Jonathan Demme

Robert Jonathan Demme (/ˈdɛmi/ DEM-ee;[1] February 22, 1944 – April 26, 2017) was an American director, producer, and screenwriter. 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. He also directed Melvin and Howard (1980), Swing Shift (1984), Something Wild (1986), Married to the Mob (1988), the concert film Stop Making Sense (1984), Philadelphia (1993) and Rachel Getting Married (2008).

Jonathan Demme
Demme at the 2015 Montclair Film Festival
Robert Jonathan Demme

(1944-02-22)February 22, 1944
DiedApril 26, 2017(2017-04-26) (aged 73)
Manhattan, New York, U.S.
Alma materUniversity of Florida
OccupationFilm director, film producer, screenwriter
Years active1968–2017
Notable work
Spouse(s)Joanne Howard
Evelyn Purcell
RelativesTed Demme (nephew)

Early life

Demme was born on February 22, 1944 in Baldwin, New York, the son of Dorothy Louise (née Rogers)[2] and Robert Eugene Demme, a public relations executive.[3][4] He was raised in Rockville Centre, New York and Miami,[5] where he graduated from Southwest Miami High School[6] before attending the University of Florida.[7]


Early films

Demme broke into feature film working for exploitation film producer Roger Corman early in his career, co-writing and producing Angels Hard as They Come (1971), a motorcycle movie very loosely based on Rashomon,[8] and The Hot Box (1972). He then 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 comedy film Handle with Care (originally titled Citizens Band, 1977) for Paramount Pictures. The film was well received by critics,[9] but received little promotion,[10] and performed poorly at the box office.[11]

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.[12] as well as a major commercial vehicle for Demme,[13] it instead became a troubled production due to the conflicting visions of Demme and star Hawn. Demme ended up renouncing the finished product, and when the film was released in May 1984, it was generally panned by critics and neglected by moviegoers.[12] 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;[14] 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-by-way-of Downtown comedy Married to the Mob (1988).[a]

Demme formed his production company, Clinica Estetico, with producers Edward Saxon and Peter Saraf in 1987.[15][16] They were based out of New York City for fifteen years.[17][18]

Later films

Demme won the Academy Award 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).[19] Inspired by his friend Juan Suárez Botas's illness with AIDS[20] and fueled by his own moral convictions,[8] Demme then used his influence to make Philadelphia (1993),[21] one of the first major films to address the AIDS crisis[21] and which garnered star Tom Hanks his first Best Actor Oscar.[21] He also co-directed (with his nephew Ted) the music video for Bruce Springsteen's Best Song Oscar-winning "Streets of Philadelphia" from the film's soundtrack.[22]

Subsequently, his 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, had its premiere at the Venice Film Festival and Toronto International Film Festival.

His art-house hit Rachel Getting Married (2008) was compared by many critics to Demme's films of the late 1970s and 1980s.[23][24][25] It was included in many 2008 "best of" lists, and received numerous awards and nominations, including an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress by lead Anne Hathaway. In 2010, Demme made his first foray into theater, directing Family Week, a play by Beth Henley. The play was produced by MCC Theater and co-starred Rosemarie DeWitt and Kathleen Chalfant.[26]

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 later left due to disagreements with King on what should be included in the script.[27]

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",[20] and his last project was a history of rock & roll for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame compiled from footage from Hall of Fame induction ceremonies set to debut in summer 2017.[20]

Demme directed music videos for artists such as Suburban Lawns, New Order, KRS-One's H.E.A.L. project and Bruce Springsteen. He also produced a compilation of Haitian music called Konbit: Burning Rhythms of Haiti that was released in 1989. (Lou Reed selected Konbit... as one of his 'picks of 1989').[28]

Demme was on the board of directors at Jacob Burns Film Center in Pleasantville, New York. In addition to his role on the board, he curated and hosted a monthly series called "Rarely Seen Cinema".[29]


Throughout 1986–2004, Demme was known for his dramatic close-ups in films. This style of close-ups involves the character looking directly into the camera during crucial moments, particularly in the "Quid pro quo" scene in Silence of the Lambs. According to Demme, this was done to put the viewer into the character's shoes. Beginning with Rachel Getting Married (2008), Demme adopted a documentary style of filmmaking.[30][31]

Writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson has paid homage to Demme in his films and has cited him as a major influence in his work. In an interview, Anderson jokingly stated that the three filmmakers who inspired him the most are "Jonathan Demme, Jonathan Demme and Jonathan Demme."[32][33] Other directors such as Alexander Payne and Wes Anderson have been known to copy his close-ups in their own work.[34][35]

Political activism

Demme was involved in various political projects. In 1981, he directed a series of commercials for the liberal advocacy group People for the American Way. The spots, titled "Eggs",[36] "Music",[37][38] and "Sports",[39] were produced by Norman Lear and featured Muhammad Ali, Carol Burnett, and Goldie Hawn celebrating Freedom of Expression.[40] In 1985, he directed a video for Artists United Against Apartheid. The short, featured various international musicians including Afrika Bambaataa, Rubén Blades, Jimmy Cliff, Herbie Hancock, Little Steven, Run–D.M.C., and Bruce Springsteen, calling for a boycott of the South African luxury resort Sun City during Apartheid. His documentary Haiti Dreams of Democracy (1988) captured Haiti's era of democratic rebuilding after dictatorship, while his documentary The Agronomist (2008) profiled Haitian journalist and human rights activist Jean Dominique. Demme spent six years on the documentary I'm Carolyn Parker (2011), which highlighted rebuilding efforts in New Orleans Lower Ninth Ward after Hurricane Katrina.

Personal life

Demme was married twice, first to Evelyn Purcell and then Joanne Howard, with whom he had three children: Ramona, Brooklyn, and Jos.[5] He was the uncle of film director Ted Demme, who died in 2002.[41] Demme's cousin was the Rev. Robert Wilkinson Castle Jr., an Episcopal priest who 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.[42] In 2013, he returned to Oberlin as part of an alumni reunion during the class of 2013 graduation ceremony and received the award for Honorary Doctor of Fine Arts.[43]

Demme was an avid collector and devotee 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.[44]


Demme died at his home in Manhattan on April 26, 2017, from complications from esophageal cancer and heart disease; he was 73.[45][5]

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. 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.[46]

Director Brady Corbet dedicated his 2018 film, Vox Lux to Demme's memory,[47] as did Luca Guadagnino with his 2018 film Suspiria and Paul Thomas Anderson with his 2017 film Phantom Thread.


Feature film

TitleYearCredited asNotes
Angels Hard as They Come 1971 Yes Yes[48]
The Hot Box 1972 Yes Yes[48] Second unit director
Black Mama White Mama 1973 Story[48]
Caged Heat 1974 Yes Yes[48]
Crazy Mama 1975 Yes[48]
Fighting Mad 1976 Yes Yes[48]
Handle with Care 1977 Yes[48] A.K.A. Citizen's Band
Last Embrace 1979 Yes[48] Actor Role: Man on Train
Melvin and Howard 1980 Yes[48]
Swing Shift 1984 Yes[48]
Something Wild 1986 Yes Yes[48]
Swimming to Cambodia 1987 Yes[48]
Married to the Mob 1988 Yes[48]
The Silence of the Lambs 1991 Yes[48]
Philadelphia 1993 Yes Yes[48]
Beloved 1998 Yes[48]
Adaptation. 2002 Yes[48]
The Truth About Charlie Yes Yes Yes[48]
The Manchurian Candidate 2004 Yes Yes[48]
Rachel Getting Married 2008 Yes Yes[48]
A Master Builder 2013 Yes[21]
Ricki and the Flash 2015 Yes[48]


TitleYearCredited asNotes
Stop Making Sense 1984 Yes Yes[48]
Haiti: Dreams of Democracy 1987 Yes Yes Yes[48]
Cousin Bobby 1992 Yes[48]
The Complex Sessions 1994 Yes[48]
Storefront Hitchcock 1998 Yes[48]
The Agronomist 2003 Yes Yes Yes[48] Cinematographer
Neil Young: Heart of Gold 2006 Yes[48]
Man from Plains 2007 Yes Yes[48]
Right to Return: New Home Movies From the Lower 9th Ward Yes[49]
Neil Young Trunk Show 2009 Yes[48]
I'm Carolyn Parker 2011 Yes[50] Yes Cinematographer
Neil Young Journeys 2012 Yes Yes[48]
Enzo Avitabile Music Life Yes[51] Yes
What's Motivating Hayes 2015 Yes[52] Short film
Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids 2016 Yes[21]


