg (July 25, 2008). "Carol Burnett, Ned Beatty, etc. on Music and the American Wa". Retrieved 2017 – via YouTube.
  42. ^ Baxter, Brian (January 17, 2002). "Ted Demme obituary". The Guardian. Retrieved 2017.
  43. ^ "Friends of the Apollo". Oberlin College. Archived from the original on April 14, 2009. Retrieved 2009.
  44. ^ "Jonathan Demme Passes Away". Oberlin College and Conservatory. June 6, 2017. Archived from the original on February 21, 2019. Retrieved 2019.
  45. ^ Shoard, Catherine; agencies (September 29, 2009). "Release Polanski, demands petition by film industry luminaries". The Guardian. Archived from the original on January 8, 2018. Retrieved 2021.
  46. ^ Freeman, Nate, ed. (April 26, 2017). "A Look into Jonathan Demme's History of Collecting Outsider Art". Art. News. Retrieved 2017.
  47. ^ Kohn, Eric; Sharf, Zack (April 26, 2017). "Jonathan Demme, Oscar-Winning Director of 'Silence of the Lambs,' Dies At 73". IndieWire. Retrieved 2017.
  48. ^ "Jodie Foster Pays Tribute to Jonathan Demme, 'A Champion of the Soul'". April 26, 2017. Retrieved 2018.
  49. ^ Cea, Max (December 8, 2018). "Vox Lux". Retrieved 2019.
  50. ^ "Berlinale: 1991 Prize Winners". Retrieved 2011.
  51. ^ "41st Berlin International Film Festival 1991 - FilmAffinity". Archived from the original on March 13, 2016. Retrieved 2017.
  52. ^ "44th Berlin International Film Festival 1994 - FilmAffinity". Archived from the original on March 3, 2016. Retrieved 2017.

External links

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