Jonathan Demme: American filmmaker, producer and screenwriter (1944 - 2017) | Biography
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Jonathan Demme
American filmmaker, producer and screenwriter

Jonathan Demme

Jonathan Demme
The basics

Quick Facts

Intro American filmmaker, producer and screenwriter
A.K.A. Robert Jonathan Demme
Was Musician Actor Filmmaker Film director Film producer Screenwriter Writer Film actor Cinematographer Film score composer Documentary filmmaker
From United States of America
Field Film, TV, Stage & Radio Literature Music
Gender male
Birth 22 February 1944, Baldwin, United States of America
Death 26 April 2017, New York City, United States of America (aged 73 years)
Star sign Pisces
The details (from wikipedia)


Robert Jonathan Demme (/ˈdɛmi/ DEM-ee; February 22, 1944 – April 26, 2017) was an American director, producer, and screenwriter. He is best known for directing the psychological horror The Silence of the Lambs (1991), for which he won the Academy Award for Best Director. He also directed Melvin and Howard (1980), Swing Shift (1984), Something Wild (1986), Married to the Mob (1988), the concert film Stop Making Sense (1984), Philadelphia (1993) and Rachel Getting Married (2008).

Early life

Demme was born on February 22, 1944 in Baldwin, New York, the son of Dorothy Louise (née Rogers) and Robert Eugene Demme, a public relations executive. He was raised in Rockville Centre, New York and Miami, where he graduated from Southwest Miami High School before attending the University of Florida.


Early films

Demme broke into feature film working for exploitation film producer Roger Corman early in his career, co-writing and producing Angels Hard as They Come (1971), a motorcycle movie very loosely based on Rashomon, and The Hot Box (1972). He then moved on to directing three films for Corman's studio New World Pictures: Caged Heat (1974), Crazy Mama (1975), and Fighting Mad (1976). After Fighting Mad, Demme directed the comedy film Handle with Care (originally titled Citizens Band, 1977) for Paramount Pictures. The film was well received by critics, but received little promotion, and performed poorly at the box office.

Demme's next film, Melvin and Howard (1980), did not get a wide release, but received a groundswell of critical acclaim, and led to the signing of Demme to direct the Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell star vehicle Swing Shift (1984). Intended as a prestige picture for Warner Bros. as well as a major commercial vehicle for Demme, it instead became a troubled production due to the conflicting visions of Demme and star Hawn. Demme ended up renouncing the finished product, and when the film was released in May 1984, it was generally panned by critics and neglected by moviegoers. After Swing Shift, Demme stepped back from Hollywood to make the Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense (also 1984) which won the National Society of Film Critics Award for best documentary; the eclectic screwball action-romantic comedy Something Wild (1986); a film-version of the stage production Swimming to Cambodia (1987), by monologist Spalding Gray; and the New York Mafia-by-way-of Downtown comedy Married to the Mob (1988).

Demme formed his production company, Clinica Estetico, with producers Edward Saxon and Peter Saraf in 1987. They were based out of New York City for fifteen years.

Later films

Demme won the Academy Award for The Silence of the Lambs (1991)—one of only three films to win all the major categories (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actor, and Best Actress). Inspired by his friend Juan Suárez Botas's illness with AIDS and fueled by his own moral convictions, Demme then used his influence to make Philadelphia (1993), one of the first major films to address the AIDS crisis and which garnered star Tom Hanks his first Best Actor Oscar. He also co-directed (with his nephew Ted) the music video for Bruce Springsteen's Best Song Oscar-winning "Streets of Philadelphia" from the film's soundtrack.

Subsequently, his films included an adaptation of Toni Morrison's Beloved (1998), and remakes of two films from the 1960s: The Truth About Charlie (2002), based on Charade, that starred Mark Wahlberg in the Cary Grant role; and The Manchurian Candidate (2004), with Denzel Washington and Meryl Streep. Demme's documentary film Man from Plains (2007), a documentary about former U.S. President Jimmy Carter's promotional tour publicizing his book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, had its premiere at the Venice Film Festival and Toronto International Film Festival.

His art-house hit Rachel Getting Married (2008) was compared by many critics to Demme's films of the late 1970s and 1980s. It was included in many 2008 "best of" lists, and received numerous awards and nominations, including an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress by lead Anne Hathaway. In 2010, Demme made his first foray into theater, directing Family Week, a play by Beth Henley. The play was produced by MCC Theater and co-starred Rosemarie DeWitt and Kathleen Chalfant.

