On Wednesday morning, at the age of 73, the incomparable Jonathan Demme passed away from complications related to esophageal cancer. At his passing, Demme is perhaps best known as the Academy Award-winning filmmaker of The Silence of the Lambs (1991), one of only three movies ever to win the “Big Five”: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Screenplay.
Others consider his greatest legacy to be his groundbreaking stewardship of Philadelphia (1993), the Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington-starring drama that challenged the world to reconsider its relationship with HIV/AIDS. Then there is the film he made with Talking Heads, Stop Making Sense (1984), an electrifying and spicy-fun tour documentary that redefined concert films for the MTV generation and brought the director to public fame.
Demme’s journeyman career, which was buoyed equally by unflagging productivity, peerless creative flexibility and his incomparable generosity of spirit, made him among the most eclectic artists in modern cinema. But I knew Demme, albeit briefly, as the filmmaker who defined kindness to me.
When I first met Demme at the Austin Film Festival in 2013, he was visiting to screen “Jonathan Demme Presents: Made in Texas,” a series of short films he had first showcased at the Collective for Living Cinema in October 1981. Louis Black, the co-founder of SXSW and the independent newspaper The Austin Chronicle, for which I’m now a writer, was a close friend of Demme’s, having introduced the filmmaker to the shorts in the first place
By coincidence, Black was also my classmate at the University of Texas, and he generously invited me to the AFF event. Demme spoke with fanatic admiration about the program, which featured films like Invasion of the Aluminum People and Speed of Light (both 1980), to an enthralled audience including Richard Linklater and Paul Thomas Anderson. Afterward, Black took me to meet these legendary filmmakers.
While it was an honor to speak with Linklater and Anderson both (with any luck, I will only have happy reasons to write about those encounters), the opportunity to meet Demme was physically breathtaking, overwhelming in fact, and I told Black so. Standing just above average height with a tousled pompadour of silver hair, a wide smile, and a red hoodie, Demme looked unintimidating enough, but I knew better.
I knew that he had directed Rachel Getting Married, an astonishingly humanistic indie (featuring Anne Hathaway’s most accomplished performance) which in 2008 had become central in my decision to become a film critic. I also knew that he had optioned and produced Adaptation (2002), which I regularly describe as one of my “5 island films,” as in “Which movies would you take to a desert island to watch before you die of starvation?”
By this time, I had interviewed dozens of filmmakers with mixed results, the most high-profile failure being when Marlon Wayans mocked my sweater on local television in San Francisco (“That is some Harry Potter looking shit.”) So I moved quietly towards the exit, telling Black I’d see him in class. “Don’t be ridiculous,” he said, and guided me to Demme.
Demme grabbed my hand in both of his, and shook it vigorously while asking what I thought of these experimental shorts as a critic, how I liked Austin, how I knew Black. He was not motor-mouthed—on the contrary, he took long, engaged pauses while I answered in anxious stutters, nodding warmly. This was particularly baffling to Anderson, Linklater and Black, who were subtly edging him out to a group lunch.
But Demme maintained eye-contact with me, undeterred, until I walked away from him with my head bowed by reverence. When our brief conversation ended, Demme had shown me more direct kindness and encouragement than any other filmmaker I’d met in the decade since I’d become a writer.
What made Demme’s career as a filmmaker so historic was not simply his contribution to mass-appeal cinema, though underestimating his gifts as a mainstream entertainer would be a dangerous mistake: The Silence of the Lambs remains the most sickeningly convincing Best Picture winner of all time, while the hilarious Married to the Mob (1988) has aged like a fine wine.
Rather, it was his inability to be tamped down by genre, subject or style that proved over and over again his idiosyncratic gifts. Several of his movies demonstrate an affinity for Hollywood’s great working-man directors, like Robert Aldrich or John Frankenheimer, whose The Manchurian Candidate (1962) Demme would remake in 2004. Critics have also been quick to point out that his films display immense visual sympathy for even the most remote characters: as Jacob T. Swinney demonstrates in his adoring video essay, Demme was fond of the humanizing close-up.
Yet it is a psychological impossibility to imagine the same person directing the genre-bending Roger Corman flick Caged Heat (1974), Spalding Gray’s monologue picture Swimming to Cambodia (1987) and a Kenny Chesney concert webcast for American Express. In his 40-plus-year career, Demme’s choices defined themselves against the hundreds of filmmakers that came before and after him. For a movie critic, he was the most exciting breed of artist: unpredictable in everything except the uniform intelligence of his work. He was incomparable.
In the years since our first encounter, I spent treasured personal time with Demme on several more occasions thanks to Black’s unrepayable generosity. The filmmaker visited Texas again in 2015, and we re-met at one of Black’s parties. Demme’s hair was shorn and he looked fragile, but it did not keep him from dancing up a storm at a swanky Austin nightclub. He posed for pictures with other strangers jostling for one-on-one moments with him, never rejecting a fan’s enthusiasm (my own included) for his work or giving any visible indication of what we now know was his recurrent cancer.
Some time later, I was invited to see a private screening of Demme’s film Justin Timberlake + the Tennessee Kids (2016) when it was a work-in-progress. It was obvious immediately that the doc was one of his most accomplished ever, with near-miraculous production design, a hyperkinetic lighting scheme and Timberlake in tremendous form. Watching his star perform on his 20/20 Experience World Tour, Demme was enraptured. “Isn’t he amazing?” he asked me with wonder.
None of us in the room knew that the movie would be his last, least of all Demme, who was in pre-production on a new project while working on TV series like Shots Fired. But even with nearly two dozen features under his belt, he was contagiously animated by his sacred love of performance. “Yes, of course,” I thought: Timberlake was amazing because you made us see it that way.