Silence of the Lambs director Jonathan Demme dies aged 73

The Oscar-winning film-maker also directed acclaimed films Philadelphia, Something Wild and the Talking Heads concert documentary Stop Making Sense

Director Jonathan Demme at the “Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids” premiere during the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival. Photograph: Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Director Jonathan Demme at the “Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids” premiere during the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival. Photograph: Kevin Winter/Getty Images

 

The US director Jonathan Demme, who won an Oscar for The Silence of the Lambs, has died at the age of 73. The cause of death has been announced as “oesophageal cancer and complications from heart disease”.

Demme also directed such acclaimed films as Philadelphia, Something Wild and the Talking Heads concert documentary Stop Making Sense.

David Byrne in a scene from the Talking Heads music documentary Stop Making Sense
David Byrne in a scene from the Talking Heads music documentary Stop Making Sense

Born on Long Island, Demme was one of the many great film-makers – Francis Ford Coppola and John Sayles are others – to cut their teeth with the exploitation master Roger Corman.

Demme directed such colourfully titled projects as Caged Heat and Crazy Mama before going on to shoot an episode of the durable TV series Columbo.

In 1980, Melvin and Howard, detailing a story from Howard Hughes’s later years, became a raved-about cult hit and announced Demme to the studios. His 1986 screwball comedy Something Wild, starring Melanie Griffith and Jeff Daniels, confirmed his gift for combining independent sensibilities with the demands of the mainstream.

Jonathan Demme holds the Oscar for best director, alongside Jodie Foster (best actress) and Anthony Hopkins (best actor) for The Silence of the Lambs. Photograph: Reed Saxon/AP
Jonathan Demme holds the Oscar for best director, alongside Jodie Foster (best actress) and Anthony Hopkins (best actor) for The Silence of the Lambs. Photograph: Reed Saxon/AP

It was The Silence of the Lambs, an adaptation of Thomas Harris’s gruesome thriller, that really nudged Demme into the stratosphere. That film, released in 1991, has a place in Oscar history as one of only three projects – the others are One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and It Happened One Night – to win the big five Academy Awards: best picture, best director, best actor, best actress, and best screenplay.

Movie legend

Though this was not the first cinematic representation of Hannibal Lecter, The Silence of the Lambs turned the hungry sociopath into an enduring movie legend to set beside Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein monster and Bela Lugosi’s Dracula. Demme’s touch for a menacing close-up was vital in establishing the villain’s uneasy appeal.

Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs
Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs

There were more Oscars for Philadelphia, Hollywood’s belated engagement with the Aids crisis, in 1993. Tom Hanks won the first of two consecutive awards for playing a corporate lawyer facing dismissal following diagnosis.

Thereafter, Demme’s career became a little erratic. An ambitious adaptation of Toni Morrison’s Beloved was met with mixed reviews. His take on the Manchurian Candidate in 2004 felt unnecessary. But he scored a critical smash – while returning to his earthy independent roots – with the beautifully acted Rachel Getting Married in 2008.

When Paul Thomas Anderson, among the greatest US directors of the next generation, was asked to name his three favourite directors, he gave a surprising answer: “Jonathan Demme, Jonathan Demme, and Jonathan Demme.” Fair enough. There were at least three Demmes to choose from.

He is survived by three children from two marriages.