TitleYearCredited asNotes
Columbo 1978 Yes[48] Episode: "Murder Under Glass"
Saturday Night Live 1980–86 Yes Yes[53] 3 episodes
American Playhouse 1982 Yes[48] Episode: "Who Am I This Time?"
Trying Times 1987 Yes[48] Episode: "A Family Tree"
Subway Stories 1997 Yes[48] Segment: "Subway Car from Hell"
Enlightened 2011 Yes[54] 2 episodes
A Gifted Man Yes[54] Yes Episode: "Pilot"
The Killing 2013–14 Yes[55] 2 episodes
Shots Fired 2017 Yes[21] Episode: "Hour Six: The Fire This Time"
Seven Seconds 2018 Yes Episode: "Brenton's Breath", Posthumous release


TitleYearCredited asNotes
Fly Me 1972 Second unit director[48]
The Incredible Melting Man 1977 Actor Role: Matt Winters[48]
"The Perfect Kiss" 1985 Yes[48] Music video for New Order
Into the Night Actor[48] Role: Federal Agent
"Away" 1988 Yes Music video for The Feelies[56]
Miami Blues 1990 Yes[48]
Women & Men 2 1991 Yes[48]
Amos & Andrew 1993 Executive producer[54] Uncredited
Household Saints Executive producer[48]
One Foot on a Banana Peel, the Other
Foot in the Grave:
Secrets from the Dolly Madison Room 1994
1994 Yes[54] Documentary
"Murder Incorporated" 1995 Yes[48] Music video for Bruce Springsteen
Devil in a Blue Dress Executive producer[54]
That Thing You Do! 1996 Yes[48] Actor Role: Producer of That Thing You Do!
Director of Weekend At Party Pier
Mandela Yes[48]
Shadrach 1998 Executive producer[48]
Oz 2000 Actor Role: Commercial Director[54]
The Opportunists Executive producer[48]
Maangamizi: The Ancient One 2001 Executive producer[54]
Beah: A Black Woman Speaks 2003 Yes[48]
Crude Independence 2009 Executive producer[54]
Gimme the Loot 2012 Yes[57]
Song One 2014 Yes[54]
I Thought I Told You To Shut Up 2015 Narrator[58] Short documentary
The Center Executive producer[59]
Deep Time Executive producer[60]

