I remember clearly the first time I heard the name of director Jonathan Demme. My mom had rented this unusual little movie called Swimming to Cambodia and had loved it. I asked her what it was about and she just gave me a wry smile and said "You kinda have to see it for yourself." So I popped in the VHS tape into the machine (it was the 80's after all) and watched a solitary man sitting at a desk on a stage talk about his experiences on a movie set in Cambodia for 87 minutes. The solitary man on the stage was Spalding Gray and the movie set he was talking about was The Killing Fields. I was transfixed at Gray's storytelling skills and how creatively it was visually done - this was no simple "concert film"...this was a movie. It proved to be a surprise cult hit and it was all because of Jonathan Demme.
Demme, who sadly passed away today at age 73, is mostly remembered for his Oscar-sweeping horror film The Silence of the Lambs and his nudging for gay-rights tolerance/AIDS courtroom drama Philadelphia. Those films are excellent of course - holding up just fine today nearly 30 years on - but I want to encourage you dear readers to seek out a few of his titles that might not be on your radar like the Spalding Gray film.
Melvin and Howard
This piece of quirk from 1980 won Oscars for Bo Goldman's adapted screenplay and for Mary Steenburgen's supporting performance (as a stripper!). It details blue collar truck driver Melvin Dummar's (supposedly true) account of when he picked up a hitchhiker claiming to be the real Howard Hughes. Things got much more complicated when Dummar went to court with a will claiming Hughes left him $156 million for his ride to the Sands Hotel in Vegas. Did it really happen? Check out the movie to find out and enjoy an early performance by Robert Ridgely (he played "The Colonel James" in Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights). Paul LeMat and Jason Robards are also wonderful as Dummar and Hughes. Director Demme does an excellent job of creating a true working class American slice of life.
Maligned as a box office dud when it was released in 1984, this unusual comedy drama set during World War II deserves another look especially in lieu of today's political climate. A great cast which includes Goldie Hawn, Kurt Russell, Christine Lahti (in an Oscar-nominated performance) and Ed Harris brings to life what it was truly like to be a wife suddenly thrown into the workplace when their husbands went off to war. There were supposedly issues between Hawn (who Produced) and Demme regarding the genre of the movie (Hawn wanted it more lighthearted and comedic, Demme wanted it darker regarding the issues of adultery and lonlieness) and Warner Bros. even approved money for re-shoots to get more of what Hawn wanted (rumor has it that a bootleg VHS version of Demme's director's cut exists). What ultimately ended up in theaters is somewhere in the middle which isn't a bad thing at all (especially for Hawn and Russell who fell in love while making it). This is a mature work, done intelligently and no one can deny the excellent acting across the board for which Demme deserves credit. It's the type of film Hollywood doesn't make anymore.
Stop Making Sense
Also from 1984, this dynamic and extraordinary work showcases Demme's talent at its zenith. On paper, it can be simply summed up as a "concert film" detailing the band The Talking Heads when they came to Hollywood promoting their Speaking in Tongues album. But oh it is so much more than that. Working closely with Talking Head frontman David Byrne, Demme shot them over three separate public performances but instead of simply planting cameras everywhere on each of the nights, he filmed one concert totally from the left, one totally from the right and one to get all the wide shots. It sounds basic, but this ensured that his camera squad never got in each other's way and created a remarkable document - the angles and shots are so expert and assured that you can't believe it's a "real" concert (instead of staged for the camera). It has to be the only documentary that actually qualifies as Cinema. This is so good, I've shown this to friends who don't like documentaries, don't like concerts, don't know the Talking Heads and still love it. Oh and who was the cinematographer making this all this amazing footage possible? Jordan Cronenweth of Blade Runner. Yeah, enough said.
Something Wild - Demme's truly offbeat mob comedy with Melanie Griffith and Jeff Daniels.
Cousin Bobby - Insightful documentary about a minister in Harlem who also just happens to be Demme's cousin.
Even though Demme's career ended a bit "quietly" (although he never stopped working) there was a time when he was a director that redefined genres, eschewed the mainstream and pushed truly original work into theaters when he had the power to do so. He will be missed.