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Also Known As: Robert Jonathan Demme, Rob Morton Died:
Born: February 22, 1944 Cause of Death:
Birth Place: Baldwin, New York, USA Profession: director, producer, screenwriter, publicist, film salesman, music reviewer, film reviewer, actor, usher, kennel worker, salesman, animal hospital worker

Biography CLOSE THE FULL BIOGRAPHY

An incredibly energetic, optimistic and versatile director of character-driven films, Jonathan Demme emerged from the crucible of B-moviemaking at Roger Corman's New World Pictures in the early 1970s to become one of Hollywood's most critically admired filmmakers. Though he cut his teeth on a few cheapie action flicks like "Caged Heat" (1974) and "Crazy Mama" (1975), Demme tapped into the influence of foreign filmmakers like Francois Truffaut to use sly humor and an oddball style to explore human nature in fiercely intimate films like "Citizen's Band" (1977), "Melvin and Howard" (1980) and the troubled "Swing Shift" (1984). Though mainly interested in fictional storytelling, Demme carved out a career in non-fiction filmmaking, including the critically acclaimed "Stop Making Sense" (1984), a rock documentary featuring the Talking Heads that was widely considered to be one of the best examples of the genre. But Demme reserved his finest work for his most mainstream fare, particularly "The Silence of the Lambs" (1991), which became one of only three films to win Academy Awards in all five major Oscar categories and cemented his reputation as being one of the most versatile and accomplished filmmakers...

An incredibly energetic, optimistic and versatile director of character-driven films, Jonathan Demme emerged from the crucible of B-moviemaking at Roger Corman's New World Pictures in the early 1970s to become one of Hollywood's most critically admired filmmakers. Though he cut his teeth on a few cheapie action flicks like "Caged Heat" (1974) and "Crazy Mama" (1975), Demme tapped into the influence of foreign filmmakers like Francois Truffaut to use sly humor and an oddball style to explore human nature in fiercely intimate films like "Citizen's Band" (1977), "Melvin and Howard" (1980) and the troubled "Swing Shift" (1984). Though mainly interested in fictional storytelling, Demme carved out a career in non-fiction filmmaking, including the critically acclaimed "Stop Making Sense" (1984), a rock documentary featuring the Talking Heads that was widely considered to be one of the best examples of the genre. But Demme reserved his finest work for his most mainstream fare, particularly "The Silence of the Lambs" (1991), which became one of only three films to win Academy Awards in all five major Oscar categories and cemented his reputation as being one of the most versatile and accomplished filmmakers of his day.

Born on Feb. 22, 1944 in Baldwin, NY, Demme was raised by his father, Robert, a public relations executive for the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami, FL, and his mother, Carol, an actress. After his parents moved to Florida when he was five, Demme began carving out a career as a veterinarian by working at a local vet cleaning cages and caring for the animals. But when he was unable to master the most basic concepts of chemistry at the University of Florida, Demme gave up his dream of becoming a veterinarian and began writing film reviews for the college's newspaper, The Alligator. After writing a rave review of "Zulu" (1964), his father arranged an introduction to the film's producer Joseph E Levine, who was charmed by Demme's enthusiastic thumbs up and immediately hired him to write press releases. Demme moved to New York, where he spent the next two years as a movie publicist for United Artists and Embassy Pictures. It was during this time that he met and befriended French director Francois Truffaut, who was in New York promoting "The Bride Wore Black" (1968). Though he was unaware at the time, Truffaut recognized the young publicist's affection for film and planted the directing seed into Demme's mind.

In 1968, Demme left the publicist business and moved to London, where he continued writing reviews, only this time for the music business, which ironically helped to open the door on his feature film career. Hired by producers Paul Maslansky and Irwin Allen to create the music for "Eyewitness/Sudden Terror" (1970), Demme worked with British rock groups Vandergraf Generator and Kaleidoscope as the score's music coordinator. It was during this time that he came to the attention of low-budget impresario Roger Corman. At the producer's invitation, Demme relocated to Los Angeles to write screenplays for the recently-formed New World Pictures, completing his first script, "Angels Hard as They Come" (1971), with friend J Viola. Demme graduated to second unit director on "The Hot Box" (1972) before making his full-fledged directorial debut with the tongue-in-cheek "Caged Heat" (1974), a fairly typical women's prison flick in which the director inserted a socially conscious secondary plot about the medical exploitation of prisoners - requisite for a Corman production. He helmed two more pictures for Corman - New World's "Crazy Mama" (1975), a rich crime comedy about a wild woman (Cloris Leachman) on an absurdist crime spree from California to Arkansas, and "Fighting Mad" (1976), starring Peter Fonda as a man driven to violence by a ruthless landowner who wants to take over his farm.

