The nine Jonathan Demme films every movie lover must see

Director Jonathan Demme photographed by The Times in 2004 in Malibu.
Director Jonathan Demme photographed by The Times in Malibu in 2004.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

To look at the filmography of Jonathan Demme is to see a man who refused to be pinned down by genre or expectations. With a career that spanned more than 40 years, Demme made a name for himself with “The Silence of the Lambs” — one of only three films to win the top five Oscar categories (best picture, director, actor, actress and screenplay) — but he created a legacy through films shot through with a pathos and passion for humanity. Here are nine such works from Demme’s illustrious career:

“Caged Heat” (1974)

Demme’s directorial debut came in the 1974 exploitation film “Caged Heat.” After producing two films for low-budget legend Roger Corman, Demme raised funding for the film, which he wrote as well as directed. The film is worth perusal if only for Demme’s semi-satirical take on the genre and to marvel at how quickly the director’s career would advance in years to come.

A trailer for "Caged Heat"

“Melvin and Howard” (1980)

This dramedy penned by Bo Goldman and directed by Demme was hailed as “an almost flawless act of sympathetic imagination” by iconic film critic Pauline Kael upon its release in 1980.

Based on a true story about a Utah service station owner who claimed he became a beneficiary in Howard Hughes’ will after a random act of kindness, the film garnered Oscars for Goldman and supporting actress Mary Steenburgen, plus a supporting actor nomination for Jason Robards. Times senior Calendar editor Rich Nordwind said the film “plays to some of Demme’s strengths as a director — he loved great scripts and dialogue. He loved actors and they loved him and he got great performances.”

Jason Robards as Howard Hughes in "Melvin and Howard"
Jason Robards as Howard Hughes in "Melvin and Howard"

“Stop Making Sense” (1984)

Still seen as one of the best concert documentaries of all time, Demme’s look at Talking Heads, specifically lead singer David Byrne, resulted in a film that blended the music and the mind. “The way Demme zeroed in on Byrne, his creativity and his neuroses, made the movie a seminal one,” wrote former Los Angeles Times film critic Betsy Sharkey in 2015

"Stop Making Sense" preview

“Swimming to Cambodia” (1987)

Demme’s film version of Spalding Gray’s monologue, based on the actor/writer’s time in Southeast Asia during the shooting of 1984’s “The Killing Fields,” is striking, if only for Demme’s awareness that with a strong central performance, a director’s main job is only to capture it to the fullest extent. It’s as true here with Gray as it was with Byrne in “Stop Making Sense.”

A portion of "Swimming to Cambodia"

“Married to the Mob” (1988)

Before “The Sopranos” was “Goodfellas” and before “Goodfellas” was “Married to the Mob.” Demme’s rollicking comedy — starring Michelle Pfeiffer as mob wife Angela de Marco, who can’t ever quite slip the grip that the Mafia has on her life — is grounded in ferocious performances from Pfeiffer, Dean Stockwell, Alec Baldwin, Matthew Modine and an electric Mercedes Ruehl.

"Married to the Mob" trailer.

“The Silence of the Lambs” (1991)

The thriller that won the Oscar for best picture is Demme’s calling card, but its success stems not only from its depiction of Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), one of the most iconic villains of all time, but the portrayal of its steely yet vulnerable female lead, Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster). She is the epitome of Demme’s female characters: Unflinching yet malleable, uncompromising yet reasonable, and more than anything, driven by a deep sense of compassion.

"The Silence of the Lambs" trailer

“Philadelphia” (1993)

In his high-profile feature film follow-up to “The Silence of the Lambs,” Demme made “Philadelphia,” the tale of a man who sues for wrongful dismissal after suspecting he was fired because of his AIDS diagnosis. Starring Denzel Washington and Tom Hanks, who won his first Oscar for the role, “Philadelphia” shined a high-profile spotlight on the HIV crisis that the country was only just coming to terms with.

Scenes from "Philadelphia"

“Rachel Getting Married” (2008)

Somewhere between the remake of “Get Smart” and “Bride Wars,” Anne Hathaway starred as an addict and all-around screw-up in “Rachel Getting Married,” for which she earned an Academy Award nomination. The film is a small but sterling piece of Demme’s filmography, telling the tale of the return of a troubled prodigal daughter, a past family tragedy and the familial love that can overcome anything, all centered around a single weekend.

"Rachel Getting Married" trailer.

“Ricki and the Flash” (2015)

Demme’s final non-documentary feature re-paired him with “Manchurian Candidate” star Meryl Streep — alongside Kevin Kline and Streep’s real-life daughter Mamie Gummer — in the tale of a washed-up rock star attempting to make amends with her abandoned family. It’s a perfect bookend for Demme’s career: a story about strong women, the strain of family and the joy of music.

"Ricki and the Flash" trailer

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