Jonathan Demme

He is best known for directing the psychological horror The Silence of the Lambs (1991), for which he won the Academy Award for Best Director.

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Jonathan Demme was born on February 22, 1944 in Baldwin, New York, the son of Dorothy Louise (née Rogers) and Robert Eugene Demme, a public relations executive. He was raised in Rockville Centre, New York and Miami, where he graduated from Southwest Miami High School before attending the University of Florida.

Demme broke into feature films working for exploitation film producer Roger Corman early in his career, co-writing and producing Angels Hard as They Come (1971), a motorcycle movie, and The Hot Box (1972). He moved on to directing three films for Corman’s studio New World Pictures: Caged Heat (1974), Crazy Mama (1975), and Fighting Mad (1976). After Fighting Mad, Demme directed the film comedy Handle with Care (also known as Citizens Band) (1977) for Paramount Pictures. The film was well received critically, but had little promotion, and did poorly at the box office.

Demme’s next film, Melvin and Howard (1980), did not get a wide release, but received a groundswell of critical acclaim, and led to the signing of Demme to direct the Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell star vehicle Swing Shift (1984). Intended as a prestige picture for Warner Bros. as well as a major commercial vehicle for Demme, it instead became a troubled production due to the conflicting creative visions of Demme and Hawn. Demme ended up renouncing the finished product, and when the film was released in May 1984, it was generally panned by critics and avoided by moviegoers. After Swing Shift, Demme stepped back from Hollywood to make the Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense (also 1984) which won the National Society of Film Critics Award for best documentary; the eclectic screwball action-romantic comedy Something Wild (1986); a film-version of the stage production Swimming to Cambodia (1987) by monologist Spalding Gray; and the New York Mafia comedy Married to the Mob (1988).

Demme formed his production company, Clinica Estetico, with New York City-based producers Edward Saxon and Peter Saraf in 1987.

Demme reached a career peak when he won a Best Director Oscar for The Silence of the Lambs (1991) — one of only three films to win all the major categories (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actor, and Best Actress). Inspired by his friend Juan Suárez Botas’s illness with AIDS and fueled by his own moral convictions, Demme then used his influence to make Philadelphia (1993), one of the first major films to address the AIDS crisis and which garnered star Tom Hanks his first Best Actor Oscar. He also co-directed (with nephew Ted) the music video for Bruce Springsteen’s Best Song Oscar-winning “Streets of Philadelphia” from the film’s soundtrack.

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His subsequent films included an adaptation of Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1998), and remakes of two films from the 1960s: The Truth About Charlie (2002), based on Charade, that starred Mark Wahlberg in the Cary Grant role; and The Manchurian Candidate (2004), with Denzel Washington and Meryl Streep. Demme’s documentary film Man from Plains (2007), a documentary about former U.S. President Jimmy Carter’s promotional tour publicizing his book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, premiered at the Venice Film Festival and Toronto International Film Festival.

Demme’s art-house hit Rachel Getting Married (2008) was compared by many critics to his films of the late 1970s and 1980s. It was included in many 2008 “Best of” lists, and received numerous awards and nominations, including an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress by Anne Hathaway. In 2010, Demme made his first foray into theater, directing Family Week, a play by Beth Henley, which co-starred Rosemarie DeWitt and Kathleen Chalfant.

At one time, Demme was signed on to direct, produce, and write an adaptation of Stephen King’s sci-fi novel 11/22/63, but left due to creative disagreements with King over the scope of the script.

He returned to the concert documentary format with Justin Timberlake + the Tennessee Kids (2016), which he described as a “performance film, but also a portrait of an artist at a certain moment in the arc of his career”. His final project was a history of rock & roll for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame compiled from footage from Hall of Fame induction ceremonies, which was set to debut in summer 2017.

From 1986–2004, one of Demme’s stylistic signatures was his use of dramatic close-ups in which his character looks directly into the camera for crucial moments, such as in the “Quid pro quo” scene in Silence of the Lambs. Beginning with Rachel Getting Married (2008), Demme leaned toward a documentary style of filmmaking.

Writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson paid homage to Demme in his films and has cited him as a major influence in his work. In one interview, Anderson joked that the three filmmakers who inspired him most were “Jonathan Demme, Jonathan Demme and Jonathan Demme.” Other directors, such as Alexander Payne and Wes Anderson, have been known to copy his close-ups in their own work.

