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27 April 2017updated 14 Sep 2021 2:41pm

How The Silence of the Lambs director Jonathan Demme brought humanity to horror

In memory of a great movie man - and a generous soul. 

By Ryan Gilbey

Professional distance is important as a journalist. I’ll always be grateful to the editor who told me, as I set off to interview a musical hero, “He’s not your friend; he doesn’t want to be your friend; he’s never going to be your friend.” The funny thing about the films of Jonathan Demme, who has died aged 73, was that they felt like the work of a pal. That was his special gift—not only to tell stories dynamically but to do so with an emotional joy and directness that spoke to a common humanity. This may not be immediately apparent if his biggest hit, The Silence of the Lambs, is the only movie of his that you’ve seen, though even that was intensely humane in a way that its imitators never were.

Demme welcomed you in. In his best movies, such as Melvin and Howard, about the brief, unlikely friendship between a Utah milkman and Howard Hughes, or the screwball thriller Something Wild, which was two-thirds riotous and one-third hair-raisingly scary, you felt you were being invited into some gleeful shindig. The characters might have been people he’d run into, whom he was certain you would find every bit as enchanting as he did, and the soundtrack was littered with these bouncing tunes he’d heard and that he simply couldn’t wait to share with you. The sets and costumes had a thrown-together, thrift-shop feel; you could base an entire fancy-dress party around the garish outfits and hairdos from his delicious Mafia comedy Married to the Mob, while some of the most eye-catching effects in his Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense are achieved with only a springy household lamp and an imaginative use of light and shadow.

Beneath the bristling, bustling surface of each film was an innate curiosity about people. It is obvious in pictures like Citizens Band, his 1977 comedy about CB radio users, and the stormy but sweet-natured family drama Rachel Getting Married, but let’s take that more challenging example of The Silence of the Lambs, which showed how his generous spirit could infuse even the dankest chambers of genre cinema. Thomas Harris, on whose novel the picture was based, had a fairly cut-and-dried approach to issues of good and evil. Demme was more flexible, which is what made him such an interesting choice of director for that material, as opposed to blood-and-thunder merchants like Ridley Scott (who made the sequel, Hannibal) or Brett Ratner (who directed Red Dragon, based on the same source material as the first Hannibal Lecter film, Manhunter).

Demme began from the starting-point that everyone is human, which is how he and the screenwriter Ted Tally and the actor Ted Levine came to shape the portrayal of the killer Jame Gumb, aka Buffalo Bill. Demme described Gumb not as a bad guy but as a “bad guy who is, in fact, a terribly damaged guy whose life has been a disaster”. No wonder he was upset when the film was accused of homophobia despite the fact that he had gone to great lengths to explain in the movie that Gumb is not gay. “The film very clearly says that Jame Gumb spends his life altering himself to escape from the terrible fact of who he is, and how he’s been abused,” he explained. “So it makes sense that if he’s heterosexual, he’ll try being homosexual, and vice versa. But people heard the line about him having a male lover, and saw him looking effeminate, which was enough for some audiences. But I knew in my heart of hearts that Gumb wasn’t gay, so I was happy that the film opened the door on discussing negative portrayals. I welcomed that other viewpoint.”

He was averse to using violence in his films without also showing that it had consequences — what is his greatest movie, Something Wild, if not a demonstration of that very point? “In Something Wild, I was trying to show that if you behave violently, you will taste violence,” he said in 1988. “And I feel there are definite signals in the first half of the movie that the characters had better straighten up or else.” The shots fired by Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) at the end of The Silence of the Lambs are not gratuitous or exciting; they really count. “There’s nothing to cheer about when someone is shot dead,” he said. At the end of The Truth About Charlie, his unloved Nouvelle Vague-tinged remake of Charade, he has the hero (Mark Wahlberg) implore everyone to put down their guns. And at the climax of his 2004 remake of The Manchurian Candidate, the weight of the entire film rests on a single bullet. “To whatever extent the glamorisation of gun violence helps in some way in my country to continue the acceptance of guns, I want to remove myself from that equation,” he said. 

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There were many reasons to love Jonathan Demme, not least the movies themselves and the fact that he was a sweet and generous soul. (The L.A. Times critic Justin Chang tweeted that he told Demme: “‘Y’know, you’re really nice!’ I couldn’t help it. He really, really was.” I said something similar as I presented him with my Stop Making Sense DVD—professional distance be damned—and asked him to sign it. He wrote: “Keep on rockin’”.) I can think of one more reason to love him. His family has requested that any donations be made in his name to the charity Americans for Immigrant Justice, which is just another sign that we need Demme more than ever just at the very moment that we have lost him.