Awards and nominations


  1. Weber, Bruce. "Jonathan Demme, Oscar-Winning Director, Is Dead at 73," The New York Times, Wednesday, April 26, 2017.
  2. "Dorothy Demme; Character Actress in Son's Movies". LA Times. December 9, 1995. Retrieved April 26, 2017.
  3. "Bonnie-B-Allen - User Trees -". Retrieved April 1, 2017.
  4. "Jonathan Demme Biography (1944–)". Film Reference. Retrieved March 19, 2009.
  5. Weber, Bruce (April 26, 2017). "Jonathan Demme, Oscar-Winning Director, Is Dead at 73". The New York Times. Retrieved April 26, 2017.
  6. "14902: The silenced voice of Radio Haiti speaks again on film (fwd)". Retrieved February 17, 2014.
  7. Gilbey, Ryan (April 26, 2017). "Jonathan Demme obituary". The Guardian. Retrieved April 26, 2017.
  8. DeCurtis, Anthony (March 24, 1994). "The Rolling Stone Interview: Jonathan Demme on Philadelphia, Tom Hanks, homophobia". Rolling Stone. Archived from the original on April 26, 2017. Retrieved April 26, 2017. Philadelphia was fueled by three of the director's staunchest convictions: that helping out people who are having a hard time is less a duty than a pleasure; that bigotry is more the result of ignorance than evil; and that for all the country's political outrages, goodness is deep in the American grain.
  9. Sragow, Michael (1984), "Jonathan Demme on the Line", American Film (January/February), archived from the original on July 7, 2004, retrieved March 18, 2009, Although his best two movies to date, Citizens Band (AKA Handle With Care, 1977) and Melvin and Howard (1980), were hailed for bringing the heartiness and sensitivity of a homegrown Jean Renoir into latter-day American film comedy, they failed to score at the box office.
  10. Kaplan, James (March 27, 1988), "Jonathan Demme's Offbeat America", The New York Times, p. 6.48, retrieved March 18, 2009, Paramount figured it might just have a sleeper hit in the small movie, but it took a wait-and-see attitude, spending little on advertising and promotion, and hoping the movie would hook onto the C.B. craze and catch.
  11. Williams, Phillip (October 11, 2002), "The Truth About Jonathan Demme", MovieMaker, archived from the original on April 14, 2012, We had a great time doing it and we were invited to the New York Film Festival, despite the fact that the film tanked horrendously—and famously—at the box office.
  12. Vineberg, Steve, "Swing Shift: A Tale of Hollywood", Sight & Sound, British Film Institute, archived from the original on May 18, 2003, retrieved March 19, 2009
  13. Uhlich, Keith (August 2004), "Jonathan Demme", Sense of Cinema, ISSN 1443-4059, archived from the original on December 25, 2010, retrieved March 19, 2009
  14. Benson, Sheila (January 4, 1985). "1984 Film Critics Awards: 'Everybody' Proves A Winner". Retrieved April 27, 2017.
  15. "Clinica Estetico". Retrieved April 26, 2017.
  16. "Production". Retrieved April 26, 2017.
  17. "Clinica Estetico, Ltd". 2010. Retrieved April 27, 2017.
  18. Fleming, Michael (July 25, 2000). "Demme, Saxon to say adios". Retrieved April 26, 2017.
  19. Pristin, Terry (March 31, 1992). "'Silence of the Lambs' Sweeps 5 Major Oscars". Los Angeles Times. Tribune Company. Retrieved March 15, 2014.
  20. Fear, David; Reed, Ryan (April 26, 2017). "Jonathan Demme, Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia director, dead at 73". Rolling Stone. Archived from the original on April 26, 2017. Retrieved April 26, 2017.
  21. Lang, Brent; Dagan, Carmel (April 26, 2017). "Jonathan Demme, Silence of the Lambs director, dies at 73". Variety. Archived from the original on April 26, 2017. Retrieved April 26, 2017.
  22. Grierson, Tim (April 26, 2017). "Why Jonathan Demme was one of the greatest concert movie directors ever". Rolling Stone. Archived from the original on April 26, 2017. Retrieved April 26, 2017.
  23. Burr, Ty (October 12, 2008), "He's back", The Boston Globe, retrieved March 19, 2009, Warm rather than cold, forgiving rather than damning, Rachel is a throwback to the fluky, generous vibe that sustained the director's films in the late 1970s and 1980s – Handle With Care (1977), Melvin and Howard (1980), Stop Making Sense (1984), Something Wild (1986) and Married to the Mob (1988).
  24. Olsen, Mark (September 28, 2008), "Jonathan Demme's Rachel Getting Married", Los Angeles Times, retrieved March 19, 2009, With Rachel Getting Married, Demme, 64, has returned to the playful, deeply humanist storytelling of such early work as 1980's Melvin and Howard and 1986's Something Wild, both of which are widely acknowledged as having influenced a younger generation of filmmakers.
