Top Fifty Films of the 80s — Number Fifteen

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#15 — Melvin and Howard (Jonathan Demme, 1980)
Part of the appeal of subscribing to auteur theory is the sense of extra connectedness to the directors with the strongest cinematic presence. It’s easy to feel like watching a film is akin to getting concerted insight into worldviews, spiritual philosophies and political preferences. The collected work becomes a backward version of a Rorschach test, with very specific material being transformed by the viewer into something nebulous enough to project suppositions onto. While I realize the inherent fallibility of such a view, I also can’t help but fall for it when it comes to certain directors. Jonathan Demme may stand as the prime example. While I know almost nothing about the particulars of his existence beyond the progression of his career, I connect with a inner spirit embedded in all his films that seems to me like a heartfelt expression of a benevolent, empathetic temperament. Demme’s storytelling is infused with profound empathy and a corresponding respect for the integrity of his characters. He’s not trying to keep them from harm, necessarily–certainly plenty of the folks in The Silence of the Lambs would dispute that notion–but he is obviously taking great pains to be a truthful shepherd of their tales.

Melvin and Howard isn’t the movie that led me to that conclusion, but it may be the purest expression of it. The movie wasn’t Demme’s first after graduating from the unofficial film school presided over by producer Roger Corman, but it seems like the beginning of the next phase in his career since it realistically represents his initial foray away from the pulpy wonders that Corman preferred. Based on the true life story of Melvin Dummar, the film follows the Utah man, played by Paul Le Mat, as he soldiers on through a modest life peppered with little doses of hope and far more setbacks. The trend of great possibility that always seems just beyond his fingertips reaches its tragicomic apotheosis in the form of encounter he has, or claims to have had, with reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes. Dummar encounters a disheveled man while driving across the dessert, and agrees to drive him to Las Vegas, tenuously bonding with him during their combative ride together. Years later, Dummar mysteriously finds himself in possession of a document that appears to be a will written by Hughes, which leaves him an astounding windfall, presumably in exchange for his past act of kindness.

Working with a script from Bo Goldman, Demme burrows into the life of his protagonist, largely treating the mystery behind the will as a flavoring to the film rather than its reason for being. Just as it feels like the movie is building towards a heated courtroom battle, it sidesteps that predictable route, treating the major conflict as another frustration endured by Dummar. Demme wants to understand his characters, not just portray the notable incidents in their lives. Melvin and Howard is filled with idiosyncratic details and scene that shift and roll in the most natural fashion conceivable. Without sacrificing the demands of narrative momentum, Demme shapes scenes as if they’ve been translated from a direct cinema styled documentary.

One of the central reasons Demme is able to achieve this is the magic her can work with actors, helping them to develop absolutely astonishing performances. Mary Steenburgen won just about every award that was available at the time, including the Best Supporting Actress Oscar, for playing Lynda Dummar. It’s the kind of acting that is a continual processional of surprises, Steenburgen always manages to approach moment in a manner than is simultaneously off-kilter and resounding real. Jason Robards may be even better as Hughes. He really only has one long scene, and yet he constructs a full-fledged character, as convincing and deeply considered as any number of roles meticulously honed across an entire film. Both these performances are fully in line with Demme’s apparent sensibility: intricate, thoughtful and invested with splendid reservoirs of feeling.

Further, all those marvelous attributes are on full display in Melvin and Howard. Reasonable arguments can be made that Melvin and Howard is Demme’s very best film. I might not elevate it quite that high, but it could very well be the one that represents him best. Want to define what makes Demme special as a director? Start with Melvin and Howard.