“He was the grandest of men,” says Tom Hanks. “A big-hearted, big tent, compassionate man,” recalls Meryl Streep.
Hollywood reacted today with heartbreak and praise to news of Jonathan Demme’s death. “Rest In Peace, JD…”, tweeted Alec Baldwin, who made an early big-screen appearance in 1988 with Demme’s Married to the Mob. “The World lost one of its purest, most loving and talented souls today,” said Christine Lahti, who costarred in the director’s 1984 Swing Shift.
David Byrne, whose band Talking Heads was the subject of Demme’s brilliant concert doc Stop Making Sense, praised his longtime friend and collaborator as “a huge music fan—that’s obvious in his films too—many of which are jam-packed with songs by the often obscure artists he loved.” Read Byrne’s entire tribute below.
Martin Scorsese, director ”Whenever I ran into Jonathan, he was filled with enthusiasm and excitement about a new project. He took so much joy in moviemaking. His pictures have an inner lyricism that just lifts them off the ground—even a story like The Silence of the Lambs. I have great admiration for Jonathan as a filmmaker—I love the freshness of his style and his excellent use of music, from Buddy Holly to Miklos Rozsa. There’s so much more to be said, and I hardly know where to begin. I also loved him as a friend, and to me he was always young. My young friend. The idea that he’s gone seems impossible to me.”
Jodie Foster, actress (The Silence of the Lambs): “I am heart-broken to lose a friend, a mentor, a guy so singular and dynamic you’d have to design a hurricane to contain him. Jonathan was as quirky as his comedies and as deep as his dramas. He was pure energy, the unstoppable cheerleader for anyone creative. Just as passionate about music as he was about art, he was and will always be a champion of the soul. JD, most beloved, something wild, brother of love, director of the lambs. Love that guy. Love him so much.”
Meryl Streep, actress (Ricki and the Flash): “A big-hearted, big tent, compassionate man – in full embrace in his life of people in need – and of the potential of art, music, poetry and film to fill that need – a big loss to the caring world.”
Tom Hanks, actor (Philadelphia): “Jonathan taught us how big a heart a person can have, and how it will guide how we live and what we do for a living. He was the grandest of men.”
Mike Medavoy, producer, co-founder Orion Pictures (The Silence of the Lambs): “This fills me with sadness. Jonathan was kind, thoughtful, talented, and a loyal friend who will be missed deeply as I’m sure the film and music community will miss his contributions, too.”
Marc Platt, producer (Philadelphia, Rachel Getting Married, Ricki and the Flash): “The film community has lost a singular voice and one its most profound and innovative filmmakers. The world has lost a man of incomparable compassion and empathy. Jonathan understood the potential of art, music and film to bring love to all, most especially to those in need. He touched my soul –and the souls of all who knew him and the millions who experienced his work.”
Sherry Lansing, former chairman of Paramount Pictures: “It’s a devastating loss. He was a brilliant filmmaker with eclectic taste. The wide-range of films that he gave us all will not be forgotten. Having worked with him, what I remember is what a kind and gentle man he was, and when you were in his presence, you felt his inner decency. He would listen, and respected the opinion of others. He made everyone feel included, and still he had an inner vision that he was able to pull forward. He was very respected.”
Mary Steenburgen, actress (Melvin and Howard)
“Jonathan Demme came into my life when he directed me in Melvin and Howard. I won an Oscar for that role and I can’t imagine that having happened with any other director. He was pure magic. Brilliant technically but he never let that make him isolated. He included everyone on that set in the making of the movie in the most edgy, thrilling, wildly collaborative way. He did the same thing in Philadelphia. And, there, we never forgot for a moment that that film could change the experience of being HIV positive in this country and it did. The heartbeat and the integrity of it began with Jonathan’s goodness and sense of justice. I’m so proud to have been in it.
I think the last public appearance he may have made was to host the NYC screening of my son, Charlie McDowell’s film, The Discovery. It can’t have been easy for him to go to NYC from Nyack and do that a couple of weeks before his death. But Jonathan celebrated and honored creativity more fiercely than anyone I have ever known. My daughter worked with him in The Manchurian Candidate. We all admired him so much. I send all of our family’s love to his beautiful family and I will hold him where he’s always been, in my heart, forever.”
David Byrne, musician (Stop Making Sense), posted the following on his website:
My friend, the director Jonathan Demme, passed last night.
I met Jonathan in the ‘80s when Talking Heads were touring a show that he would eventually film and turn into Stop Making Sense. While touring, I thought the show had turned out well and might hold up as a movie, and a mutual friend introduced us. I loved his films Melvin and Howard and Citizens Band (AKA Handle With Care). From those movies alone, one could sense his love of ordinary people. That love surfaces and is manifest over and over throughout his career. Jonathan was also a huge music fan—that’s obvious in his films too—many of which are jam-packed with songs by the often obscure artists he loved. He’d find ways to slip a reggae artist’s song or a Haitian recording into a narrative film in ways that were often joyous and unexpected.
We very much saw eye to eye when we met and the late Gary Kurfirst, who managed Talking Heads, found us the money to shoot Stop Making Sense. We booked four nights at the Pantages Theatre in LA at the tail end of a tour for filming. Jonathan joined us on the road and became familiar with the band and the show. Jonathan was going through a bit of a nightmare during filming—a studio and a star wanted him to reshoot parts of a big budget film he’d just finished called Swingshift. He was dealing with that in the day and shooting our low budget movie at night. Guess which one will be remembered? That said, Swingshift was filled with empathy for the women workers in U.S. factories during WWII—it was character driven, as much of his other work is.
Stop Making Sense was character driven too. Jonathan’s skill was to see the show almost as a theatrical ensemble piece, in which the characters and their quirks would be introduced to the audience, and you’d get to know the band as people, each with their distinct personalities. They became your friends, in a sense. I was too focused on the music, the staging and the lighting to see how important his focus on character was—it made the movies something different and special. Jonathan was also incredibly generous during the editing and mixing. He and producer Gary Goetzman made us in the band feel included; they wanted to hear what we had to say. That inclusion was hugely inspirational for me. Though I had directed music videos before, this mentoring of Jonathan’s emboldened me to try making a feature film.
Jonathan helped me as I was developing True Stories, I wrote a song for his film Something Wild, a score for Married to the Mob and we made a test sequence for a never completed documentary featuring Robert Farris Thompson called Rule of the Cool. Jonathan went on to make a lot more features—some hugely successful, others not so much. He interspersed these with a number of documentaries and music films. The documentaries are pure labors of love. They tend to be celebrations of unsung heroes—an agronomist in Haiti, an activist (cousin) and pastor and an ordinary woman who does extraordinary things in New Orleans post-Katrina. The fiction films, the music films and the docs are all filled with so much passion and love. He often turned what would be a genre film into a very personal expression. His view of the world was open, warm, animated and energetic. He was directing T.V. episodes even this year, when he was in remission.
Jonathan, we’ll miss you.