After "Fighting Mad," Demme left the comfortable confines of New World Pictures to make movies on his own. He beat out several directors to helm "Citizen's Band" (1977), an adventurous comedy which wavered between glorifying, lampooning and seriously questioning the implications of the CB radio craze of the era. Retitled "Handle with Care," the movie was a series of mundane, whimsical and disturbing vignettes that featured a gang of loony CB operators which bombed at the box office despite good reviews, leaving Demme scrounging for work. After making "Last Embrace" (1979), an accomplished thriller in the Hitchcockian mold, Demme continued his exploration of the American condition in "Melvin and Howard" (1980), a laidback, but revealing account of an unlikely encounter between a working-class everyman, Melvin Dummar (Paul LeMat), and eccentric billionaire, Howard Hughes (Jason Robarbs), whom Dummar claimed named him sole heir to his fortune. Named Best Picture by the National Society of Film Critics, this satiric, tolerant look at the American class structure also won Demme the New York Film Critics' Best Director award, as well as Oscars for co-star Mary Steenburgen and writer Bo Goldman. But once again, Demme failed to ignite the box office.

For his next film, "Swing Shift" (1984), Demme envisioned a probing look at women factory workers during World War II (his grandmother had worked on the assembly line making fighter planes.) But the film's executive producer and female lead, Goldie Hawn, saw a star vehicle instead. Hating the director's print emphasizing female camaraderie and endurance in the face of domineering male employers, Hawn presented the director with 28 pages of new material, which he half-heartedly shot. As soon as the picture had been through two previews in its original form, the contractual period of the director's creative control was over and Hawn decided to re-cut the film on her own, playing up the doomed love affair between a married woman and her supervisor. Demme and his editor Craig McKay quit the project rather than insert the new scenes. Though its critical and commercial failure vindicated him in a way, the pain of the experience lingered for well over a year. New Yorker critic Pauline Kael - who originally gave "Swing Shift" a negative review - later said, "I saw his cut on videotape, and thought it was wonderful." Her words ech d those of almost everyone who ever saw his version.

During the early stages of editing "Swing Shift," Demme had attended a Talking Heads concert in Los Angeles and had been blown away by their performance. Coming out of the show, he realized "My God, that's a movie waiting to be filmed." He sold the band's leader David Byrne on his vision of honoring the excitement of the live performance by avoiding tricky shots, flashy editing techniques, anything that would constitute a digression from the performance itself, like cutaways to the audience. Compiled from three concerts in December 1983, "Stop Making Sense" (1984) was a joyously energetic, yet cool showcase which helped propel the Talking Heads - and Byrne - to mainstream acceptance. Demme also directed several rock videos for other bands including UB40, New Order's "Perfect Kiss" and Fine Young Cannibals' "Ever Fallen in Love?" These artists and others contributed songs to the lively and memorable soundtrack of "Something Wild," Demme's inventive screwball comedy that takes a surprising and satisfactory turn into thriller territory.

"Something Wild" was Demme's contribution to the disaffected yuppie genre, which had already yielded Albert Brooks' "Lost in America" (1985) and John Landis' "Into the Night" (1985). The darkly comic road movie examined contemporary America through the metaphoric relationship between a spontaneous gamine (Melanie Griffith) and a staid stockbroker (Jeff Daniels), while its rapid editing, sharp camera angles and bouncy pace made for a breathless, dizzying experience. The film's hip urban sensibility seemed a change for Demme, as did the return to violence largely unseen since his early days with Corman. But the film was actually consistent with the director's examination of self-determination that had begun with the women prisoners of "Caged Heat" and continued with the munitions workers of "Swing Shift." His concern with the heroic struggle of the central female character who fights to establish herself against unyielding patriarchal attitudes helped contribute to his reputation as a feminist filmmaker.

