Remembering Jonathan Demme: Filmmaker and Humanitarian

This month commemorates a twenty-year span of the prolific career of director Jonathan Demme in honor of his recent passing. Demme was a superlative filmmaker who increasingly crafted his art as an altruistic endeavor. The greater prestige he earned, the further he exerted support and promoted awareness for the disenfranchised. He was a preeminent supporter of the underground art scene, the LGBT movement, the African American community, and various political and philanthropic causes throughout his lifetime. The program presents six films in praise of his artistic achievements and in gratitude for his contributions to society.

As one of Demme’s first ascents into mainstream cinema in 1986, Something Wild, was a subliminal homage to the avant-garde scene that influenced him in the formative years of his creative development. It’s a seductive screwball comedy-thriller starring Melanie Griffith as a sexy bohemian who picks up the straitlaced Jeff Daniels in a downtown New York diner, luring him into a whirlwind weekend that takes a violent turn when they’re ambushed by her hoodlum husband (Ray Liotta). The movie boasts cameos by John Waters, Su Tissue, John Sayles, and indie-pop darlings The Feelies. John Cale and Laurie Anderson collaborated on the original score.

After directing the genius monologist Spalding Gray’s Swimming to Cambodia and the political documentary Haiti: Dreams of Democracy, Demme returned to the Hollywood circuit with Married to the Mob. A brief a nod to the NYC underground poses a cameo by David Johansen of the New York Dolls (former Roxy artist-in-residence) as a Catholic priest. But chiefly, the film was the first display of Demme’s polish as a Hollywood director. It carries the farcical tone of Something Wild to new heights with its droll and endearing performances. Michelle Pfeiffer stars as the wife of a Long Island mobster (Alec Baldwin) who seeks to start an honest life in New York after his murder by the rakish crime boss Tony “The Tiger” Russo, splendidly played by Dean Stockwell. Her transition is impeded by a coterie of jealous mob wives, arrayed in padded lamé with prodigious hair and sunglasses, presided over by Mercedes Ruehl as Tony’s possessive wife. Pfeiffer’s vulnerability is enchanting in her love affair with Matthew Modine as the FBI agent who implicates her in a sting operation to bring Tony down in Miami’s lavish Eden Roc Hotel. The film was a strong achievement for Demme, wildly popular among audiences for its outlandish style and staggering wit.

His following feature, Silence of the Lambs, requires no elaboration on its incomparable greatness. Demme characteristically culled Ted Levine from the world of experimental theater to play the role of serial killer Jame Gumb (AKA  Buffalo Bill). But even lesser known is his hand in breathing new life into the career of Anthony Hopkins. Hopkins at the time was an actor of high prestige but not the level of stardom sought by Orion Pictures who had courted Gene Hackman, Sean Connery, and Daniel Day Lewis for the role of Hannibal Lecter. Conversely, they were persistent upon casting Jodie Foster as Clarice Starling, about whom Demme was reticent. A compromise was struck between Demme and Orion allowing each their respective favorite who now seem irreplaceable in their roles, resulting in Academy Awards for both and performances of legendary status.  The film is one of only three to win Academy Awards in all the major categories, and the only horror film to date to win Best Picture.

Demme was the first major Hollywood director to address homophobia and the AIDS crisis with Philadelphia in 1993. Public opinion was still highly uncomfortable with such topics and they had never been presented so candidly and compassionately in popular culture. Tom Hanks plays attorney Andrew Beckett unjustly dismissed by his firm under suspicions of his sexuality and his suffering from AIDS. Denzel Washington co-stars as attorney Joe Miller who rejects Beckett’s request for legal representation based on his homophobia and his anxiety around contracting the disease. But his own experience of social discrimination compels him to later take on the case as Beckett’s ally and friend. The film is superbly acted and was progressive in its portrayal of gay relationships with Antonio Banderas in the role of Beckett’s partner, the authenticity of their intimacy and despair set a precedent for compassionate representations of homosexuality in cinema, Roger Ebert comparing its social impact to the theme of interracial relationships addressed in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.

Beloved (1998) is a highly unusual film in its treatment of the supernatural in the horror genre. The themes of poltergeists and resurrected corpses seem generally more fantastical than frightening. The real horror takes place in the grain-laden flashbacks, surprisingly graphic sequences of slave torture and mutilation intercut jarringly with the narrative. A young Thandie Newton gives a startling performance as a dead child in adolescent form returned from the grave to reunite with her mother (Oprah Winfrey), an escaped slave secluded in a haunted cottage.  Based on the novel by Toni Morrison, the film is brazen in its violent and sexual content usually diminished in film adaptations. Its transgressions made it unsuitable for the mainstream box office, but potent in conveying the depravity of American slavery and the subtle air of folk magic and spirituality that sustained the African slaves in their torment. Winfrey was devastated by the film’s commercial failure, but Demme justifiably defended the film’s integrity and its loyal interpretation of Morrison’s novel.

Jonathan Demme’s first forays into film were in collaboration with musicians including music videos for New Order, Bruce Springsteen and The Pretenders. He received widespread approbation for the well-conceived Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense in 1984. Demme revisited the genre in 2005 with Neil Young: Heart of Gold, a documentary and concert film coinciding with Young’s album Prairie Wind. This rare film had a limited release but was praised highly by critics and features many classics from the Neil Young canon performed with the artist’s singular virtuosity.

In 2004 Demme took on the ambitious task of remaking The Manchurian Candidate originally based on the novel by Richard Condon. He transposed the setting to contemporary times in the aftermath of the Gulf War, bringing his propensity for social awareness to an elevated pitch with his analysis of corruption in warfare and politics. The film can be included with Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia as one of the highest caliber films in his body of work. Denzel Washington returns as Major Ben Marco, who is compelled by bizarre dreams to reinvestigate the events of an illustrious battle by his regiment for which the aloof Sgt. Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber) was awarded the Medal of Honor and subsequently occupies the candidacy for American Vice President. Shaw’s ambitious mother, Senator Eleanor Prentiss, is played by Meryl Streep with a sinister patrician command that towers over most of the film. But every performance is notable including appearances by Jeffrey Wright, Bruno Ganz, Dean Stockwell, and John Voight. The Manchurian Candidate is ominous in its modern setting by addressing themes of corporate intervention in politics, psychological conditioning, privacy & surveillance, high-level conspiracy, the abuses of war veterans, and technology as a weapon of tyranny.


Married to the Mob –  Thursday June 8th, 8:30pm

Silence of the Lambs –  Wednesday June 14th 7:30pm

Philadelphia – Wednesday June 14th 9:30pm

Beloved –  Thursday June 22nd 8:30pm

Neil Young: Heart of Gold –  Wednesday June 28th 7:30pm

The Manchurian Candidate –  Wednesday June 28th 9:30pm

For a full cinema schedule, please visit 

Words by M. Pellerano