Jonathan Demme, Oscar-Winning Director, Dies

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Jonathan Demme’s greatest success

The director behind such classic films as The Silence of the Lambs, Philadelphia and the Talking Heads documentary Stop Making Sense, Jonathan Demme, has died. The cause was cancer, according to a statement issued by his publicist. Demme was 73 and died in his New York City apartment.

1991’s The Silence of the Lambs, which starred Anthony Hopkins as unrepentant serial killer Dr. Hannibal Lecter, and Jodie Foster as the FBI trainee obsessed with finding out what makes him tick, won five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director for Demme, and Best Actor and Actress for Hopkins and Foster. The fifth award was for Best Adapted Screenplay.

Born Feb. 22, 1944, in Baldwin, N.Y., Robert Jonathan Demme first worked in film in the early 1970s. He moved into directing early in his career, first for the producer/director Roger Corman, on B-movies such as Caged Heat, Crazy Mama and Fighting Mad, a Peter Fonda action film. Demme’s first film to receive wide recognition was 1980’s Melvin and Howard, starring Jason Robards as Howard Hughes, followed by Swing Shift, starring Goldie Hawn (although he disavowed the latter after he lost control of the film to the studio.

Jonathan Demme

Stop Making Sense, a concert film shot in Hollywood in 1983, is considered one of the all-time best rock documentaries. On his website, David Byrne wrote, in part:

“I loved his films Melvin and Howard and Citizens Band (AKA Handle With Care). From those movies alone, one could sense his love of ordinary people. That love surfaces and is manifest over and over throughout his career. Jonathan was also a huge music fan—that’s obvious in his films too—many of which are jam-packed with songs by the often obscure artists he loved.

Stop Making Sense was character driven too. Jonathan’s skill was to see the show almost as a theatrical ensemble piece, in which the characters and their quirks would be introduced to the audience, and you’d get to know the band as people, each with their distinct personalities.

“[His] fiction films, the music films and the docs are all filled with so much passion and love.”

The films Something Wild, Swimming to Cambodia and Married to the Mob followed, then The Silence of the Lambs.

Related: Don’t expect a Talking Heads reunion any time soon

Demme’s winning streak slowed down in the early ’90s but the 1993 film Philadelphia (among several films he also produced), starring Tom Hanks and dealing with the scourge of AIDS and the homophobia faced by AIDS patients, renewed Demme’s reputation as one of the finest directors of the era. Hanks took home a Best Actor Oscar for his work, and Bruce Springsteen’s title song won the prize for Best Original Song, “Streets of Philadelphia.”

Watch the video for “Streets of Philadelphia”

Among Demme’s later films were Rachel Getting Married and 2015’s Ricki and the Flash, starring Meryl Streep as a late-blooming rock singer.

In addition to his feature films, Demme also directed numerous documentaries in addition to the Talking Heads vehicle. They included films on Neil Young, Justin Timberlake, the Pretenders and Springsteen.

Watch Talking Heads perform “Life During Wartime” from Demme’s documentary Stop Making Sense

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