Looking Back on Late Director Jonathan Demme's Best Work

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Jonathan Demme's best work

The single Oscar Jonathan Demme, who died Wednesday at age 73, won across his storied career doesn't come close to doing justice to the contributions he made to Hollywood over the last 40 years. From Philadelphia to his music documentaries, remember the late director's best directorial efforts ahead.

Crazy Mama (1975)

Demme launched his career as a director with Caged Heat in 1974, and followed the exploitation picture up with the equally sensational Crazy Mama the following year. The film – produced by Julie Corman, wife of indie maverick Roger Corman – stars screen legend Cloris Leachman as one third of a band of renegade women who embark on a crime spree after their overbearing landlord repossesses their beauty shop. The late Bill Paxton made his big screen debut in the film in an uncredited role.

Melvin and Howard (1980)

Mary Steenburgen scored her first (and only) Oscar for starring in Demme’s Melvin and Howard, a dramatization of a Utah Man named Melvin Dummar (Paul Le Mat), who claimed to be one of the heirs of Howard Hughes’ estate after an alleged encounter with the American icon in the desert.

Married to the Mob (1988)

Demme continued to direct stellar supporting performances with Married to the Mob, which garnered Dean Stockwell an Academy Award nod for playing a mob boss in pursuit of a mafia wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) whose husband he offed.

The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

Perhaps the auteur’s masterpiece, The Silence of the Lambs helped establish Demme as one of the greatest American directors working in the modern era. Adapted from Thomas Harris’ 1988 novel of the same name, Lambs deeply embedded flesh-eating madman Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) and FBI trainee Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) into the pop cultural fabric. Notable for its feminist take on Starling’s trajectory as a law enforcer, Lambs also joined an elite group of pictures at the 1992 Oscars ceremony, becoming the third in a handful of titles that have won awards in the Academy’s five foremost categories: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Adapted Screenplay.

Philadelphia (1993)

Demme teamed with Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington to shine a light on issues of LGBT equality with Philadelphia. Hanks, who won his first Oscar for playing the role of Andrew Beckett, an HIV-positive law associate who seeks justice after his employers dismiss him after learning of his condition, remembered Demme as “the grandest of men” after the filmmaker’s death, 23 years after he gave an impassioned speech in memory of AIDS victims at the 1994 Academy Awards.

Beloved (1998)

Toni Morrison’s 1987 novel got the Hollywood treatment in 1998 with Demme and Oprah Winfrey in tow. The film – about a former slave (Winfrey) grappling with her past, including the death of her daughter, in post-Civil War America – underperformed at the box office, though its singular legacy carries on as a unique, daring take on difficult subjects.

The Manchurian Candidate (2004)

Roughly 10 years after Philadelphia’s release, Demme reteamed with Denzel Washington for The Manchurian Candidate, a taut interpretation of John Frankenheimer’s 1962 film of the same name, which it itself based on Richard Condon’s 1959 novel. The 2004 version also stars Liev Schreiber and Meryl Streep.

Rachel Getting Married (2008)

Demme coached brilliant performances out of Anne Hathaway and Rosemarie DeWitt for this powerful, emotionally wrought 2008 drama written by Sidney Lumet’s daughter, Jenny. Rachel Getting Married’s unorthodox – yet endlessly moving – portrait of love, regret, and addiction additionally saw the big screen return of acting icon Debra Winger, who at the time hadn’t appeared in a major motion picture in four years.

Neil Young Journeys (2011)

Combining Demme’s quietly observational style with his earnest curiosity for musical figures, Neil Young Journeys sees the filmmaker following the legendary musician as he visits reflects on his past and visits his hometown of Omemee in Ontario, Canadia ahead of a performance at Toronto’s Massey Hall.

Enlightened (2011 TV show)

Demme’s directorial hand wasn’t exclusively reserved for feature films. He’s dabbled in television across his lengthy career as well, notably contributing to popular shows like Saturday Night Live and American Playhouse in the past. His most impressive work on the TV front, however, came during two episodes of HBO’s gone-too-soon, Laura Dern-starring drama Enlightened. Demme’s touch can be felt in two powerful episodes: “Lonely Ghosts” and the Robin Wright-starring “Sandy,” both of which aired as part of the program’s first season in 2011.

Ricki and the Flash (2015)

Demme paired with Juno scribe Diablo Cody for Ricki and the Flash, which would ultimately become the last narrative feature he would release as a director. What a way to end a 40-year career, however, with Meryl Streep in a spirited turn as an aging rocker who must unexpectedly reconnect with her estranged family (while maintaining dedication to her artistry) before her daughter’s wedding.

Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids (2016)

Joining Demme’s roster of music docs in 2016, this film chronicled the final days of pop superstar Justin Timberlake’s 20/20 Experience World Tour. Filmed in 2015 in Las Vegas, the nonfiction movie marks Demme’s last feature-length production. It premiered in September 2016 at the Toronto International Film Festival, where it received positive critical reviews.
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