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Not long before the surprisingly violent finale of Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild (1986), Melanie Griffith’s wild-girl-turned-good-girl-turned-complicated-girl, Audrey, asks Charlie (Jeff Daniels), a straight-arrow–Wall Streeter–turned-desperate-romantic-turned-man-of-action, “What are you gonna do now that you know how the other half lives?”
“The other half?” he asks, confused.
“The other half of you.”
The line summarizes their relationship — Audrey has brought Charlie out of his shell, to say the least — but also the movie, which has transformed from a bubbly, colorful, anything-goes romantic comedy into a twisted kidnapping melodrama. But that line also resonates beyond this picture. Demme’s films were always showing their characters and communities — and, by extension, the audience — the other sides of themselves.
With the death of Demme, American cinema loses one of its greatest humanists. But it goes further than that. (Further even than the fact that, by all accounts, Demme was the rare filmmaker who practiced the themes he preached in his films: He was generous, a giving mentor, a kind boss, a caring person.) His work didn’t simply glow with a generosity of spirit. You got the sense that he understood people — that he understood us. He was a kind of secret-sharer, a creator of cinematic worlds where anything was possible and anything could be said.
Something Wild, of course, is overtly a film of halves, doubles, and opposites: Look at the way that Demme allows Ray (Ray Liotta), Audrey’s psychotically obsessed, estranged ex-con husband to become the almost diametrical opposite of Charlie — and the way that the men seem to merge in the climax, when Charlie stabs Ray and Demme cuts between the two, an early example of the direct-to-camera close-up that would become one of his key stylistic devices. Or consider how Griffith’s Audrey transforms into her own opposite, when, upon returning to her hometown, she sheds her black bob and tight leather dress to become a blonde, angelic girl-next-door type; she’s pretending for the sake of her mother, but as with all the pretenses in Demme pictures, there’s some truth in it, too. As the characters switch roles and reveal the hidden sides of their personalities, the film’s fractured structure echoes their journey.
Demme’s characters are contradictions, people either aspiring to be or revealing themselves as something other than they appear. Their identities are always in flux, though their pasts often crowd into their present. You can see it in Michelle Pfeiffer’s mafia widow in Married to the Mob (1988), a frustrated Long Island housewife who finds her true self when she lands on the Lower East Side, broke and confused, and gets a hairdressing job; meanwhile, nice-guy FBI agent Matthew Modine keeps shapeshifting in an effort first to befriend her and then to protect her. You can see it in Anne Hathaway’s troubled Kym in Rachel Getting Married (2008), lying in rehab about her troubled past in order to avoid telling her troubled truth, then zigzagging her way through her sister’s wedding, always a dynamo of self-loathing and narcissism, tenderness, and bile. (There, too, the film’s diffuse, collage-like style seems to echo the character’s internal state.) Then there’s the entire cast of Citizens’ Band (a/k/a Handle With Care, 1977), in which the denizens of a small town all give themselves different identities via CB radio, leading to complex romantic and familial entanglements. Are they pretending to be what they’re not, or are they expressing deeper truths that have long gone unspoken? One of the great achievements of that film is that Demme leaves that question tantalizingly unanswered. “Demme’s directorial job on Handle With Care is notable for allowing its characters to breathe, even in the midst of frenetic pacing, and observing the behavioral quirks of Middle America without a trace of condescension or contempt,” Andrew Sarris observed at the time in the Village Voice.
The standard line on Demme’s career was that he went from buoyant oddball indie comedies to prestige pictures and more mainstream studio fare after the epochal success of Silence of the Lambs (1991). The reality is that he just worked, making documentaries and concert movies and following ideas and paths that sometimes took years to come to fruition. A trip to Haiti in 1986 had inspired an obsession with the country, with its people and its politics and its culture. Both as director and as producer, he made countless documentaries about the island. He made four movies with Neil Young, and somehow managed to do it without ever getting in a fight with Neil Young.
Demme once speculated that his relentless enthusiasm and work ethic was rooted in the fact that he himself had been lucky in the way industry jobs kept falling into his lap: A stray introduction to Joseph E. Levine on a Florida houseboat in the 1960s led to his getting work as a film publicist. An introduction to Roger Corman led to the chance to make movies with the cult-movie mogul. “A ‘huge stroke of luck’ doesn’t catch it,” he told Rolling Stone in 1994. “I mean, people bust their butts for decades to get to make a picture, and I fell backward into it. Maybe that’s one of the reasons I work so hard, I’m still trying to justify that luck….I’m still afraid of being found out: ‘He can’t direct! Look! What? Look! He’s…he’s a phony!’ ”
Lambs did seem like a departure, but in retrospect it feels consistent with his work. It’s a serial killer thriller that’s actually all about empathy: Jodie Foster’s determined FBI agent has to enter the mind of a murderer, to see the world through his eyes, in order to catch him. That, in part, is why it’s so damn disturbing. The movie also is all about transformations and characters who find it hard to shake the past but who are determined to become something new. It’s just that this time, the transformations are usually monstrous.
