Jonathan Demme is right now on what’s probably the last years of his career. The legendary filmmaker was born in New York in February 22, 1944, and has been directing since he was thirty, when he debuted with Roger Corman-produced comedy Caged Heat, a movie that set him on an early run of wacky action/comedy movies that did nothing to predict the kind of genre-hopping director he would become.
He emerged into prestige circles in 1991, when his Hannibal Lecter thriller Silence of the Lambs dominated both the box office and the Academy Awards, winning Demme his only Best Director nod and win. Always alternating fiction and documentary, especially filmed live performances by artists from Neil Young to The Talking Heads, Demme’s sprawling work also includes episodes in TV series like The Killing and Enlightened.
So let’s celebrate this great American filmmaker with a list of his 10 best works – there are plenty worthy movies that didn’t make the cut, but these are definitely the essentials.
10. Handle with Care (1977)
Also known simply as Citizens Band, Demme’s first truly noteworthy motion picture venture is a heartwarming and delightful observation on American ways and the interconnection that communication lends us.
A few decades before the internet, Demme and screenwriter Paul Brickman (Risky Business) looked into the citizens band radio channels, a mean through which normal people could broadcast whatever they wanted to whoever wanted to hear it. Concentrating in a small town in Nebraska, Handle with Care is a strikingly funny and yet very affecting piece of work.
Described by critics as a winning comedic portrayal of American idiosyncrasies and ways, Handle with Care remains criminally underseen three decades after it was released.
The means of communication in which it concentrates might be outdated, but Demme’s careful compositions and the vibrant script, brought to life with terrific performances by Paul Le Mat, Candy Clark and Bruce McGill, among others, are still as appealing as ever. Just give it a fair chance, and you’ll be pleasantly surprised by a cult classic waiting to happen.
9. Melvin and Howard (1980)
The film that gave Demme more attention from Hollywood, Melvin and Howard was penned by master screenwriter Bo Goldman (One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest).
The “possibly real story” of a down-on-his-luck guy, Melvin, who one day helps an old man who suffers a motorcycle accident in the middle of the desert – that old man happens to be elderly recluse billionaire Howard Hughes, as played by Jason Robards, and when Hughes dies Melvin receives a letter that claims he’s heir to part of the guy’s fortune.
Melvin and Howard scored Oscar nominations for Robards, the script and Mary Steenburgen, in her breakout role as Melvin’s girlfriend. It won the latter two, and put Demme en route for a career in bigger Hollywood movies – it’s still a very intimate affair, though, a dramedy that deftly tells an engrossing story out of ordinary characters.
Paul Le Mat does another of Demme’s everymen in Melvin, a glowing representation of the failed American dream, and of a lazier, more carefree generation than the one that preceded it.
8. A Master Builder (2013)
One of the less seen of Demme’s films arrived in 2013, surprisingly, in the middle of the director’s “returning to the roots” phase, one that’s still going to this day.
A high-wire act of a drama, A Master Builder adapts a legendary play by Henrik Ibsen with the deft creativity and ability only Demme could show it. Stacked with theater actors that deliver staggering performances, A Master Builder is careful and minimalist when it comes to film Ibsen’s always complex work, assisted by Wallace Shawn’s great adaptation of the text to screen.
Shawn also stars as Halvard Solness, an elderly and bitter architect who spent his whole life bullying everyone around him, including his wife Aline (Julie Hagerty), his employees and his mistresses, especially the young Hilde (Lisa Joyce), who he may have abused when she was still a minor.
Unforgiving, unbelievably tense and full of little mind games and line-crossing, Demme’s A Master Builder is a much darker shade of grey than his early work with indie dramas. That fact that he has the subtlety to pull it off only speaks to his talent.
7. The Manchurian Candidate (2004)
Live Schreiber, Denzel Washington and Meryl Streep take over for Laurence Harvey, Frank Sinatra and Angela Lansbury, respectively, in Demme’s remake of the John Frankenheimer classic The Manchurian Candidate.
The script updates the setting from the Cold War to the Gulf War, while sticking to the plot of the major haunted by nightmares of a particular night in the war, a night that made one of the men under his command a war hero, and now a vice-president candidate. As he gets deeper into this conspiracy, the Major comes to believe he and his crew were brainwashed to remember that night differently, and that Sergeant Raymond Shaw may not be as honorable as he seems.
Schreiber and Streep stand out here, with performances that complete each other and highlight the weird parody-like humor that exists in the conspiracy plot the movie portrays. This well-regarded remake sees Demme marrying his suspense chops, honed by Silence of the Lambs, with his deep understanding of his characters and the ability to create imagery that transmits them right to the spectator.
The director constructs a riveting and timely story out of a script that is light-years below the original’s quality, and aces, as usual, in directing his cast to unforgettable performances.
6. Married to the Mob (1988)
Provided with a funny and clever script and a stellar cast, Jonathan Demme can do almost anything. Married to the Mob came a few years after his first dabbling with Hollywood, and only three years prior to his legendary Silence of the Lambs Oscar win. It’s a refreshingly original comedy, many times mimicked but never quite imitated due to its very peculiar energy.
The story follows Angela DeMarco (Michelle Pfeiffer), married to top mobster Frank (Alec Baldwin) – when he’s assassinated, Angela wants to break free from the mafia, but Frank’s boss (Dean Stockwell) wants her for himself, while an FBI agent (Matthew Modine) is designated to protect her and eventually falls in love too.
Pfeiffer and Modine work surprisingly well as couple, the comedy beats all hit the right spot, and Demme lends the film that unmistakable feeling and rhythm he gave all is early movies within the comedy genre. This is also a liberating story in a way, with a cast lead by an extraordinary actress portraying a woman trying to break free from the bonds and obligations a marriage imposed on her. It’s a story that demands attention, and Demme unyieldingly give it his all.