Demme showed his mettle with another artful and subtle performance film, "Swimming to Cambodia" (1987), featuring the celebrated monologist Spalding Gray, before spoofing the Mafia in "Married to the Mob" (1988), another dark comedy more garishly colored and cheerful than "Something Wild," which had lost many viewers with the violence and sheer malevolence of Ray Liotta in its final act. Dean Stockwell's brilliant comic turn as Mafioso Tony 'The Tiger' Russo and the right-on performance of Michelle Pfeiffer were standouts among a formidable cast, boasting Matthew Modine, Mercedes Ruehl, Alec Baldwin and frequent Demme player Charles Napier. Popular music - Byrne provided the score - again contributed to the movie's success with audiences and critics alike. For the first time, production designer Kristin Zea joined the team, which included Tak Fujimoto, Demme's long-time director of photography, paving the way for subsequent collaborations on the director's upcoming blockbusters.

His decade and a half directing finally reached full fruition both critically and commercially with "The Silence of the Lambs" (1991), which was superbly adapted from the novel by Thomas Harris. A genuinely terrifying thriller, the film centers on an FBI trainee (Jodie Foster) who enlists the help of a confined, but still dangerous serial killer (Anthony Hopkins) in order to track down another (Ted Levine). Despite the grisly nature of the story - one killer who eats his victims; another who skins them - Demme resisted the possibilities for exploitation and instead fashioned a compelling and impressively sensitive psychological drama with a courageous, independent female protagonist. He also elicited landmark performances from both Foster and Hopkins - the latter of whom managed to make a hero out of the unruly demon Hannibal Lecter. In fact, by film's end, audiences were actually rooting for the cannibal as he g s off stalking his "dinner." Meanwhile, in following in the footsteps of "It Happened One Night" (1934) and "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" (1975), "Silence of the Lambs" went on to win the five top Academy Awards - Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay - an immense accomplishment for what was essentially a big-budget splatter film.

Often associated with progressive causes, Demme lent his talents to projects that reflected his political concerns such as "Haiti Dreams of Democracy" (1988), which he co-wrote, co-produced, and co-directed. He also helmed and appeared in "Cousin Bobby" (1992), a documentary about his relative, the Reverend Robert Castle, a radical, Harlem-based clergyman. Though many viewed the director's decision to film "Philadelphia" (1993) as a mea culpa in response to the charges of homophobia in "The Silence of the Lambs," which were leveled by members of the gay press who decried the complex sexuality of the film's killer, Demme had actually been working on the project with openly gay screenwriter Ron Nyswaner as early as 1988. Nonetheless, the moving courtroom drama dealing with discrimination against gays and PWAs (People with AIDS) was a landmark in mainstream Hollywood history. Greeted with mixed reviews, "Philadelphia" provided an attention-getting and Oscar-winning role for Tom Hanks as the afflicted homosexual lawyer who loses his job when he becomes symptomatic from AIDS. Despite some acclaim, the film was criticized for lacking the strong character development, mischief and sense of the unexpected that characterized Demme's best work.

In the 1990s, Demme, like his mentor Corman, increasingly concentrated on producing, beginning with George Armitage's "Miami Blues" (1990). He upped his output considerably after 1993, producing 10 pictures in five years. He finally returned to the director's chair for the film version of Toni Morrison's Pulitzer Prize-winning "Beloved" (1998), reinforcing the novel's best insights with a startling breadth of vision - and a tip of the hat to Sidney Lumet's "The Pawnbroker" (1964) - that was the best part of the film. It was no nightmare directing his producer-star this time around, as he and Oprah Winfrey - whose presence legitimized the project as authentic black self-expression and took away the onus of hiring a white urbanite as director - were on the same page from the start. Demme had been looking for a project that addressed race relations for a long time and "Beloved" fit that bill with its story about the disfiguring effects of slavery and its aftermath. As a reflection of his lifelong passion for rock 'n' roll in particular and music in general, he also helmed "Storefront Hitchcock" (1998), a documentary about legendary rocker Robyn Hitchcock. Demme said, "There's nothing I'd rather do than direct because directing combines three of my favorite things in life: people, imagery, and sound - not just music, but the sounds of life."

