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The Last Journeyman Director

  • Jonathan Demme, director of films such as “The Silence of the Lambs” and “Philadelphia,” died Wednesday at age 73. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Sarah L. Voisin



The Washington Post
Thursday, April 27, 2017

“If the story’s worth telling, I’ll tell it. And, arguably, everybody’s story is worth telling.”

That was Jonathan Demme speaking during an interview 10 years ago, as he prepared to be honored at the Charles Guggenheim Symposium at the Silverdocs film festival in Silver Spring, Md.

As a nonfiction filmmaker every bit as attracted to Haitian culture and Middle East politics as music and spirituality, there’s no doubt that Demme — who died Wednesday at the age of 73 — possessed the energy, curiosity and humanism befitting Guggenheim’s legacy. As a director who swung regularly between the worlds of documentaries and narrative features, he embodied the best principles of each, which in turn nourished his work in both.

“It’s been great for me to do fiction on the one hand and nonfiction on the other,” Demme told me in 2007, “because the disciplines are so different. When I’m filming reality, I wind up trying to fashion that reality in a dramatic or entertaining way, so I can grip the audience. When I’m doing a fiction film, I’m trying to make it feel as real as possible. So I feel it’s a healthy twin set of reference points for me.”

As a filmmaker who cut his teeth working for the B-movie impresario Roger Corman, along with the likes of Martin Scorsese, John Sayles, Francis Ford Coppola and James Cameron, Demme stands athwart his peers, not only for his artistic accomplishments, but for the sheer breadth and depth of the genres in which he worked. It’s difficult to imagine a filmmaker starting out today who could look forward to making movies as different in voice, subject matter and style — and yet as consistently good — as Melvin and Howard, Something Wild, Married to the Mob, Philadelphia and Rachel Getting Married.

The films themselves were often as difficult to pin down as Demme’s variegated career. Is Something Wild a comedy or creepy captivity narrative? Is Philadelphia a classic melodrama or bold, timely polemic? Is The Silence of the Lambs a taut psychological thriller or horror film? The correct answer to all these questions, of course, is “Yes.”

Demme won the Oscar in 1992 for The Silence of the Lambs (one of many for the film), which despite inspiring the dubious trend of injecting sadism into otherwise sophisticated suspense, stands to this day as the gold standard of the form. But he also made one of the greatest music documentaries of all time — Stop Making Sense, a concert film featuring Talking Heads — as well as an ambitious three-film project documenting the life and work of Neil Young.

After Hurricane Katrina, he traveled to New Orleans to film people determined to get back to their homes, despite uncooperative authorities. He was particularly interested in Carolyn Parker, who was one of the last to leave her house during the storm, and who Demme said he wanted to film “for the rest of my life.” While filming documentaries, he said, “You have this incredibly intimate relationship (with your subjects). At a certain point you realize: I love him. I love her.”

That love — for people, their environments, their struggles and the art form with which he explored them — informed every frame of Demme’s films, whether they were nonfiction or fiction. And, it bears noting, most of the latter were written by other people.

At a time when most filmmakers are either studio-controlled shepherds of intellectual-property vehicles, or adamantly independent auteurs, Demme might have been the last of the great journeyman directors, as comfortable with bringing his chops and compassion to bear on a weird screwball comedy as on a handsome, straight-ahead drama. If the screenplay is the founding document of every film, Demme evinced a remarkably consistent knack for knowing how to execute it, from casting the right actors to hiring the right cinematographers, designers and editors.

As difficult as it is to reproduce a career as varied as Demme’s in a film world where directors are swiftly co-opted by self-limiting franchises, genre silos and pigeonholed personae, it’s even more challenging to imagine pursuing that career the way he did, simply by making movies that he himself wanted to see.

“If I have a gift — and I think I do, because I’ve gotten to make these films — it’s enthusiasm,” he said in 2007. “In anything I do, that’s there. I’ve got great enthusiasm for the subject at hand.”

And audiences were far richer for it.