Among great film directors, there were none whose artistry was more humane than Jonathan Demme. Other filmmakers revel in the form, spinning visual wonders and engaging in dynamic editing in restless attempts to embed their personality on the screen. Demme wasn’t adverse to such creativity. His films were often striking in their novel use of technique, finessing the grammar of cinema until the shape of his storytelling was a another story itself, or at least another layer.
But Demme didn’t employ such maneuvering to call attention to his personal creativity. Those choices weren’t about him. Instead, they were about the characters. One of his best tricks involved giving a standard point of view shot a wandering movement that more accurately reflected how people look at the world. In Philadelphia, the audience sees Tom Hanks’s character, a gay lawyer ill with AIDS, from the perspective of Denzel Washington’s character, a fellow attorney being sought as representation in a court case alleging discrimination by a former employer. The camera doesn’t stay put as Hanks talks, dutifully taking in the important dialogue. It flits around, scrutinizing the visible manifestations of his devastating ailment or pointedly catching the little gestures as Hanks touches items on the desk, a detail someone fearful of the spread of a disease might anxiously notice. Demme uses his technique to take the viewer deeper into the mind of the person whose sightline is being borrowed. There is purpose.
The commitment to the people in his films is the gratifying common denominator in a filmography that accepted no boundaries. Demme made measured documentaries and concert films, heavy dramas and loose, sprightly romps. He could travel in succession from the Spalding Gray performance piece Swimming to Cambodia to the vivid comedy Married to the Mob to the riveting thriller The Silence of the Lambs, with each film standing as an utterly distinct piece of work and yet simultaneously all clearly belonging to the same artist, an individual with a singular, compelling voice.
The Silence of the Lambs, adapted from a novel by Thomas Harris, won Demme his Best Directing Academy Award, and it may reasonably stand as his finest achievement on film (though I would not wage an argument against any who claimed the superlative is more accurately assigned to Melvin and Howard or Stop Making Sense). What could have been purely a genre exercise is instead resonant and true to Demme’s commitment to believe in the people he puts on film. The truth of that is perhaps best evidenced by the reasoning he gave for his aversion to participating in follow-up efforts.
”If you can be in love with fictional characters, I’m in love with Clarice Starling,” he told The New York Times. ”And I was really heartbroken to see what became of her during that passage of her life in Hannibal. I have a funny feeling that Tom Harris may feel like our culture has become so corrupt that someone with Clarice’s qualities is doomed to fall from grace. There was no way I could go along on that journey.”
That appreciation of people extended to Demme’s collaborators. He often talked about how much he loved actors and marveled at their craft. His charming and underrated The Truth About Charlie, a remake of Charade, was partially undertaken because he wanted to build a showcase for Thandie Newton, after being dazzled by her talent while making the uneven but fascinating Beloved. He didn’t exactly have a stock company like some other directors, but when major actors eventually cycled back into one of his casts (such as Melvin and Howard standouts Mary Steenburgen and Jason Robards showing up in Philadelphia, or Ted Levine, Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs, nabbing a comic role in The Truth About Charlie) it inevitably felt like a warm gesture, another manifestation of the sweet camaraderie that was routinely cited as one of his most admirable personal qualities.
The undercurrents of those professional reunions were just one piece of the exuberance that could be found in his films. If the text of films themselves wasn’t necessarily joyful, they always had an inner spirit that reflected the pleasure in creation taken by the man behind the camera. Rachel Getting Married, his last truly great film, could have easily curdled in its litany of familial slights, disappointments, and grievances, even with the glum humor built right into Jenny Lumet’s screenplay. Demme had the ability to avert such tonal dangers through his persistent belief in the elevating power of honesty. He could be wry, but never cynical. There was always some amount of heart to be found.
My favorite single moment in any Demme film comes at the end of Stop Making Sense. After scrupulously avoiding the padding and safety of audience shots through the bulk of the Talking Heads concert performance, Demme closes with a montage of reveling crowds. Among the sequence is a shot of Demme standing by one of the cameras, boogieing to the music just like anyone else in the house. He was at work, but what a grand job he had.
All that devotion to his craft surely made the disappointments sting more sharply. A graduate of Roger Corman’s informal school of low-budget moviemaking, Demme had one of his first real experiences with the Hollywood studio machinery on Swing Shift, a story of women entering the manufacturing workforce during World War II. Intended as a drama primarily about female friendship, the studio heads wanted to capitalize on the tabloid fodder burgeoning love affair between co-stars Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell and turn the finished product into a more straightforward romance. It was essentially taken away from Demme.
Years later, the director was shooting Philadelphia in that city, frequenting the movie rental shop TLA Video in his spare time. Without any notice, the store managers found a handwritten note affixed to their copy of Swing Shift. It read: “There was a much better version of this picture before Warner Bros recut it, junked our score, and added some ridiculous new scenes, completely changing the whole thing. Thanks, Jonathan Demme.”
The note from Demme was taken off the video box and put in a more secure location in the store, though still clearly on display. An assistant manager explained the reasoning for that adjustment in placement with clear logic.
“We want to keep an eye on the note so nobody takes it and makes Jonathan Demme their own,” she said.
No one could blame those running the store from taking steps to prevent the note from becoming a random patron’s pilfered memento. Besides, anyone who tried to do so would be indulging in an unnecessary act of greed. Through his films, Demme had already expressed himself so generously that any who watched with the proper openness and attention could reasonably consider him their own.