After a lengthy hiatus away from the camera, Demme returned to helm "The Truth About Charlie" (2002), a remake of one of his favorite films, "Charade" (1963), starring Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn and directed by the legendary Stanley Donen. Demme set upon an eclectic path, alternately faithful and radically different - casting Mark Wahlberg in the Grant role and Thandie Newton in the Hepburn role - to bring the story to new life. Essentially casting the central locale of Paris as a third lead character, Demme reunited with some longtime collaborators such as Tak Fujimoto and paid tribute to the influences of the French New Wave that long guided his sensibility. The film was poorly received by both critics and audiences, which failed to stop Demme from choosing another remake of a classic film - this time the 1962 conspiracy thriller "The Manchurian Candidate." Demme's 2004 spin was nearly as effective as the original, thanks to his assured direction - a carefully tweaked screenplay with some new surprises and dimensions, and a masterful cast at the top of their games: Denzel Washington, Meryl Streep, Liev Schreiber and Kimberly Elise.

Returning to documentary films, Demme directed "The Agronomist" (2002), a compelling profile of Haitian radio journalist and human rights activist, Jean Dominique, who spent his lifetime campaigning to reform the oppressed nation until his assassination in 2000. Demme next delivered the compelling, but underappreciated rock documentary, "Neil Young: Heart of Gold" (2005), which depicted the famed singer-songwriter during two special performances at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium commemorating the released of his acclaimed album, Prairie Wind (2005). For his third consecutive documentary, Demme turned to politics with "Jimmy Carter: Man from Plains" (2007), an experimental look at the former president during his book tour promoting Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, which featured speeches on how to achieve peace in the Middle East. After four years, Demme went back to feature filmmaking with "Rachel Getting Married" (2008), a superbly acted dramatic comedy about the troubled black sheep of a family (Anne Hathaway) returning home for her sister's wedding, which touches off long-simmering tensions. Demme earned Independent Spirit Award nominations for Best Director and Best Feature.

VIEW THE FULL BIOGRAPHY

Filmographyclose complete filmography

DIRECTOR:

2.
10.

CAST: (feature film)

2.
 That Thing You Do! (1996) Major Motion Picture Director
3.
 Dying is Easy (1995) (Cameo Appearance)
4.
 Cousin Bobby (1992) Himself
5.
 Into The Night (1985) Federal Agent
7.
10.
 Tom Hanks: Hollywood's Golden Boy (1997) Interviewee
VIEW THE FULL FILMOGRAPHY

