Remembering Jonathan Demme

The venerable Paul Thomas Anderson was once asked to name his three favorite directors. His response was concise and surprising. Jonathan Demme, Jonathan Demme, and Jonathan Demme.

Demme’s career was begun making motorcycle movies for Roger Corman in that most delightful of training grounds. He bounced back and forth from TV to features to genre altering documentaries on Spaulding Grey, Haiti, Neil Young, and the Talking Heads, and finally the back to back cinematic masterpieces that are The Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia. He continued to make films. Mostly under the radar after his adaptation of Toni Morrison’s Beloved proved a failure. Demme never fully recaptured the magic of those two masterworks, and it is for that reason I will remember him here appreciating those two films.

Many things were happening in 1991. Music was changing completely. Films were suffering an identity crisis. There was a choice to make in most studio boardrooms. To return to what Hollywood had been in the late 60s and 70s, a fertile ground for a wide expanse of screenwriters and auteurs, mostly by way of the new “indie” movement, or to ride the blockbuster formula success of the action summer blockbusters of the late 70s and 80s, putting all their eggs in that big budget, so to speak.

Demme’s film would defy both expectations. A modest but by no means independent feature, Demme’s efforts adapting Thomas Harris novel about a green FBI agent and her Faustian bargain with a cannibalistic psychiatrist capable of terrors both physical and mental created an era defining movie. To me, that is the true genius of the film. From its opening scene of Agent Starling jogging alone in the woods, we are setup to understand this is a personal battle of the wills. The film tells a larger story. But only two characters really matter. The fear is implied. Demme adeptly captured Hopkins give one of the great screen performances in film history, without hyperbole. He is understated. He is cold. He is almost a cartoon or metaphor for evil in the popular conscious. He is a way to describe evil. In its purest form. A man who exploited the weaknesses of those who trusted him to fulfill murderous desires. Only to ritualistically, yet in a manner refined for a gentleman, eat his kill for pleasure. Who could ever forget the liver with beans and Chianti?

Hopkins devastates Foster in such a real way her reactions are visceral. Demme spoke of Hopkins’ improvised decision to be standing square in the middle of his cell, arms unthreateningly at his side, at the moment both the audience and Foster first see him, as the key to Hopkins’ portrayal. He invites us in with charm. But we have been warned. He can and will outsmart us. He can and will manipulate us. That is why we can never trust the terror. He is locked up, but his cryptic clues could lead to Foster’s demise or to crack the case. His ingenious escape is the stuff of movie legend. If not a little macabre. Wearing another man’s skin is one of the last pure metaphors in the film. Lector yearns to return to normalcy. To be someone else. To get away. If only to start killing again.

Meanwhile the character of Agent Starling follows the classic hero’s journey. From youth and ambition to conquering stereotypes and fear. It its her inexperience mixed with her vulnerable persistence that endears her to Lector. He sympathizes with her. Memorably sizing her up with her bag and her cheap shoes, not far from “poor…white…trash.” Then comes the signature titular moment. The story of the rescue of the lamb. The Christ metaphor. The good vs. evil binary. It’s all in that scene. A child’s pure desire to save a helpless creature, the futility of it, and the evil of Lector using it to delve into her psyche. Do you still hear the lambs screaming, Clarisse? We all heard them scream in that moment.

The glory of The Silence of the Lambs is not limited to the screen. It’s an undeniable classic. A gold standard top ten of all time candidate. It manages to be so much more than it is on the surface in so many ways. It’s a film about identity. Finding yourself. Losing yourself. Being cursed, or blessed, by WHAT you are. (Buffalo Bill being the purest expression of this.) It is one of only three films in Oscar history to sweep the big 5 awards. (Screenwriting, Director, Actor, Actress, and Best Picture.) And it will more than likely be the last. The fractious market and the ten-film format make a sweep more unlikely every year.

How to follow up such success? Unlike most directors when given the keys to the kingdom, Demme didn’t just produce a dream project, he took on one of the most controversial subjects of the time in one of the most controversial ways possible. He showed the horror of HIV/AIDS thru the story of a man fired by a prestigious law firm after it was discovered he was homosexual. As a film it instructed many and helped ease minds in society it large. It explained misunderstood issues like gay monogamy and humanized homosexuality in a way theretofore unseen. The choice of America’s then rising everyman Tom Hanks in the lead gave the audience no indication of what to expect from the film. It wasn’t until we saw someone besides the goofy Hanks we admittedly loved onscreen we realized this performance, this film, this story, was different. It would challenge us. Challenge our own sense of prejudices. Good and bad. Much like the recent Get Out, but far more successfully, it took a topic that was gaining popular support, gay rights, and said hold on there, slow down, not so fast, we’re not there yet. We can still be fired just for being gay.

The audience is forced to face all these fears in ourselves if we are outside the experience of being gay thru the uber macho lawyer played by Denzel Washington, who’s character arc takes him from opportunist homophobe angered by the existence of homosexuals to complete understanding and sympathy with Hanks that he is just like him. He has hopes and dreams, loves his family, and tries his best. It is thru Denzel we all take the journey from fear to empathy. As he says in his memorable courtroom monologue, the case was never about incompetence as alleged, but by society’s “fear, and hatred…of homosexuals.” He understands he is guilty of that fear and hatred, and takes us with him from fear to acceptance.

Demme made movies about people. He liked big stories but told them up close, as if thru a microscope. It’s this haunting intimacy that makes both The Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia classics. And it’s why they will live on. Philadelphia was released in 1993. Tom Hanks won his first of two Oscars. It was over twenty years later in 2015 the Supreme Court ruled in Obergfell v. Hodges on the rights of LGTBQ to marry.

Forward thinking. Humanizing. Storyteller.

Rest well, Mr. Demme. You’ve done your part.

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