Demme was married twice, first to Evelyn Purcell and then to Joanne Howard, with whom he had three children: Ramona, Brooklyn, and Jos. He was the uncle of film director Ted Demme, who died in 2002. Demme’s cousin, the Rev. Robert Wilkinson Castle Jr., is an Episcopal priest who has appeared in some of Demme’s films.

Demme was a member of the steering committee of the Friends of the Apollo Theater, Oberlin, Ohio, along with Danny DeVito and Rhea Perlman. In 2013, he returned to Oberlin as part of an alumni reunion during the class of 2013 graduation ceremony and received an award for Honorary Doctor of Fine Arts.

Demme was an avid collector and aficionado of Haitian art; in particular of Hector Hyppolite; so much so that he called it “an addiction”. In 2014, he held an auction in Philadelphia selling thousands from his collection, much of which was donated to a cultural center in Port-au-Prince.

On the morning of April 26, 2017, Demme died at the age of 73 in Manhattan, New York due to complications from esophageal cancer and heart disease.

I am heart-broken to lose a friend, a mentor, a guy so singular and dynamic you’d have to design a hurricane to contain him,” she said in the statement. “Jonathan was as quirky as his comedies and as deep as his dramas. He was pure energy, the unstoppable cheerleader for anyone creative. Just as passionate about music as he was about art, he was and will always be a champion of the soul. JD, most beloved, something wild, brother of love, director of the lambs. Love that guy. Love him so much.

— Jodie Foster’s statement following Demme’s demise.

Director Brady Corbet dedicated his 2018 film Vox Lux to Demme’s memory, as well as Luca Guadagnino with his 2018 film Suspiria.

Memorable Quotes by Jonathan Demme

“I don’t think it’s sacrilegious to remake any movie, including a good or even great movie. I think what’s sacrilegious is to make a bad movie, whether it’s a remake or an original. It’s what I always tell my actor friends, anybody who’s in this, this [business], you’ve gotta try to hold out and only do the scripts, do the material that offers you the opportunity to do your best work.”

“I was really hooked on movies at a very young age. The Manchurian Candidate (1962), along with Seven Days in May (1964), Fail-Safe (1964) and Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) were this quartet of anarchistic black-and-white American movies, each of which did things that you just didn’t do in American movies, especially in the realm of irreverence toward politics and government institutions and the Army.”

“Your antagonist has to be every bit as formidable as your hero, or you diminish the character you’re supposed to care about. For people starting out writing scripts, they’re in that ‘hiss-the-villain’ mode, and you always want to say “Wait, wait, wait. They’re human too. Give them some problems and you’ll end up with a better story”.”

“Nothing beats a live performance. Nothing.”

“By the time I got to ‘Silence of the Lambs,’ I was madly in love with close-ups because I’m madly in love with actors, and a basic premise of ‘Silence of the Lambs’ is the story about two people fighting their way into each other’s heads.”

“The only thing more gratifying than working with someone who you’ve worked well with is working with someone new and coming up with something great.”

Things You May Not Know About Jonathan Demme

Was voted the 45th Greatest Director of all time by Entertainment Weekly.

He and Michael Mann have both directed a Hannibal Lecter film and have also both been involved in a film about Howard Hughes. Mann directed Manhunter (1986) and produced The Aviator (2004), which he was originally to have directed. One of Demme’s earliest films was Melvin and Howard (1980), and he later went on to direct The Silence of the Lambs (1991).

Former critic who began his career as a publicist for Joseph E. Levine before becoming a screenwriter and producer for Roger Corman’s New World Productions.

Directed 8 different actors in Oscar-nominated performances: Mary Steenburgen, Jason Robards, Christine Lahti, Dean Stockwell, Anthony Hopkins, Jodie Foster, Tom Hanks, and Anne Hathaway. Steenburgen, Hopkins, Foster and Hanks won Oscars for their performances in one of Demme’s movies.


Jonathan Demme’s directing credits include…


Year Movie
1974 Caged Heat
1975 Crazy Mama
1976 Fighting Mad
1977 Handle with Care
1979 Last Embrace
1980 Melvin and Howard
1984 Swing Shift
1986 Something Wild
1987 Swimming To Cambodia
1988 Married to the Mob
1991 The Silence of the Lambs
1993 Philadelphia
1998 Beloved
2002 Adaptation
2002 The Truth About Charlie
2004 The Manchurian Candidate
2008 Rachel Getting Married
2013 A Master Builder
2015 Ricki and the Flash
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