Yesterday, we lost one of great American filmmakers of the past 30 years in Jonathan Demme, who died in his Manhattan home at the age of 73. He had been fighting cancer for some time.
There are many reasons to remember and celebrate Demme’s life, not least of all his contribution to cinema spanning from his ’70s screwball inspired comedies to the classic ’90s thriller Silence of the Lambs, to the intimate and moving Rachel Getting Married in 2008. But Demme’s interest in telling complex, human stories meant something more to the queer community. When Demme took on 1993’s Philadelphia, one of the first mainstream Hollywood films to address HIV/AIDS, homophobia, and discrimination in the workplace, he did it in way a that made straight audience sit up and take notice.
Now, of course you can argue that they should have been taking notice from the start. But sometimes it takes a true storyteller to show people just what they need to be paying attention to, and why they need to care about things that they might feel don’t pose an immediate threat to them. With Philadelphia, Demme brought a story of the modern plague home to Americans all across the country. In some of his other films like Silence of the Lambs and Something Wild, he introduced elements of queer relationships that enriched the films themselves, and the way we understood the world of those films.
Losing Demme means losing one of our greatest American storytellers, and someone whose open-heartedness and curiosity led him to tell the stories we needed to hear. He will be sorely missed.