Milestones close milestones

1959:
Moved to with family to Miami, Florida at age 15 from New York
1964:
Introduced by his father to producer Joseph E. Levine who, pleased by Demme's review of "Zulu" (1964), hired him to write press releases
1966:
Sold films for Pathe Contemporary Films in NYC
:
Wrote for the exhibitor trade paper <i>Film Daily</i>
:
Made 16mm short film, "Good Morning, Steve"
:
Worked in the NY publicity department of United Artists
1968:
Met and befriended Francois Truffaut, who was then publicizing "The Bride Wore Black" (1968) in NYC
1970:
First film credit as a musical coordinator on the Irwin Allen production "Sudden Terror/Eyewitness"
:
While working in London, met producer-director Roger Corman
1971:
Debut as co-screenwriter, co-producer and second unit director, "Angels Hard as They Come"; directed by Joe Viola and produced by Corman
1972:
Re-teamed with Viola to make "The Hot Box"
1974:
Feature directing debut, "Caged Heat"; also wrote screenplay; first collaboration with director of photography Tak Fujimoto
1977:
First collaboration with actor Paul Le Mat, "Citizens Band/Handle With Care"
1978:
Made TV directorial debut with "Murder Under Glass," an NBC TV-movie episode of the Peter Falk "Columbo" series
1978:
Acted in the film "The Incredible Melting Man"
1979:
Directed the Hitchcockian suspense thriller "Last Embrace"
1980:
Re-teamed with Le Mat (as Melvin Dummar) in "Melvin and Howard"; first association with Jason Robards Jr. (as Howard Hughes)
1981:
Helped photograph Adam Brooks' independent film "Ghost Sisters"
1982:
First credit as Rob Morton for his contributions to the screenplay of "Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains"
1982:
Directed the PBS teleplay, "Who Am I This Time?" starring Susan Sarandon and Christopher Walken
1984:
Credited as Rob Morton for his contributions to the screenplay of "Swing Shift"; also directed (executive producer Goldie Hawn took over final cut of film and hired another director to re-shoot parts of the film)
1984:
Shot outstanding concert film, "Stop Making Sense" featuring David Byrne and his band Talking Heads
1985:
Contributed a cameo to John Landis' "Into the Night"
1986:
Produced and directed the comedy thriller, "Something Wild"; Byrne contributed opening song
1987:
Directed "Swimming to Cambodia," Spalding Gray's monologue about his participation in the film, "The Killing Fields"
1988:
Directed the Mafia farce "Married to the Mob"; Byrne wrote the score; first collaboration with production designer Kristi Zea
:
Formed the production company, Clinica Estetico Ltd.
1991:
Directed first blockbuster, "The Silence of the Lambs"; one of the few films to win all the major categories, including Best Picture and Best Director
1992:
Directed "Cousin Bobby," a documentary of radical Harlem clergyman Robert Castle, the director's cousin
1993:
Produced and directed "Philadelphia," a politically correct, look at the AIDS epidemic and American homophobia; Reverend Castle played Hanks' father; again collaborated with Zea and screenwriter Ron Nyswaner
1994:
Provided the funding so that his wife's best friend, AIDS-stricken artist Juan Botas, could make his documentary "One Foot on a Banana Peel, the Other Foot in the Grave"
1997:
Executive produced and helmed "Subway Car From Hell" segment of HBO's anthology movie "Subway Stories: Tales From the Underground"
1998:
Directed the documentary of legendary rocker Robyn Hitchcock, "Storefront Hitchcock"
1998:
Directed an adaptation of Toni Morrison's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel "Beloved"; starring and co-produced by Oprah Winfrey
2002:
Directed "The Truth About Charlie," a remake of the classic "Charade"
2004:
Directed a remake of the 1962 thriller "The Manchurian Candidate," based on the novel by Richard Condon
2007:
Helmed the documentary "Man from Plains," featuring Jimmy Carter as Carter promotes his book <i>Palestine:Peace not Apartheid</i>
2008:
Directed the family drama "Rachel Getting Married" starring Anne Hathaway and Debra Winger; earned an Independent Spirit Award nomination for Best Feature
2008:
Nominated for the 2008 Independent Spirit Award for Best Director ("Rachel Getting Married")
VIEW ALL MILESTONES

Education

University of Florida: Gainesville , Florida -

Notes

Demme used the pseudonym Rob Morton for screenwriting credit on the films "Swing Shift" (which he directed under his real name) and "Ladies and Gentleman . . . The Fabulous Stains."

Awarded an honorary degree by Wesleyn University June 3, 1990

"The most important thing Roger [Corman] did for me was to sit down with me right before I directed 'Caged Heat' and run down just how to do a job of moviemaking. He hit everything: have something interesting happening in the background of the shot; try to find good motivation to move the camera, because it's more stimulating to the eyes; if you're shooting the scene in a small room where you can't move the camera, try to get in different angles, because cuts equal movement; respect the characters and try to like them, and translate that into the audience liking and respecting the characters. To me, those are the fundamentals." --Jonathan Demme on making "Caged Heat" (1974) quoted in "Righteous & Outrageous--Jonathan Demme" by Paul Taylor, Monthly Film Bulletin, July 1989

