Sad news from Hollywood on Wednesday, as it was reported that the Oscar-winning director Jonathan Demme has died aged 73, after a battle with esophageal cancer and complications from heart disease. During his career, Demme made a diverse range of films including Philadelphia, one of the first major studio movies to tackle the AIDS crisis, and the romantic drama, Rachel Getting Married, starring Anne Hathaway. But it was Demme's iconic work on The Silence Of The Lambs in 1991 that he'll be best remembered — and it's for good reason. He even won the Oscar for Best Director for that film.
As a director, he made the movie feel tense and horrifyingly intimate, with a truly captivating sophistication. But, more importantly, Demme helped to shape the groundbreaking portrayal of Clarice Starling with his nuanced style of directing. There's no doubt that Clarice is a feminist character in Silence Of The Lambs, and that's evident in Thomas Harris' original novel, the screenplay of the movie, and Jodie Foster's breathtaking performance.
But Demme should be acknowledged for the way in which he framed both the essence of the character, and Foster's portrayal of her, in a manner that was radical for the average Hollywood movie. Clarice was smart and capable, but her sheer levels of ambition could also make her vulnerable within a field that was so fiercely male-dominated. Demme's direction, however, never looked down upon the character or diminished her power in order to make her more palatable for a male audience.
Instead, Demme showed Clarice swamped by the height and brawn of her co-workers, but still leading the charge. He showed her being sexually harassed and glared at by men in varying positions of power, while she maintained her focus, regardless. Most importantly, throughout Silence Of The Lambs, Demme framed Clarice as an equal, whose gender was insignificant to her ability to simply be the best at her job.
In 2016, during a 25th anniversary retrospective interview with Deadline regarding the movie, Demme revealed how Foster informed his perspective of the "core story" of The Silence Of The Lambs and said, "Jodie taught me that this is a story of a young woman trying to save the life of another young woman."
Further into the piece, Silence Of The Lambs screenwriter, Ted Tally, shared how his vision of the story merged well with Demme's directing style and explained to Deadline,
"Yeah, this was a coming of age story, a woman trying to succeed in a rough violent male world, on her own terms. Jonathan was drawn by the idea of a strong woman character, he had them in his other movies. He said to me one time, ‘I’m a high estrogen director’ ... The heart of the whole movie is this young woman and her spirit journey."
That's certainly something that came through to audiences when The Silence Of The Lambs was released in '91, and something that continues to be celebrated to this day. And Demme's important contribution to the groundbreaking, significant power of Clarice's character is something that will continue to wow and inspire audiences for decades to come. His talents will be greatly missed.