April 26th started out fun.
It was “Alien Day” – in reference to the famed planet of LV426 from the Alien franchise – and fans like myself have fun spending the day tweeting and posting all kinds of amusing tributes to the films.
While I was on Twitter, I spotted Jonathan Demme’s name trending, and I immediately feared the worst.
Sadly, those fears were confirmed when I learned he had indeed passed away at age 73 from cancer and heart-related issues. My heart sank. No longer would I have the chance to see another new film from him, whether it be an irreverent comedy like Married to the Mob, or a powerful drama like Philadelphia, where Demme tackled AIDS, homosexuality, and bigotry with respect and finesse. In my view, that film really started the conversations that led to the levels of acceptance of the LGBTQ community we enjoy today.
The Silence of the Lambs.
No discussion of Demme can be made without including this film, arguably one of the ten best films in Hollywood history. Certainly, one of the most beloved and influential movies of the horror genre. TV shows like CSI and Criminal Minds wouldn’t exist without Silence, nor would films like Seven or The Bone Collector.
After what initially seemed like the single worst decision Hollywood ever made, appointing a man who was previously known for concert films (Stop Making Sense) or irreverent comedies (Something Wild, Married to the Mob) to direct a film based on the book by Thomas Harris, one of the greatest (not to mention most popular) horror thrillers ever written, Jonathan Demme instead turned out to be one of the best decisions Hollywood could’ve made.
The Silence of the Lambs, costing a mere $19 million, went on to gross over $270 million worldwide and swept the Oscars in all five major categories: Best Picture, Best Actor (Anthony Hopkins), Best Actress (Jodie Foster), Best Director, and Adapted Screenplay (Ted Tally).
For fans of the novel like myself, Oscar night that year was extra special for a couple of reasons. First, Jonathan Demme delivered a perfect adaptation of a perfect book. Second, Hollywood didn’t snub the film as we all feared it would.
Anthony Hopkins’ portrayal of Hannibal Lecter elevated the cannibalistic doctor to icon status in the horror genre as well as in pop culture, and Jodie Foster’s performance as Clarice Starling was equal to Sir Anthony’s, a stunning achievement not only in acting terms. Foster portrayed a smart, strong woman fighting for – and earning – the respect of her male boss and fellow officers in a time when that was not only rare but generally frowned upon in society and especially in movies and television. Clarice Starling reflected the millions of women dealing with the same issues in their own lives. Clarice was a major character in the film. She was not added to the movie to simply be a love interest for a male character, or a damsel in distress waiting for the hero to save her. She was her own hero, and with her combination of smarts and her resilience, she was a hero for all of us, male or female.
Suffice to say, The Silence of the Lambs was a crowning achievement for everyone involved. Demme’s quirky style melded perfectly with Ted Tally’s spot-on script, defying all odds. Granted, Silence cast a hefty shadow, and while I didn’t quite enjoy Demme’s work after Silence as much, he was without doubt a terrific filmmaker who added depth and humanity to every one of his films.
I’m going to close this post so that I can go back and enjoy my favorite Jonathan Demme movies – not just The Silence of the Lambs, but Something Wild, a strangely magical dark comedy that may or may not have influenced Breaking Bad. I’ll let you decide. And of course, Stop Making Sense, a brilliant concert film that I promise will make you a Talking Heads fan, even if only for a short time. (I’m willing to bet you’ll explore their catalogue after watching!)
I think it’s fitting that Jonathan Demme left us on ‘Alien Day’ – a fun day celebrating the achievement of a legendary director. And aliens!
I bet he’d get a kick out of that.