Even at this remove, Hollywood, not known for being the nicest of towns, seems a little less nice today. The many obituaries and tributes to the late Jonathan Demme, who died yesterday at the age of 73, almost all make reference to him not just as a great filmmaker, but a great person — kind, curious, generous and sincere. In a small way, even I experienced that warmth at an interview some years ago at a festival. Demme had no film to promote at that point (he was there to deliver a masterclass), and so neither of us had a particularly urgent agenda. But I was still taken aback by him — by how interested he was in the films playing at this small, regional festival (it’s rare that a guest of honor actually chooses to spend their time watching the movies) and by how he spent a good half of our time asking me what I had enjoyed so far, schooling me in how much he had already managed to see from the festival’s more arcane sidebars. In all the right ways, he did not fit the image summoned by the phrase “major, Oscar-winning director” — except of course he was a major, Oscar-winning director. It’s rare to come across talent that is so unencumbered by ego.
He was also the thing that we love most here at The Playlist — a cinematic polyglot. He spoke in many of cinema’s languages, switching genres and formats with deceptive effortlessness, and even when the results missed the mark, they were seldom uninteresting misses. More often, they hit, with an unshowy acumen that was also deceptive of the level of craft they required: perhaps nobody hid the joins as well as Jonathan Demme.
We’ve never done a retrospective on Demme before, nor even an “essential films,” and that’s only because it never occurred to us that there might not be another classic in his future — 73 is hardly old these days and Demme’s bright-eyed, bristling inquisitiveness made him always seem younger than his years anyway. The last time I saw him in person was briefly, in Venice a couple of years ago when an oddly-timed cocktail reception was held a month or so after the release of “Ricki And The Flash.” Demme was brought in to an assemblage of critics stuffing their mouths with free canapés between screenings, an oddly formal semi-circle of us, like he was the Queen. But instead of addressing us en masse, he went up to the first person and struck up an easy, conspiratorial conversation for a few minutes, then the next, and the next. I had to leave to make it to the next movie before my turn came, but what did it matter, there was always going to be another time. I’m very sorry there was not.
Instead, let’s do as he would have done and talk about the movies. Here, in no order at all, are our 10 favorite Jonathan Demme films.
“Something Wild” (1986)
A fun, funky, fast-paced road-movie romance, “Something Wild” is an unusual candidate to have an after-the-fact cult spring up around it. But then, though it has no pretensions to being High Art and is designed exclusively to entertain, it was, inexplicably, a flop, so modern audiences get the thrill of reclamation. And also, if it’s not the absolute best Demme film, it might very well be the Demme-ist — which is a valuable note because his style can be a tricky one to pin down, as one of its hallmarks is its relative transparency. Here, a disposable genre is approached with studious craftsmanship: the considered costuming, locations and the astonishing soundtrack which was shepherded by artists David Byrne, John Cale and Laurie Anderson. But Demme’s effervescence also reaches its apotheosis here, though narratively, it’s a bauble: Sine qua non Manic Pixie Dream Girl Lulu (Melanie Griffith) picks up straitlaced businessman Charles (Jeff Daniels) and brings him on a wild booze-sex-and-petty-crime-fueled weekend which comes crashing to a halt when her violently possessive ex Ray (Ray Liotta) finds them both at Lulu’s high-school reunion. But the story isn’t really the point (nor the overly wish-fulfillment ending, which, call me cynical, has always had me shouting “I give it a week!”). It’s more an excuse for Demme to fill the frame with his particularly vibrant vision of lower-middle Americana: thrift stores, used cars, rapping Jamaican waitresses, cheap motels with pastel walls. And amid all the rambunctiousness, there’s one quietly telling shot: Lulu’s mom, who knows full well the man her daughter has brought home is not her husband, plays harpsichord while her dog looks on — and both she and the dog have bandages on one leg. It’s a nothing detail, never explained and insignificant, but it’s there.
“Melvin And Howard” (1980)
With three Oscar nominations and two wins, you’d think more people would know about “Melvin And Howard,” but it remains the buried treasure of Demme’s back catalogue (even if it’s not buried so very deep). Perhaps a slight reaction against the lure of the mainstream, it has more in common with his first few features than with his prior film, the (abortive) bid for crossover success that was the Hitchcock-ian “Last Embrace” starring Roy Scheider. With “Melvin And Howard,” Demme goes lo-fi again, but with the polish of greater experience, so the movie is perfectly calibrated between the rough and the smooth. It’s an oddball, herky-jerk story that always zags when it ought to zig, but nonetheless builds to a rambling and rather wonderful portrait of the American Dream as dreamed by goodhearted small-timers: the milkmen and cocktail waitresses who go on game shows and live in trailers and get married a la carte in Vegas chapels. Loosely based in fact, it follows Melvin (Paul Le Mat, who had matured as an actor since being in Demme’s 1977 picture “Handle With Care” almost as much as Demme had as a director), who picks up a crazy-haired old man (Jason Robards, nominated for a Supporting Actor Oscar) lying by the side of the road. The man claims to be Howard Hughes, which Melvin does not believe until much later, after a handwritten will turns up on Melvin’s desk suggesting Hughes wanted to leave him a vast fortune. The funny thing is, these two incidents mark the beginning and end of the film, and in between the real action happens, which is no action at all, really, as Melvin falls in and out of various screw-the-little-guy jobs, and divorces, then remarries, then divorces his wife Lynda (Mary Steenburgen, who won the Supporting Actress Oscar). But this narrative loopiness is what makes it all feel so affable, so real and so humane.