Jonathan Demme, Oscar-winning director of ‘Silence of the Lambs’, dies of cancer at age 73
Demme also directed the ground-breaking AIDS drama Philadelphia, which won an Oscar for actor Tom Hanks
Jonathan Demme, Oscar-winning director of The Silence of the Lambs whose four-decade career produced a staggering array of work from romantic comedy to social and political documentaries, died Wednesday. He was 73.
Demme passed away in New York surrounded by his family after a battle with cancer, his publicist announced. He will be laid to rest in a private, family funeral.
He remains best known for the smash-hit 1991 horror-thriller starring Anthony Hopkins as serial killer Hannibal Lecter and Jodie Foster as FBI agent Clarice Starling. The movie was box-office gold and a dazzling critical success.
It swept the 1992 Academy Awards, winning five Oscars including best picture, best actor for Hopkins and best actress for Foster.
“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,” Foster wrote in a statement published by Variety magazine online.
“JD, most beloved, something wild, brother of love, director of the lambs. Love that guy. Love him so much,” she wrote.
Demme’s publicist said he died from complications from oesophageal cancer and is survived by his three children, Jos, 21, Brooklyn, 26, Ramona, 29.
The director’s success with Silence of the Lambs gave Demme the commercial springboard to direct Philadelphia in 1993, a ground-breaking Hollywood blockbuster that won Tom Hanks his first Academy Award for playing a gay lawyer fired for contracting HIV and fighting for justice.
US critics say the movie changed the way Hollywood portrayed the AIDS crisis and revolutionized mainstream film’s portrayal of gay and lesbian characters.
Demme’s most recent feature film was the less well received Ricki and the Flash, starring Meryl Streep as a divorced mom who ditches her family to follow her dream of rock-n-roll stardom before a crisis compels her to return.
“Jonathan passed away early this morning in his Manhattan apartment, surrounded by his wife, Joanne Howard, and three children,” Demme’s publicist said in a brief statement.
His death sparked an outpouring of grief for a deeply respected director, also recognised for highlighting causes such as the plight of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and Haiti.
“My man Demme was the kindest, most generous. A MASSIVE soul. He lived in love. And rests in peace,” wrote director Barry Jenkins, whose coming of age drama Moonlight about a poor African-American boy won this year’s best picture Oscar.
Born on February 22, 1944 on Long Island, New York, Demme went to high school in Miami and briefly studied chemistry at the University of Florida in the hope of becoming a veterinarian.
It was after flunking science studies that he turned to writing movie reviews and got a publicity job at a film company. He later met director Roger Corman, who asked if he could write a screen play.
“I fell backwards into it almost,” he said of his career in an interview with National Public Radio in 2007.
Jonathan Demme was a great artist, humanitarian, activist & a warm encouraging colleague. I've known very few like him. He will be missed https://t.co/wQv5QRqHoN
— Ron Howard (@RealRonHoward) April 26, 2017
Demme directed a total of 20 feature films and 12 documentaries, not to mention music videos such as the 1984 Stop Making Sense, and chalked up a raft of writing and production credits. Much of his work had a political or social tinge.
Besides thrillers, romantic comedies and a farce about the wife of a mobster, his real love was for documentaries. Subjects included Nelson Mandela, former Democratic president Jimmy Carter, and Bruce Springsteen.
“I’m not really in the business of making fictional films and I’m drawn to ones that I consider to be special and exciting in a certain way, and in the meantime I’ll be perfectly happy just to make documentary after documentary,” he told NPR.
But there were also flops.
His 1998 movie Beloved starring Oprah Winfrey, based on the Toni Morrison novel about a slave visited by the spirit of her dead daughter, bombed.
There were also lacklustre reviews for his 2004 remake of The Manchurian Candidate starring Streep and Denzel Washington, set in the 1990-1991 Gulf War.
In 2013, the Americans For Immigrant Justice charity announced that it was honouring Demme with an award for decades of tireless work on behalf of Haitian refugees and vulnerable immigrants.
In place of flowers, Demme’s family has requested donations to the Florida-based charity.