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Peter Travers on Jonathan Demme: The Movies' Great Humanist

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Peter Travers on Jonathan Demme: The Movies' Great Humanist

Jonathan Demme, dead of cancer at 73. It's hard to take in those words. 

Or to stop feeling the gut punch of his loss. High praise will flow, deservedly, about Demme's virtuosity as a filmmaker; about the Oscars he won for The Silence of the Lambs; about his concert films, from Stop Making Sense to Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids, that brought audiences closer than ever before to the sweaty intimacy and creative pulse of music. His influence is everywhere. Paul Thomas Anderson was once asked for a list of the three directors who impacted him the most. He answered: "Jonathan Demme, Jonathan Demme and Jonathan Demme." 

There is no doubt that his work will live on. It's Jonathan the man I feel most cheated about losing. How to describe his humanity, his humour, his generosity, his lifelong belief in the healing power of music? If you made films, wrote about them or watched them, Jonathan was your partner in obsession. He didn't see movies so much as breathe them in. Demme curated a film series at the Jacob Burns Film Center, near my home in Westchester, N.Y., where he'd often show movies you never of – and made you smack yourself for missing them the first time around. 

Watching a movie with Jonathan was always a trip, his face a mirror of the joy, surprise and enthusiasm he was feeling. Unless it was one of his own movies: During an early screening of Rachel Getting Married,the 2008 comedy-drama he directed with a never-better Anne Hathaway, I felt Jonathan's presence behind me. He'd get up, come back, whisper something in my ear, then come back again and fidget. "Please go away," I scolded him. I found him later outside, moping, thinking the worst. (The only person Jonathan ever felt the worst about was himself.) I treasure a handwritten letter from him about my review of Beloved, the 1998 film he directed from Toni Morrison's novel. The critics pounded the adaptation as if it had threatened their children. Jonathan took his lumps – he loved that phrase – apologised for the film's flaws and then thanked me for a paragraph that he felt recognised his intentions in making the film. It meant something to him. And he wanted to share it. Critics don't get many notes like that.  

Not many people know that Demme, who was born in New York and grew up in Florida, started his career as a movie critic – writing for local rags, a college newsletter, anything. A rave he punched out for 1964's Zulu impressed movie mogul Joseph E. Levine, mostly because, as Demme said, Levine had produced it. That led to a job as a film publicist, which morphed into a gig at the B-movie garage run by Roger Corman. Demme's first produced script, 1971's Angels Hard As They Come, was in his words "a biker quickie based on Rashomon." His debut as director, 1974's Caged Heat, was a women-in-prison flick that Demme, much to Corman's horror, kept lacing with his natural sweetness. "I should have been fired right there," he joked.

Whenever Demme talked about his early days as a scared kid bluffing his way through Hollywood, he'd always punctuate his stories with a laugh. A word about that laugh: It popped like an explosion, like something that came out of nowhere and wrapped you up in its elation until you joined in. He never had the killer instinct; he even felt sympathy for the damaged childhoods of the maniacs in The Silence of the Lambs. He hated guns and movies that exploited them. And his best films go past the commercial success of Silence, Philadelphia and Stop Making Sense, to include the quirky pleasures of Melvin and Howard, Citizen's Band, Married To the Mob, Rachel Getting Married and especially Something Wild. That 1986 film with Jeff Daniels, Melanie Griffith and Ray Liotta reminds me most of Jonathan's unwavering, unsappy compassion for the fragility of flesh and soul. His spirit is in every frame.

The memory of Jonathan that keeps going through my head right now is sitting next to him at a 2007 memorial service for Robert Altman, the great director we both knew and admired. As images from Altman's films flashed by on stage, Jonathan would clap his hands. "Remember that one?" he asked me in delight as a clip ran from The Player, Altman's biting satire of the movie business. "Sure," I said, "no one hated Hollywood bullshit more than Altman." Jonathan paused, then said, "Yeah, but he loved movies, you can see it in everything he made." There were tears in his eyes when he added, "He shouldn't be gone."

There is no one whose lives Jonathan touched with his talent and his heart that isn't feeling exactly the same way.

 

Topics: Jonathan Demme

 
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