Oscar Directors: Demme, Jonathan–Uniquely American Director

The wedding dinner in “Rachel Getting Married” sums up much of Demme’s worldview: We witness this beautiful new family, an American microcosm, being born. Black and white and many other colors, shapes, and sizes are coming together as one in celebration (albeit with some unresolved issues from the past that need attention). Released the same year as Obama’s presidential campaign — at a time when all the progressive dreams of the 1960s and 1970s seemed reawakened — Demme’s film resonated with the “Yes we can” ethos.

This traces back to Demme’s B-movies with Roger Corman and his first artistic, if not widely commercial, successes, “Handle With Care” (1977) and “Melvin and Howard” (1980). These films, populated with distinctly American ne’er-do-wells and eccentrics, often of the redneck persuasion, essentially call on oddball America to unite. Presiding over the nuttiness of the early films is the figure of Jason Robards as Howard Hughes in “Melvin and Howard”: a nut job himself and an affecting embodiment of the American success story gone awry.
Demme may have followed the lead of others of his generation, from Martin Scorsese to Steven Spielberg, who also went deep into 1970s dysfunction, but what Demme added to the mix was a greater respect — and indeed love — for the misfits at the heart of the mess. His Hughes, in particular, becomes lovable in a way that most madmen of the era’s cinema do not; this is a Hughes who reveals himself to be fundamentally honorable and generous, despite his strangeness.  The portrait that emerges is much different from Scorsese’s Hughes years later in “The Aviator,” a rather glossy but conventional Hollywood biopic starring Leonardo DiCaprio).
“Melvin and Howard” leaves us with Hughes and Melvin Dummar (Paul Le Mat), in the end having become something like friends, driving off into the unknown in Dummar’s pickup, Hughes singing at the wheel.
Milestones in Demme’s next phase included “Stop Making Sense” (1984), the first in his long line of superior concert films, and “Something Wild” (1986), which captures a core tension of the 1980s. Here is the return of “something conservative,” almost a 1950s sensibility, in conflict and eventual resolution with the darkening continuation of that “something wild, something weird”: Jeff Daniels (conservative) versus Melanie Griffith (wild). Of course, the wild side wins in the end, as it perhaps must in a Demme film.
Demme’s liberal politics have becoming clearer by this point, for “Something Wild” is clearly something of a corrective to the Reagan years. The uptight need to spend some time on the other side and loosen up, Demme is saying; otherwise, it is spiritual death for the country.
The Oscar-winning “Silence of the Lambs” (1991) continues this critique with a stronger shot of feminism. America’s power elite, in this case the FBI, needs to loosen up and let the Clarice Starlings, played by Jodie Foster, of the country in. When, near the end of the film, a woman slices a cake that is absurdly decorated with a Department of Justice seal, Demme is showing us exactly what he thinks needs to happen: New kinds of hands are needed to cut the cake in new ways.
From that point, Demme’s features consistently made sharper political points. The AIDS story of “Philadelphia” (1993) took on homophobia; “Beloved” (1998), based on Toni Morrison’s novel, took on racism; and “The Manchurian Candidate” (2004), a remake of John Frankenheimer’s 1962 thriller, basically took on the entire military-industrial complex. “Philadelphia” and “Beloved” resonated with the culture wars of the 1990s, while “The Manchurian Candidate” could be considered an attack on all things Bush and Cheney.
The arc of Demme’s career — this growing seriousness (also evidenced in his parallel career as documentarian) — makes for an interesting comparison with Spielberg’s career. Both began as bighearted, wide-eyed explorers of Americana, who in their maturation gradually took on more troubling political themes of American life. “Beloved” has much in common with Spielberg’s “Color Purple” (1985) and “Amistad” (1997), while “The Manchurian Candidate” touches on many of the same issues Spielberg considers in “War of the Worlds” and “Munich” (both 2005).
 
Although it eschews overt political subject matter, “Rachel Getting Married” nevertheless reflects Demme’s political journey. Zooming in on this nutty family gathering allows him to readdress the coming together of American diversity that has long been his concern. There is something hunkered down about “Rachel Getting Married.” We are no longer in the blissful multicultural bohemia of the New York we saw in “Something Wild” and “Married to the Mob” (1988); we are stuck in a country house in Connecticut. It is as if Demme is saying, with a now tempered optimism, that pockets of such harmony and healing are still possible in America — if you invite the right people at the right time to the right place. At the end of the wedding weekend, as the characters start to make their departures, there is the strong sense that, reminiscent of Jean Renoir’s “Rules of the Game” (1939), these lovely people (especially the Anne Hathaway character, returning to rehab) will soon be facing realities quite harsh.
 
Which raises the question: Where is Demme off to next? Reports that his next projects will focus on the heroism of ordinary people in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina sound most promising. What a compelling way for him to continue heading toward the America he feels could and should come to be.

 

By Jeff Farr

For close to 40 years, filmmaker Jonathan Demme, Oscar-winner for “The Silence of the Lambs” (1990) has been working toward the creation of his own America — one in which many of us would enjoy living. The dream America of his films, from his low-budget indie “Caged Heat” (1974) through “Rachel Getting Married” (2008), is an America that welcomes all to the table. The phrase “unity in diversity” may sound passé, but this is the ideal all of Demme’s films have danced around.