Jonathan Demme, the Oscar-winning director of The Silence of the Lambs and the iconic Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense, has died. He was 73.
A publicist confirmed the news of Demme’s passing this morning, noting that the filmmaker passed away as a result of complications from heart disease, as well as esophogeal cancer; “He was originally treated for the disease in 2010, but suffered from a recurrence in 2015, and his condition deteriorated in recent weeks.”
Born in New York in 1944, Demme got his start in the film industry working with Roger Corman. After picking up early story and writing credits on exploitation features like Angels Hard As They Come and Black Mama White Mama, he made his directorial debut in 1974 with the women-in-prison flick Caged Heat. That would be the first of three features Demme would direct for Corman’s New World Pictures before the end of the ’70s, with Crazy Mama and Fighting Mad following.
After the dramedy Melvin and Howard was met with critical acclaim in 1980, Demme began to move into the big studio system. While Swing Shift proved to be a trouble project for the director in 1984, that same year saw Demme release one of the all-time great concert films in the Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense. (He would later go on to direct music videos for New Order, The Feelies, and Bruce Springsteen.)
The twin successes of Something Wild in 1986 and Married to the Mob in 1988 precluded the director’s biggest hit and calling card. In 1991, The Silence of the Lambs floored audiences and critics alike, and brought one of cinema’s foremost villains into the limelight with Anthony Hopkins’ performance as Hannibal Lecter. Demme’s stylistic flourishes and eerie storytelling were rewarded with five Academy Awards (against seven nominations), including Best Picture and the Best Director honors for Demme.
Demme immediately followed that success with another one, the Tom Hanks/Denzel Washington HIV drama Philadelphia, just two years later. In addition to becoming a massive box office hit, Philadelphia also garnered five Oscar nominations, winning two (for Bruce Springsteen’s stirring “Streets of Philadelphia,” and for Hanks’ performance.) It is also considered among the first major, mainstream American films to address HIV and related cultural homophobia with such candor.
Over the following years, Demme split his time between studio vehicles (the Toni Morrison adaptation Beloved, the 2004 remake of The Manchurian Candidate) and documentary projects. Demme worked extensively with Neil Young, releasing three docs on the artist between 2006 and 2012: Heart of Gold, Neil Young Trunk Show, and Neil Young Journeys. He also helmed the Jimmy Carter book tour film Man From Plains, and most recently, the acclaimed Netflix doc Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids.
Demme’s successes continued in narrative filmmaking as well. 2008’s Rachel Getting Married was hailed as a high-water mark for the director, Demme finding one of Anne Hathaway’s career-best performances in that searing drama. His final feature, 2015’s Ricki and the Flash, likewise garnered notable acclaim for Meryl Streep’s empathetic work.
Demme is survived by his wife, artist Joanne Howard, and their three children.
Watch Demme’s acceptance speech for Best Director at the 1992 Academy Awards, along with an interview with the director from 2016.