Demme would eventually make another horror film, although many didn’t recognize it as such at the time. Beloved (1998) was met with befuddlement by many who felt that by taking Toni Morrison’s narrative at face value and stripping it of its experimental style, Demme indulged the melodrama that the author had scrupulously avoided through the power of her language. Perhaps. But Demme was no dummy: He knew he could never replicate the experience of reading Morrison’s prose, so he found a cinematic analogue in overt references to the horror genre, complete with special effects and elaborate atmospheric devices. And why not? Beloved, like most horror movies, is a story about the return of the repressed. I find the film, in its own curious way, as daring as the book. (It’s also built around a performance from Oprah Winfrey that I don’t pause to call “earth-shattering.” It’s worth reflecting upon the many incredible roles for women in Demme’s work.)
Another misunderstood title was The Truth About Charlie (2002), generally regarded as a disaster, but really an ideal companion piece to Something Wild and Married to the Mob. Demme had wanted Will Smith to star; when Smith backed out, he went with Mark Wahlberg, who wound up being so hilariously wrong for the part that Demme turned what had been billed as a romantic thriller into a dream of faces and light — a love letter to Paris and the New Wave, and a meditation on identity, with characters changing personas at the drop of a hat.
Memorializing Demme, who contained multitudes, is to worry about what one is omitting. I’m not doing enough justice to the documentaries, and to the concert films. How did Stop Making Sense (1984) become one of the greatest rock docs ever? Because Demme, generous soul that he was, saw no need to assert his own sensibility over the material, opting to stay true to the vision of David Byrne and the Talking Heads, without cutaways to the audience or backstage candids or interviews or some overarching thesis. “I didn’t want to tamper with the show,” he told Michael Musto at the time. “The reason for wanting to make the movie was to capture what was already there, what it’s like to rock through a Talking Heads concert.”
Still, I can’t help but sense Demme’s presence behind the film’s overwhelming energy and dazzling technique. While he was shooting Stop Making Sense at night, the director was reluctantly overseeing studio-mandated reshoots on Swing Shift (1984) during the day, looking on helplessly as his tale about wartime women factory workers was turned into a shallow rom-com. (One night, as the reshoots ran over schedule, Demme was in serious danger of missing his call time for the concert film. Realizing the direness of the situation, one of his stars, Ed Harris, feigned illness, prompting the shoot to wrap for the day. Then Harris and Demme sped off in a car to the other set, toward the Talking Heads and freedom.) Demme’s final work was another stupendous concert film, last year’s Justin Timberlake + the Tennessee Kids, a movie shot on IMAX but whose distributor, Netflix, has bafflingly refused to put out in theaters. I implore them to do so.
Upon hearing of Demme’s death the first film to flash across my mind was another recent effort, Ricki and the Flash (2015), the Diablo Cody–scripted comedy drama that had Meryl Streep’s aging has-been bar rocker going back to lily-white bourgeois suburbia and the family she once abandoned, to attend the wedding of her suicidal daughter (played by Streep’s real-life daughter Mamie Gummer). It did lousy business and got reviews that ranged from respectful to middling. But it struck me as a late-period masterpiece, combining the classic Demme virtues of compassion for its characters and attention to their smallest gestures with a new reflection and reserve. Demme’s work had often been rightly described as “youthful.” Here then was a film that felt like the work of an aging artist, in the best possible way. It was beautiful and lively, but also curiously haunting.
I’ll end with one final moment — an indelible memory for me. I’m 15 years old, sitting in a theater on Wisconsin Avenue in Washington, DC, having dragged my mom out to see Married to the Mob on its opening day. It’s the summer of 1988, and we’re in the midst of one of the most vicious presidential campaigns the country had ever seen, with George Bush (the first one) seemingly on his way to the White House to serve what promised to be Ronald Reagan’s third, brutal term — despite the criminal clusterfuckery of Iran-Contra and other reprehensible shenanigans. In the third act of the movie, Michelle Pfeiffer’s character gets brought in for questioning by the FBI. The incomparable Trey Wilson (whose life and career would be cut short just a year later), playing stone-faced, hard-ass FBI regional director Franklin, has just threatened to deport Pfeiffer’s hairdresser friend. “God, you people work just like the Mob,” Pfeiffer exclaims. “There’s no difference!”
Wilson then stares directly into the camera (of course) and gives one of the most perfectly timed and -delivered line readings in cinema history: “Oh, there’s a big difference, Mrs. De Marco. The Mob is run by murdering, thieving, lying, cheating psychopaths. We work for the president of the United States of America.”
The giant, collective burst of noise that emanated from my audience was like nothing I’ve witnessed before or since. It was the loudest, most immediate laugh I’ve ever heard. Maybe it wasn’t even really a laugh at all. There were undernotes of anguish in it, even anger. And it lingered, rolled, had a life all its own. It was not “ha-ha” or even “HA-HA-HA.” No, this was catharsis. It was “AAAARRRRGGGRHHHUUAUUAAHHAAHAAAAAAHAHAAAA.”
Like I said, the man understood us.