Jonathan Demme: February 22, 1944—April 26, 2017 (Image via handout)
Jonathan Demme, who won the Oscar for directing The Silence of the Lambs (1991), has died of cancer at 73, Variety reports.
After a string of edgy, critically acclaimed films like the offbeat Howard Hughes buddy movie Melvin and Howard (1980), the much-loved Talking Heads doc Stop Making Sense (1984), the Melanie Griffith road movie Something Wild (1986) and the Michelle Pfeiffer mobster comedy Married to the Mob (1988), Demme broke into A-list director territory with Lambs, which became a rare film to win all of the Top 5 awards at the Oscars, including Best Adapted Screenplay.
Lambs, for which then-closeted actress Jodie Foster won the Oscar (giving a speech that obliquely referenced her choice to be a private person), contains — along with fine acting and memorable suspense — an arguably exploitative representation of a serial killer who is described as someone who thinks he is, and wants to be, “transsexual.” The script includes dialogue that attempts to argue that actual trans people are not prone to murder, but scenes of Buffalo Bill with his penis tucked between his legs and mugging in female garb seem unmistakably designed to creep out the audience.
It could be argued that Demme hadn't completely shaken off his early years working on unapologetically exploitative films for Roger Corman, including his directorial debut, Caged Heat (1974).
Buffalo Bill's shock value (Image via Orion)
Nonetheless, The Silence of the Lambs has since been called one of the 100 Greatest Films Ever Made by the AFI, and was an enormous international success.
In Demme's follow-up to Lambs, he took on the topic of AIDS in Philadelphia (1993), which won Tom Hanks his first Oscar. The film grossed nearly $80 million in the U.S., thanks to Demme's efforts to get it made, and thanks to his casting of movie stars Hanks and Denzel Washington.
His career took a swift dive thereafter, with the Oprah Winfrey-starring bomb Beloved (1998) and the poorly received remakes The Truth About Charlie (2002) and The Manchurian Candidate (2004).
Rachel Getting Married (2008), starring Anne Hathaway, represented a return to Demme's roots. His final narrative films, A Master Builder (2013) and the Meryl Streep vehicle Ricki and the Flash (2015) did not make a big impact.
In 2016, Demme directed Justin Timberlake's concert feature, Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids, for Netflix.
Demme had been battling cancer at the time of his death. He is survived by his wife Joanne Howard and their three children.