  25. Schickel, Richard (October 2, 2008), "Rachel Getting Married, Demme Getting Messy", Time, retrieved March 19, 2009, Back in the '70s and '80s he was the best – or at any rate the most promising – young American director. ... Demme's new film, Rachel Getting Married, is arguably an attempt on the part of the director to wend his way back to his roots.
  26. Charles Isherwood (May 23, 2010). "Beth Henley Revival Opens at Lucille Lortel". The New York Times. Retrieved July 6, 2017.
  27. Gallagher, Brian (December 6, 2012). "Stephen King's 11/22/63 loses Jonathan Demme". Retrieved October 27, 2013.
  28. Rolling Stone, March 8, 1990
  29. Michelin, Robert. "Demme Digs Up Rarely Seen Movies at Burns Center in Pleasantville". Mount Pleasant Daily Voice (January 30, 2012). Retrieved April 26, 2017.
  30. "Jonathan Demme And The Simple Power Of The Close-Up". Retrieved April 26, 2017.
  31. "Does Jonathan Demme's Style of Close-Up Shots Make You Feel Uncomfortable, Too?". Retrieved April 26, 2017.
  32. "Paul Thomas Anderson's Favorite Films". Retrieved April 26, 2017.
  33. Hollwedel, Zach. "Watch: 27-Minute Talk Between Paul Thomas Anderson & Jonathan Demme - IndieWire". Retrieved April 26, 2017.
  34. "Jonathan Demme Dead At 73". April 26, 2017. Retrieved April 26, 2017.
  35. Wickman, Forrest (April 14, 2015). "What Wes Anderson and P.T. Anderson Have Taken From Jonathan Demme". Slate. Retrieved April 26, 2017 via Slate.
  36. PFAWdotorg (July 25, 2008). "Goldie Hawn et. al. on Eggs and the American Way". Retrieved April 26, 2017 via YouTube.
  37. PFAWdotorg (July 25, 2008). "Muhammad Ali, Goldie Hawn, etc. on Music and the American Way". Retrieved April 26, 2017 via YouTube.
  38. PFAWdotorg (July 25, 2008). "Carol Burnett, Ned Beatty, etc. on Music and the American Wa" via YouTube.
  39. PFAWdotorg (July 25, 2008). "Muhammad Ali et. al. on Sports and the American Way". Retrieved April 26, 2017 via YouTube.
  40. PFAWdotorg (July 25, 2008). "Carol Burnett, Ned Beatty, etc. on Music and the American Wa". Retrieved April 26, 2017 via YouTube.
  41. Baxter, Brian (January 17, 2002). "Ted Demme obituary". The Guardian. Retrieved April 26, 2017.
  42. "Friends of the Apollo". Oberlin College. Retrieved July 6, 2009.
  43. "Jonathan Demme Passes Away". Oberlin College and Conservatory. June 6, 2017. Retrieved February 24, 2019.
  44. Freeman, Nate, ed. (April 26, 2017). "A Look into Jonathan Demme's History of Collecting Outsider Art". Art. News. Retrieved July 17, 2017.
  45. Kohn, Eric; Sharf, Zack (April 26, 2017). "Jonathan Demme, Oscar-Winning Director of 'Silence of the Lambs,' Dies At 73". IndieWire. Retrieved April 26, 2017.
  46. "Jodie Foster Pays Tribute to Jonathan Demme, 'A Champion of the Soul'". April 26, 2017. Retrieved April 26, 2018.
  47. Cea, Max (December 8, 2018). "Vox Lux". Retrieved March 24, 2019.
  48. "Jonathan Demme". BFI. Retrieved April 27, 2017.
  49. Kapsis, Robert, ed. (January 1, 2001). "introduction". Jonathan Demme:Interviews. Univ. Press of Mississippi. pp. xiv. ISBN 978-1-60473-118-7.
  50. "A Steely Fighter From the City That Care Forgot". New York Times. Retrieved April 27, 2017.
  51. "Enzo Avitabile Music Life". Retrieved April 27, 2017.
  52. "What's Motivating Hayes". Retrieved April 27, 2017.
  53. "Jonathan Demme, Oscar-Winning Director of 'Silence of the Lambs,' Dies at 73". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved April 27, 2017.
  54. "Jonathan Demme Biography & Filmography". Retrieved April 27, 2017.
  55. "The Killing gets it exactly right in season four, just in time to end". AV Club. Retrieved April 27, 2017.
  56. Lieberman, Josh. "The Feelies at Maxwell's". The Paris Review. Retrieved February 24, 2016.
  57. "Jonathan Demme Puts His Tag On Graffiti-Filled Indie 'Gimme The Loot'". Retrieved April 27, 2017.
  58. "Jonathan Demme Narrates I Thought I Told You To Shut Up!!," a Short Film About the Counterculture Cartoon Reid Fleming". Open Culture. April 26, 2017. Retrieved February 6, 2019.
  59. "Press releases - The center". Retrieved April 27, 2017.
  60. "About". Retrieved April 27, 2017.
  61. "Jonathan Demme, Oscar-Winning Director of 'Silence of the Lambs,' Dies at 73". Retrieved April 26, 2017.
  62. "Past Saturn Award Recipients". Retrieved April 26, 2017.
  63. "Berlinale: 1991 Prize Winners". Retrieved March 26, 2011.
  64. "41st Berlin International Film Festival 1991 – FilmAffinity". Retrieved April 26, 2017.
  65. "44th Berlin International Film Festival 1994 – FilmAffinity". Retrieved April 26, 2017.
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