At one time, Demme was signed on to direct, produce, and write an adaptation of Stephen King's sci-fi novel 11/22/63, but later left due to disagreements with King on what should be included in the script.

He returned to the concert documentary format with Justin Timberlake + the Tennessee Kids (2016), which he described as a "performance film, but also a portrait of an artist at a certain moment in the arc of his career", and his last project was a history of rock & roll for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame compiled from footage from Hall of Fame induction ceremonies set to debut in summer 2017.

Demme directed music videos for artists such as Suburban Lawns, New Order, KRS-One's H.E.A.L. project and Bruce Springsteen. He also produced a compilation of Haitian music called Konbit: Burning Rhythms of Haiti that was released in 1989. (Lou Reed selected Konbit... as one of his 'picks of 1989').

Demme was on the board of directors at Jacob Burns Film Center in Pleasantville, New York. In addition to his role on the board, he curated and hosted a monthly series called "Rarely Seen Cinema".


Throughout 1986–2004, Demme was known for his dramatic close-ups in films. This style of close-ups involves the character looking directly into the camera during crucial moments, particularly in the "Quid pro quo" scene in Silence of the Lambs. According to Demme, this was done to put the viewer into the character's shoes. Beginning with Rachel Getting Married (2008), Demme adopted a documentary style of filmmaking.

Writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson has paid homage to Demme in his films and has cited him as a major influence in his work. In an interview, Anderson jokingly stated that the three filmmakers who inspired him the most are "Jonathan Demme, Jonathan Demme and Jonathan Demme." Other directors such as Alexander Payne and Wes Anderson have been known to copy his close-ups in their own work.

Political activism

Demme was involved in various political projects. In 1981, he directed a series of commercials for the liberal advocacy group People for the American Way. The spots, titled "Eggs", "Music", and "Sports", were produced by Norman Lear and featured Muhammad Ali, Carol Burnett, and Goldie Hawn celebrating Freedom of Expression. In 1985, he directed a video for Artists United Against Apartheid. The short, featured various international musicians including Afrika Bambaataa, Rubén Blades, Jimmy Cliff, Herbie Hancock, Little Steven, Run–D.M.C., and Bruce Springsteen, calling for a boycott of the South African luxury resort Sun City during Apartheid. His documentary Haiti Dreams of Democracy (1988) captured Haiti's era of democratic rebuilding after dictatorship, while his documentary The Agronomist (2008) profiled Haitian journalist and human rights activist Jean Dominique. Demme spent six years on the documentary I'm Carolyn Parker (2011), which highlighted rebuilding efforts in New Orleans Lower Ninth Ward after Hurricane Katrina.

Personal life

Demme was married twice, first to Evelyn Purcell and then Joanne Howard, with whom he had three children: Ramona, Brooklyn, and Jos. He was the uncle of film director Ted Demme, who died in 2002. Demme's cousin was the Rev. Robert Wilkinson Castle Jr., an Episcopal priest who appeared in some of Demme's films.

Demme was a member of the steering committee of the Friends of the Apollo Theater, Oberlin, Ohio, along with Danny DeVito and Rhea Perlman. In 2013, he returned to Oberlin as part of an alumni reunion during the class of 2013 graduation ceremony and received the award for Honorary Doctor of Fine Arts.

Demme was an avid collector and devotee of Haitian art; in particular of Hector Hyppolite; so much so that he called it "an addiction". In 2014, he held an auction in Philadelphia selling thousands from his collection, much of which was donated to a cultural center in Port-au-Prince.


On the morning of April 26, 2017, Demme died at the age of 73 in Manhattan, New York, due to complications from esophageal cancer and heart disease.

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. Jonathan was as quirky as his comedies and as deep as his dramas. He was pure energy, the unstoppable cheerleader for anyone creative. Just as passionate about music as he was about art, he was and will always be a champion of the soul. JD, most beloved, something wild, brother of love, director of the lambs. Love that guy. Love him so much.

— Jodie Foster's statement following Demme's demise.

Director Brady Corbet dedicated his 2018 film, Vox Lux to Demme's memory, as well as Luca Guadagnino with his 2018 film Suspiria and Paul Thomas Anderson with his 2017 film Phantom Thread.


