By Steven Foster
Academy Award-winning director Jonathan Demme passed away Wednesday.
His resume included a versatile mix of films and documentaries, dramas and light comedies, along with Oscar-winners. Most famous for the multiple award-winning Silence of The Lambs, Demme’s immortal contribution to films includes much more than the sterling performances of Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins, and the introduction of “fava beans and a nice chianti” into the lexicon.
When AIDS was still a largely undiscussed topic, especially in corporate America, Demme directed one of Denzel Washington’s most quietly powerful performances and Tom Hanks to an Oscar in the emotional Philadelphia, a $40 million hit that defied Hollywood taboos regarding AIDS. That film brought mainstream America one of its first gay characters (though the film was occasionally criticized for its lack of sexuality and rosy depiction of the main character’s supportive family by the likes of Larry Kramer and others). Still, the film went on to make over $40 million and two Oscars. Demme’s other films include the Talking Heads documentary Stop Making Sense, comedies like the edgy, new wavy Something Wild, the divorce caper Married to The Mob, and the quirkily charming Melvin and Howard.
Actors loved working with Demme, and with good reason—he made them shine, whether showcasing an actor’s unknown thespian diversity or introducing audiences to new talent in ways that continually gave audiences the joy of a new discovery. Demme brought Mary Steenburgen to crowds for the first time, getting Steenburgen an Oscar in the Howard Hughes comedy Melvin and Howard. He creeped them out and turned them on with the sexy menace of Ray Liotta in Something Wild (also with a young and winning Melanie Griffith). He could illuminate the diversity of a then-typecast Michelle Pfeiffer in Married to The Mob, as well as spotlight the genius and oddity of a giant-suited David Byrne in Stop Making Sense.
Within hours of Demme’s death, tributes began pouring out from Sense’s Byrne, Philadelphia’s Bruce Springsteen and Tom Hanks (who won an Oscar for the role), and Silence’s Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins (both Oscar winner), and Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids’ titular star.
Demme died Wednesday morning from esophageal cancer. He was 73.