Jonathan Demme, the Oscar-winning filmmaker who observed emphatically American characters with a discerning eye, a social conscience and a rock ’n’ roll heart, achieving especially wide acclaim with The Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia, died on Wednesday at his home in Manhattan. He was 73.
His publicist, Leslee Dart, confirmed the death. Mr. Demme disclosed that he had cancer in 2015.
Mob wives, CB radio buffs and AIDS victims; Hannibal Lecter, Howard Hughes and Jimmy Carter: Mr Demme (pronounced DEM-ee) plucked his subjects and stories largely from the stew of contemporary American subcultures and iconography. He created a body of work — including fiction films and documentaries, dramas and comedies, original scripts, adaptations and remakes — that resists easy characterization.
Robert Jonathan Demme was born on Long Island, in Baldwin, on Feb. 22, 1944, and grew up mostly in nearby Rockville Centre, where he listened to music and went to the movies.
The family moved to Miami, where Jonathan went to high school and worked in a kennel and an animal hospital. Wanting to be a veterinarian, he attended the University of Florida with that in mind until he failed chemistry, at which point he went to the university newspaper, discovered it had no movie critic, and assumed the job himself, he said, so that he could get into movies free.
It happened that Mr. Levine was on vacation in Miami Beach, staying at the Fontainebleau Hotel, where he had become acquainted with the hotel’s publicist, Robert Demme. The elder Demme introduced Mr. Levine to his son, whose review of Zulu impressed him. Mr. Levine offered him a job.
A personable man with the curiosity gene and the what-comes-next instinct of someone who likes to both hear and tell stories, Demme had a good one of his own, a Mr. Deeds kind of tale in which he wandered into good fortune and took advantage of it. A former movie publicist, he had an apprenticeship in low-budget B-movies with the producer Roger Corman before turning director.
In 1971, he took a job as a unit publicist in Ireland for a Roger Corman film, Von Richthofen and Brown, about a German flying ace. Shortly after that, he began making films of his own for Corman’s production company. He wrote (with Joe Viola) and produced a biker film, Angels Hard as They Come, and wrote and directed a handful of others, including Caged Heat (1974), a heavy-breathing women’s prison movie, and Crazy Mama (1975), a campy road story with a ’50s rock score that starred Ann Sothern and Cloris Leachman as mother-and-daughter outlaws.
Demme then became known early in his career for quirky social satires that led critics to compare him to Preston Sturges. They included Handle With Care (1977), originally titled Citizens Band, and Melvin and Howard (1980), a tale inspired by true events.
“Music was my first love, movies came second,” Demme once told the New York newspaper The SoHo News. In a 1988 interview with Premiere magazine, he said: “I grew up with rock ’n’ roll — literally,” adding, “The first rock song I remember was ‘Sh-Boom,’ and since then I’ve never stopped obsessing on at least something.”
“I can’t think of any other director who is so instinctively and democratically interested in everybody he shows you,” Kael wrote.
David Byrne of Talking Heads Demme worked together frequently, notably on Stop Making Sense, a 1984 concert film about Talking Heads that many critics (and filmgoers) found mesmerizing, though it had few filmic bells and whistles. (Demme preferred to call it a “performance film” because, he said, it wasn’t about the concert experience — he didn’t show the audience until the end.)
Mr. Byrne also scored Demme’s Married to the Mob, a gaudy 1988 farce in which Michelle Pfeiffer plays the wife of a Long Island gangster (Alec Baldwin) who tries to exit the mob life after her husband is bumped off when he dallies with the girlfriend of the local boss (Dean Stockwell). Things get especially dicey when she moves with her young son into a shabby Manhattan apartment and strikes up a romance with an F.B.I. agent (Matthew Modine) who has her under surveillance.
Later, as a known commodity, Mr. Demme directed prestige Hollywood projects like Beloved (1998), an adaptation of Toni Morrison’s novel about the lingering, post-Civil War psychological horror of slavery, with Oprah Winfrey and Danny Glover in starring roles, and The Manchurian Candidate (2004), a remake of the 1962 Cold War drama of the same title about a brainwashed American prisoner of war. Mr. Demme’s updated version, starring Denzel Washington, Meryl Streep and Liev Schreiber, takes place during the Persian Gulf war.
Demme may be best remembered for two films from the 1990s that were, at the time, his career’s biggest anomalies. The first, The Silence of the Lambs (1991), was a vivid thriller based on the novel by Thomas Harris that earned five Oscars, including best picture and best director. Unlike his previous films, with their mischievous pleasure and tender melancholy, this was straightforward and serious storytelling with only a few moments of shivery humor.