Feature film

Title Year Credited as Notes
Director Writer Producer Other
Angels Hard as They Come 1971 Yes Yes
The Hot Box 1972 Yes Yes Second unit director
Black Mama White Mama 1973 Story
Caged Heat 1974 Yes Yes
Crazy Mama 1975 Yes
Fighting Mad 1976 Yes Yes
Handle with Care 1977 Yes A.K.A. Citizen's Band
Last Embrace 1979 Yes Actor Role: Man on Train
Melvin and Howard 1980 Yes
Swing Shift 1984 Yes
Something Wild 1986 Yes Yes
Swimming to Cambodia 1987 Yes
Married to the Mob 1988 Yes
The Silence of the Lambs 1991 Yes
Philadelphia 1993 Yes Yes
Beloved 1998 Yes
Adaptation. 2002 Yes
The Truth About Charlie Yes Yes Yes
The Manchurian Candidate 2004 Yes Yes
Rachel Getting Married 2008 Yes Yes
A Master Builder 2013 Yes
Ricki and the Flash 2015 Yes


Title Year Credited as Notes
Director Writer Producer
Stop Making Sense 1984 Yes Yes
Haiti: Dreams of Democracy 1987 Yes Yes Yes
Cousin Bobby 1992 Yes
The Complex Sessions 1994 Yes
Storefront Hitchcock 1998 Yes
The Agronomist 2003 Yes Yes Yes Cinematographer
Neil Young: Heart of Gold 2006 Yes
Man from Plains 2007 Yes Yes
Right to Return: New Home Movies From the Lower 9th Ward Yes
Neil Young Trunk Show 2009 Yes
I'm Carolyn Parker 2011 Yes Yes Cinematographer
Neil Young Journeys 2012 Yes Yes
Enzo Avitabile Music Life Yes Yes
What's Motivating Hayes 2015 Yes Short film
Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids 2016 Yes


Title Year Credited as Notes
Director Writer Producer
Columbo 1978 Yes Episode: "Murder Under Glass"
Saturday Night Live 1980–86 Yes Yes 3 episodes
American Playhouse 1982 Yes Episode: "Who Am I This Time?"
Trying Times 1987 Yes Episode: "A Family Tree"
Subway Stories 1997 Yes Segment: "Subway Car from Hell"
Enlightened 2011 Yes 2 episodes
A Gifted Man Yes Yes Episode: "Pilot"
The Killing 2013–14 Yes 2 episodes
Shots Fired 2017 Yes Episode: "Hour Six: The Fire This Time"
Seven Seconds 2018 Yes Episode: "Brenton's Breath", Posthumous release


Title Year Credited as Notes
Director Producer Other
Fly Me 1972 Second unit director
The Incredible Melting Man 1977 Actor Role: Matt Winters
"The Perfect Kiss" 1985 Yes Music video for New Order
Into the Night Actor Role: Federal Agent
"Away" 1988 Yes Music video for The Feelies
Miami Blues 1990 Yes
Women & Men 2 1991 Yes
Amos & Andrew 1993 Executive producer Uncredited
Household Saints Executive producer
One Foot on a Banana Peel, the Other
Foot in the Grave:
Secrets from the Dolly Madison Room 1994
1994 Yes Documentary
"Murder Incorporated" 1995 Yes Music video for Bruce Springsteen
Devil in a Blue Dress Executive producer
That Thing You Do! 1996 Yes Actor Role: Producer of That Thing You Do!
Director of Weekend At Party Pier
Mandela Yes
Shadrach 1998 Executive producer
Oz 2000 Actor Role: Commercial Director
The Opportunists Executive producer
Maangamizi: The Ancient One 2001 Executive producer
Beah: A Black Woman Speaks 2003 Yes
Crude Independence 2009 Executive producer
Gimme the Loot 2012 Yes
Song One 2014 Yes
I Thought I Told You To Shut Up 2015 Narrator Short documentary
The Center Executive producer
Deep Time Executive producer

Awards and nominations

  • Academy Award
    • 1991: The Silence of the Lambs (won – Best Director)
  • Golden Globe Award
    • 1991: The Silence of the Lambs (nomination – Best Director)
  • BAFTA Award
    • 1991: The Silence of the Lambs (nomination – Best Film)
    • 1991: The Silence of the Lambs (nomination – Best Director)
  • Saturn Award
    • 1991: The Silence of the Lambs (won – Best Horror Film)
  • Berlin International Film Festival
    • 1991: The Silence of the Lambs (won – Silver Bear for Best Director)
    • 1991: The Silence of the Lambs (nomination – Golden Bear)
    • 1994: Philadelphia (nomination – Golden Bear)
The contents of this page are sourced from Wikipedia article on 07 Oct 2019. The contents are available under the CC BY-SA 4.0 license.
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