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Oscar Horrors: Jonathan Demme, Silence'd

Editor's Note: in this new series we're exploring Oscar nominated or Oscar winning contributions to the horror genre to get you in the right mood for Halloween. For this edition I've invited first time contributor Mayukh Sen, to offer up his provocative thoughts on an Oscar winner -Nathaniel.

Here lies... Jonathan Demme's early career. There was a time when he was the most promising young American director of his time.  But we lost all his potential the minute he won his Oscar for The Silence of the Lambs (1991).

Demme was a humanist in an era that desperately needed one.  He loved people, and he possessed grace, sensitivity, and a lack of condescension toward his working-class characters.  Kind of like McCarey or Renoir, he had a way of illuminating human flaws and virtues without passing judgment and was capable of expressing patience -- talents many directors lack.  Demme's universe seemed unhinged by the good-evil binary that pervades how many artists render America's lower- middle class. He refused to make human idiosyncrasies seem foolish or naive.

Around the time of Lambs, though, Demme lost one of his salient characteristics – lightness of touch.  Demme seems conscious of the fact that he is directing a “thriller”, and thus that he must downplay his sometimes offbeat, pop art-influenced aesthetic impulses for us to digest the narrative’s direness.  And, though he does still demonstrate considerable compassion for his characters, Demme seems more interested in asserting Clarice Starling's singular heroism than probing the moral ambiguities of the other characters.

This may seem like a petty complaint, but watch some of his earlier works – Caged Heat, Last Embrace – and you’ll understand what exactly we're missing from the old Demme.  Pauline Kael, one of Demme's earliest champions, said it best when she criticized Lambs for treating pulp as art.  She was right -- there’s nothing urgent or passionate about it.

This has happened with many directors. Post-Last Tango, Bertolucci never achieved the sensuality that characterized Before the Revolution or The Conformist.  Success brought upon more ambition, and the intimacy of his earlier work was lost.  

A part of me will always remember Lambs as the point at which Demme jumped the shark. Though Lambs is effective and, at times, fascinating, it doesn't have the charge of early Demme.  At best, his subsequent films function on the level of interesting failures.  I’m afraid that Demme's school of satiric humanism is unlike anything we'll ever see from him again, and I attribute this to his acceptance at the hands of the Hollywood elite.

16 More Oscar Horrors
From The Exorcist through the Fly and on to What Ever Happened to Baby Jane...

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Reader Comments (10)

mmm... interesting point of view, but I think that Demme's latest effort, RACHEL GETTING MARRIED, is fresh, honest and passionate as (if not more than) his early work

October 19, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterferdi

No I agree with Nathan, it's been down hill ever since. I do respect what he was trying to do with Beloved. A movie that had it been about something than American history dealing with the black experience would have more defenders.

October 19, 2011 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtful

Demme is a particular case as, unlike an Eastwood, Scorcese or Spielberg, he really hasn't directed *that* many feature films to raster his misfires and lesser efforts. (Sure, his filmography is dense, but the majority of what he helms are docs, music videos, shorts and TV pilots.) But judging his movies, he has, as I think Nat pointed out once, an impressive genre and subject-matter versatility. (No fantasy or sci-fi, per se, but Ron Howard should be so lucky -- and so deft!) And, as a director/producer, he tends to give PLUM roles to worthy actresses at pivotal points in their career so...kudos to him.

October 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMareko

Rachel Getting Married is one of the best films to have been made by an American director in the last ten years. Incredible return to form.

October 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBeau

Ooooooooooh... I can't wait for Nathaniel to defend one of his favorite films on his own website. Watch this space.

October 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCory Rivard

CORY-- if you mean Rachel Getting Married, BEAU & FERDI already beat me to it. It's my favorite Demme film and I think one that recaptures the early "charge" that MAYUKH is talking about here in this article. Definitely his vibrant electic humanism came back with "Rachel". I wonder if it'll signal a rebirth or if it was the last hurrah... because Immediately after the Oscar he did seem to plummet in quality... though I can't agree with Mayukh or Pauline Kael that Silence is a misfire. I think there is enough oddity to it to justify an honored place in Demme's filmography.

i mean, sure it's not as raucous as MARRIED TO THE MOB or as lovely as RACHEL or whatont but given what it needs itself to do, it didn't need to be.

October 19, 2011 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

I actually love Rachel Getting Married. He draws the cast together beautifully (Debra Winger is outstanding) though compassion is not exactly the word I'd use to describe what Demme seems to feel for his characters – I think those who initially labeled the film misanthropic are kind of on to something?

October 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMayukh

I think he feels compassion for the idea of a family unit, no matter how messy the actual details are. And while the family members may lash out painfully against one another, he gives the actos space to find the grace notes and empathy within their interpretations.

October 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterIan

As someone who - before 2008 - knew Demme only as the director of eminently Worthy titles like Silence, Philadelphia, Beloved, Manchurian etc, I was blown away by Rachel Getting Married. And around this time I noticed that people continually referred to Demme's auteurial voice as if it actually existed as something fresh and altogether non-Oscar-baity. Aside from Rachel, I hadn't seen this man do anything that wasn't solemn and bloated, so I was curious to check out some of his early work.

I did see Melvin and Howard and was somewhat underwhelmed by it, though it did have the feel of a fresh voice hinting at of as-yet-unfulfilled-promise.

Somehow I still haven't managed to see his other work, but this post makes me all the more curious. I'm especially curious to check out 'Something Wild'.

October 20, 2011 | Unregistered Commentergoran

This seems like more of an "I DON'T LIKE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS" post. I'd like to see an in-depth post about Demme's pre-Lambs work. Recently saw Something Wild, and it just keeps growing in my estimation. I expect by the time I watch it again, I'll be head-over-heels in love with it.

October 22, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterlandshark
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