The story is told largely from the perspective of an F.B.I. trainee who becomes a key figure in the pursuit of a serial killer known as Buffalo Bill when she is assigned to conduct a prison interview with Hannibal Lecter, a mad and murderous psychiatrist, hoping to extract from him clues to Bill’s identity.
Great article from Vanity Fair about the storytelling malaise that is growing at a similar rate to which the ratings are plummeting (still the biggest show on cable) on The Walking Dead…
It’s no secret that the critical tide has largely turned on AMC’s zombie series The Walking Dead. Though it’s still a ratings giant, the show saw major viewership atrophy in its seventh season as a result of eroding goodwill, thanks to its tendency to employ death fake-outs and gruesome cliff-hangers—not to mention 16 episodes that felt directionless at best. Can The Walking Dead be saved and returned to its glory days? Or should it be allowed (like Game of Thrones) to bow out gracefully despite the still-high viewing numbers? A new interview with executive producer Greg Nicotero indicates that if the show can be saved, the first step will be admitting it has a problem.
Though Robert Kirkman’s comic books have found a way to squeeze a continuous story out of Rick Grimes and his embattled band of zombie survivalists, it’s clear that at 99 episodes, The Walking Dead is unsure of how to keep a story about the undead, well, lively. A show that once got major juice from jump scares, dazzling set pieces, and bumping off major characters will, of course, naturally run the risk of audience fatigue.
But the real problem The Walking Dead faces is a major misconception that Nicotero (and presumably others) have—that the way to solve audience fatigue is to turn their attention to the dead, rather than the living. “After seven years of making sure the audience does not get fatigued and goes on this journey with us, it’s pretty important,” Nicotero said in a recent interview with the Empire podcast, referring to the show’s experimentation with special effects. He added that his team has “been able to express ourselves more powerfully visually”—by, say, adding a tiger in Season 7. But visual spectacle alone does not make good television if the human drama can’t keep up.
Nicotero went on to say that he and show-runner Scott Gimple tried to keep their effects experimentations tied to the plot—but throughout Season 7, it often felt like the undead tail was wagging the dog. Nicotero explains:
Scott will come up with some ideas and he’ll immediately reach out and say, “I have this idea for this art installation-type zombies” The walkers who were in the Oceanside episode with Tara who were in the sandpile. We really wanted them to look different. The idea that they were buried under the sand and desiccated and lacking any sort of moisture. It’s really good after seven years to – it’s a constant thing.
The Oceanside creatures, though, are a perfect example of a plot that felt invented just so Gimple and Nicotero could test the extremes of prosthetic barnacles. Tara’s detour to Oceanside in all its grisly, water-logged glory is given much more time and weight than, say, the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment later in the season where she finds out that her girlfriend, Denise, died while she was away.
The same goes for the other (admittedly impressive) Season 7 set pieces Nicotero mentions with pride. Whether it’s Michonne and Rick cutting down a freeway full of zombies, or the weaponized battle zombies that menaced our heroes in the back half of the season, Nicotero points out that the show has “to remind the audience every once and awhile that the world is dead.” But not at the expense of the living.
The desire to go home on these set pieces may explain why some of the more important character-driven action of the season was sidelined. Nicotero himself mentions budgetary concerns, while over on Vox Aja Romano distilled the issue like this:
I realize a lot of that sidelining might be down to budget concerns — it’s understandable that it might not have been in the production budget to show Sasha full-scale blitzing Negan’s compound, for example — but I’ve been continually baffled that the Walking Dead writers can’t find any other way to take us on these journeys than by telling us after the fact that they happened.
Many of the most portentous plot points that have happened this half-season, like Sherry freeing Daryl and escaping herself, or Ezekiel finally deciding to join the Alexandrians, or Sasha’s suicide run, have been narrated by the characters afterward when they could have made for compelling moments of drama if actually depicted. The show’s handling of them has contributed to the overall feeling of ambivalence and lethargy.
In other words, you can’t make a satisfying series out of listless human drama that’s occasionally punctuated by visually experimental zombie action. And you certainly shouldn’t spend an entire season building up to a battle everyone knows is coming, only to ultimately defer it to Season 8. You’d think the show had learned its lesson about the dangers of delaying satisfaction by now.
But what’s to be done, really? The Walking Dead is still one of TV’s most popular series, meaning that this hollowed-out version of the original show is still working for plenty of people. And those ratings imply that even if the creators themselves thought it was time for Rick and the rest to hang up their hats, the show would almost certainly keep shuffling along. Will The Walking Dead learn its lesson in Season 8, and turn its focus back to the characters that once made the show’s grisly premise work? It seems unlikely. Instead, we may continue to see this reanimated version of a once-lively thing shuffle and groan its way onto the Sunday-night schedule for several more years to come.