"Jonathan Demme's domain is America itself--a vibrant, polychromatic, up-to-the-second place. But there isn't a slick or pat frame in any of his movies. When Jason Robards and Paul Le Mat, as Howard Hughes and Melvin Dummar, sing 'Bye Bye Blackbird' as they drive through the desert at night in "Melvin and Howard"; . . . when Jeff Daniels, pretending to be the husband of his kinky kidnapper, Melanie Griffith, goes to meet her small-town mother in "Something Wild"--Demme's films cross the line from entertainment into poetry. They contain a warmth, a largeness of spirit, a deadpan humor, and a visual and narrative unpredictability that are indebted equally to the eye-pleasing kineticism practiced by Demme's mentor, Roger Corman, the master of horror and action pictures, and to the cinematic intelligence of his early friend and influence Francois Truffaut" --from "Jonathan Demme's Offbeat America" by James Kaplan, The New York Times, 1988.

"It's amazing. I'm an Oscar-winning director. And I love it. I'm proud of it. But I honestly didn't expect to win. I came out here to have some fun, to see the event up close, to visit friends. I don't feel it's going to be a part of my identity, or change a second of my life. But, man, it sure puts the spotlight on you." --Jonathan Demme, quoted in New York Newsday, April 1, 1992

"I didn't go to film school; I didn't work toward being a filmmaker. I stumbled into writing movie reviews so I could get into the movies for free. Then my father introduced me to Joseph E Levine, and Levine offers me a job in the movie business. 'A huge stroke of luck' doesn't catch it.

"Then I wind up crossing paths with Roger Corman, and Corman has just started New World Pictures and needs scripts. My best friend is Joe Viola, one of the most gifted storytellers I've ever known. So Joe and I write a script for Corman, and then, because Joe directs commercials, suddenly Roger wants us to make this motorcycle movie. Again, 'an enormous stroke of good fortune' doesn't fully chacterize it. I mean, people bust their butts for decades to get to make a picture, and I fell backward into it." --Demme quoted in Rolling Stone, March 24, 1994

On deciding to make "Beloved": "I loved the script, the characters, the story. It's a great love story, a great ghost story, a great historical epic. It also had the dimension of addressing race relations in America, which is a subject that's very close to my heart. So I just dove in.

"I met with Oprah and asked her if she was at all concerned that because of her prominence as a public figure audiences might have some difficulty accepting her as a 19th Century farm woman haunted by her past.

"She thought that was a fair question, but felt she was capable of giving a performance and undergoing a not just physical but kind of cosmic transformation through the channeling of ancestors that would make what she could do rise above such concerns.

"And I believed her. So, we went to work on it." --Demme to NEWSDAY, October 10, 1998

The aftermath of "Beloved": "I feel haunted--in the best sense of the word--by the experience of making this film. It wasn't a difficult shoot; it was a joyful shoot. I still miss the filming so much. And the dailies every night--it was a celebration. There'd be a certain point where you'd hear Oprah go, 'I ain't ever seen no movie like this before.'" --Demme to Premiere, November 1998

Companions close complete companion listing

wife:
Evelyn Purcell. Producer, second unit director. Produced Demme's first film as a director "Caged Heat" (1974); produced and was second unit director on "Fighting Mad" (1976); divorced.
wife:
Joanne Howard. Artist.

Family close complete family listing

mother:
Dorothy Demme. Actor. Died on November 20, 1995 of emphysema at age 81; appeared in bit roles in son's films.
brother:
Rick Demme.
brother:
Peter Demme.
cousin:
Robert Castle. Minister. Subject of Demme's 1992 feature documentary "Cousin Bobby"; minister at St. Mary's Episcopal Church in Harlem, NYC and a believer in liberation theology; grass roots community organizer; had lost touch with Demme for over 30 years before reuniting with him in 1989 to work on the film; subsequently acted in Demme's "Philadelphia" (1993).
nephew:
Ted Demme. Director, producer. Directed the features "Who's the Man?" and "The Ref"; born on October 26, 1963; died on January 13, 2002.
niece:
Jennifer Demme. Producer. Worked for MTV.
daughter:
Ramona Castle Demme. Born c. 1987.
son:
Brooklyn James Demme. Born c. 1989.
daughter:
Josephine Demme.
VIEW COMPLETE FAMILY LISTING

Bibliography close complete biography

"What Goes Around Comes Around: The Films of Jonathan Demme" Southern Illinois University Press

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