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Filmmaker Jonathan Demme, Director Of 'Silence Of The Lambs,' Dies At 73


Jonathan Demme, who directed "The Silence Of The Lambs," "Philadelphia" and many other movies and documentaries, died today of complications from esophageal cancer. As NPR's Neda Ulaby reports, the Oscar award-winning filmmaker passed away at his home in Manhattan. He was 73 years old.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Jonathan Demme was famously a sweetheart of a movie director. When "The Silence Of The Lambs" came out in 1991, here's how star Jodie Foster talked about him on NPR.


JODI FOSTER: Jonathan Demme said he works for the same people all the time. And there are people he's known for a lot of years, and they love him. And there is a loyalty there, and there's goodness. Every single person on that crew is a good person.


FOSTER: (As Clarice Starling) Dr. Lecter, my name is Clarice Starling. May I speak with you?

ULABY: "The Silence Of The Lambs" swept the Oscars, giving Demme his one and only academy award for directing. It's hard to remember now, but the movie provoked some controversy when it came out, in part over what some people saw as the glorifying of serial killers and showing graphic images of their victims. But Demme told NPR that he was acutely aware of his audience's sensitivities.


JONATHAN DEMME: And while wanting to certainly frighten the viewer and terrify the viewer from time to time, we didn't want to make the moviegoers throw up. And we didn't want to send them into a realm of upsetedness (ph) that transcended the guidelines of watching a scary movie.

ULABY: Jonathan Demme transcended genres even while working within them. Born in Long Island and raised in Miami, young Jonathan Demme dropped out of college after intending to be a veterinarian. He ended up working for Roger Corman, the famous director of schlocky B movies who nurtured a generation of younger Hollywood filmmakers. But even when Demme made something as Cormanesque (ph) as a woman in prison movie back in 1974, it earned some respect for its energy and even a glimmer of social awareness.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (As character) It is so claustrophobic in here.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #2: (As character) You better work on that. You don't want to wind up like Bonnie over there.

ULABY: Soon Demme had earned a reputation for making surprisingly thoughtful lightweight comedies, including "Something Wild" and "Married To The Mob." Then came the stripped-down concert film "Stop Making Sense," featuring the band Talking Heads and singer David Byrne in a big white suit, itself almost a character.


TALKING HEADS: (Singing) You start a conversation. You can't even finish it.

ULABY: Demme would go on to establish himself as one of Hollywood's more socially aware filmmakers in 1993 with the movie "Philadelphia." Tom Hanks played a lawyer who loses his job when he contracts HIV.


TOM HANKS: (As Andrew Beckett) From the day they hired me to the day I was fired, I served my clients consistently, thoroughly with absolute excellence. If they hadn't fired me, that's what I'd be doing today.

ULABY: "Philadelphia" was the first major movie about AIDS, which by then had killed tens of thousands of Americans.


DEMME: We got together and tried to come up with a movie that would help push for a cure and save lives.

ULABY: That's Demme on NPR in 2013. He said he also wanted to fight the stigma that came with the disease.


DEMME: I wanted very, very much to employ people with AIDS as extras or any other aspect because it was very, very hard for people with AIDS 20 years ago to get jobs and what have you.

ULABY: Jonathan Demme made the movies he wanted to make, including an adaptation of Toni Morrison's "Beloved," the drama "Rachel Getting Married" and many documentaries about Haiti, New Orleans after Katrina and people like musician Neil Young and President Jimmy Carter. On WHYY's Fresh Air in 2007, Demme explained his goal for himself and for his viewers.


DEMME: Make discoveries. We're not starting out with a blueprint that's programmed to arrive at a specific calculated conclusion. And I've nothing against that because I love (laughter) I love fictional movies, but the excitement of wading into, quote, unquote, "reality" and just finding out what happens.

ULABY: Finding and shaping the world and its characters with a vision clear and precise, cool yet warmhearted - that was Jonathan Demme's gift and his legacy. Neda Ulaby, NPR News.


TALKING HEADS: (Singing) This ain't no party. This ain't no disco. This ain't no fooling around. This ain't no Mudd Club. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.
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