The Silence of the Lambs director Jonathan Demme passes away at 73

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Apr 26, 2017

The man who made one of the great horror/thriller films of the past 30 years, among many others, has passed away.

Director/producer/screenwriter Jonathan Demme lost his battle with esophagus cancer this morning at the age of 73, according to multiple media reports. Deadline reported that Demme passed beyond the realm of human understanding at around 3:30 a.m. in his Manhattan home, where he was surrounded by his wife and children.

While Demme directed many great films, genre fans will always remember him for his 1991 masterpiece The Silence of the Lambs. Based on Thomas Harris' third novel, and second to feature the monstrous Dr. Hannibal Lecter, the film starred Jodie Foster as a young FBI recruit who engages in a battle of wits with Anthony Hopkins' crafty Dr. Lecter while seeking his help in tracking a hideous serial killer.

Like the book, the movie was a suspenseful, grisly exercise in psychological terror and a gripping procedural, but it was also a meditation on gender, guilt and grief, with brilliant performances from Foster and Hopkins (whose career the movie revitalized). Both won Oscars, as did Ted Tally's screenplay, Demme's razor-sharp direction and the picture itself -- the first and so far only time a movie related to the horror genre has picked up all those trophies at once and just the second time that one movie swept all five major award categories.

Demme was born in Baldwin, Long Island, and, like so many other great filmmakers, got his start in the business under the wing of Roger Corman, for whom he directed low-budget exploitation flicks like Caged Heat and Fighting Mad while learning his craft. His first critical hit was 1980's Melvin and Howard, a quirky comedy about working-class Americans that first established the deeply humane and sympathetic quality of Demme's films to come.

His resume also includes Swing Shift (1984), Something Wild (1986), Married to the Mob (1988), Philadelphia (1993) -- the first major studio film to attack the subject of AIDS -- Rachel Getting Married (2008) and a 2004 remake of The Manchurian Candidate, the closest he ever came to speculative fiction (a Demme adaptation of Stephen King's novel 11/22/63 never came to pass although he was slated to write and direct it at one point).

Demme was also known for his music documentaries, including the seminal Talking Heads film Stop Making Sense (1984) and three projects about the legendary Neil Young. He also worked in TV and strangely, an episode of the Fox crime drama Shots Fired that he directed is scheduled to air tonight.

Whether you were familiar with the rest of Demme's work or just knew him through The Silence of the Lambs, it is clear that cinema has lost an extraordinary and unique talent today. Rest in peace, sir, and thank you for the work you left behind.