(1944 - present)
Three Key Films: Something Wild (1986), The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Rachel Getting Married (2008)
Underrated: Beloved (1998). Most critics dismissed Oprah Winfrey’s passion project, an adaptation of Toni Morrison’s classic, and audiences weren’t buying either, but the growth and maturity Demme shows as a craftsman and artist in this film is unmissable. Tackling an epic story that travels through time periods and supernatural planes, illuminating the after-effects of slavery on African American women with blunt succintness for perhaps the first time in film, Demme’s mastery of mise en scene, and of the rhythm of Morrison’s poetic language reveals his dreamy Terrence Malick-esque auteurist leanings as Demme marries nature, violence, drama, history and literature in a beautiful, intimate ceremony. He directs Winfrey, Kimberly Elise, Danny Glover, Lisa Gay Hamilton, Thandie Newton, and Beah Richards to soaring heights.
Unforgettable: Clarice Starling’s blind search of Buffalo Bill’s basement, as the serial killer turns off the lights and she is left in the blackness, virtually defenseless. Shot in terrifying green night vision, from the POV of the killer himself as he taunts the fledgling, terrified agent with the barrel of a gun, the climax to this Oscar champion creates an almost unbearable tension by preying on our fear of the dark.
The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
The Legend: Some might argue that without The Silence of the Lambs, Demme may not have made this list. Yes, he has made a surplus of outstanding films, including quite a few unjustly ignored documentaries such as The Agronomist (2003), but initially, the now 67-year-old director was most known more for his first two critical successes in the early 1980s ending up as box office duds (Handle With Care and Melvin and Howard). Despite the excellent Talking Heads doc Stop Making Sense (1984), the quirky masterpiece of Something Wild, and the Michelle Pfeiffer vehicle Married to the Mob (1988), Demme flew mostly under the radar for the rest of the Me Decade. That is, until he paired up with Anthony Hopkins, Jodie Foster, and screenwriter Ted Tally in 1991 to create the definitive portrait of a serial killer, the film that defined the psychological thriller/horror film hybrid for modern audiences.
From the Oscar-winning follow-up Philadelphia (1993) to the Oprah-starring adaptation Beloved, and, most recently, with a successful foray into hand-held directing with Rachel Getting Married, Demme proved one thing for certain over three decades of incredible work: his adaptability. If you ask him to direct an intense and complex human detective story, he can do it. Ask him to arrest viewers with Philadelphia, a courtroom drama that uses AIDS in America as a lens to uncover homophobia and discrimination (one of the first substantial American films to do so), and he’ll deliver. Ask him to adopt a new technical style into his directing repertoire while broaching the delicate subject of a child’s death during a complex wedding celebration, and Demme will produce a gem. Complicated is his middle name.
Remakes are almost never a good idea, but remaking a classic like John Frankenheimer’s taut The Manchurian Candidate borders on preposterous. Demme did it anyway, and in many respects, he out-directs Frankenheimer and his original with a slick, captivating, and unnerving modern political charge that recalls the paranoid political conspiracy thrillers of the 1970s. With The Truth About Charlie (2002), a remake of Charade (1967), bombing so badly only two years earlier, the (relatively) few of us who gave his remake of John Frankenheimer’s 1962 political thriller The Manchurian Candidate a chance ended as thrilled as we were initially appalled.
Demme seems to thrive on cinematic challenges, and is as valued a member to this list as any other auteur—with or without the juggernaut of The Silence of the Lambs. We just wish he would make more movies! Matt Mazur and Ben Travers