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Jonathan Demme Biography


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Birth Name: Jonathan Demme
Born: 02/22/1944
Birth Place: Baldwin, New York, USA


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.