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Philadelphia, Lambs Director Jonathan Demme Dead at 73

Philadelphia, Lambs Director Jonathan Demme Dead at 73


Jonathan Demme, the Oscar-winning director whose films received both denunciation and praise from LGBT audiences, has died at age 73.

Acclaimed director Jonathan Demme died this morning in New York City of esophageal cancer and complications from heart disease, IndieWire reports.

Demme's most significant films from an LGBT standpoint were The Silence of the Lambs (1991) and Philadelphia (1993). The former, which swept the top five categories at the Oscars, was criticized by some as homophobic or transphobic in its portrayal of cross-dressing serial killer Jame Gumb, a.k.a. Buffalo Bill (the film was praised though for featuring a strong female heroine, played by Jodie Foster). Bill skins his female victims, planning to wear their skins.

The director addressed the controversy in a 2014 interview with The Daily Beast but conflated gay and transgender issues. "Jame Gumb isn't gay," he said. "And this is my directorial failing in making The Silence of the Lambs -- that I didn't find ways to emphasize the fact that Gumb wasn't gay, but more importantly, that his whole thing is that [Hannibal] Lecter's profile on Gumb was that he was someone who was terribly abused as a child, and as a result of the abuse he suffered as a child, had extreme self-loathing, and whose life had become a series of efforts to not be himself anymore. The idea is that by turning himself into a female, then surely Gumb can feel like he has escaped himself. He's not a traditional 'cross-dresser,' 'transvestite,' or 'drag queen' -- the various labels that respectfully come up for people who love to don the clothing of the opposite gender."

Demme also told the Beast he was working on a documentary about a transgender friend, a project that apparently remains unfinished. "Now, we realize that transgendered Americans are the ones who are most in need of acknowledgement and support, and integration into the 'mainstream' -- whatever the heck that is," he said.

Philadelphia, which won an Oscar for star Tom Hanks, was groundbreaking as a big-budget film about the AIDS crisis, which until then had been dealt with primarily in small-scale, independent films. Hanks played Philadelphia lawyer Andrew Beckett, who is fired by his firm when his AIDS diagnosis becomes known, then sues for wrongful discharge.

Many viewers found the film sympathetic to people with AIDS and deeply moving, but it received some criticism too. "Some gay activists -- most notably Larry Kramer, author of The Normal Heart -- have attacked what they consider to be Philadelphia's avoidance of gay sexuality (between Hanks and his lover, played by Antonio Banderas) and its too rose-colored view of Hanks' extended and supportive family," Rolling Stone reported in 1994. "Few people with AIDS are quite so fortunate, they say."

In the article, Demme said there was at one point a scene of the couple in bed together, but it seemed to take the focus off the courtroom drama, so it did not make it into the final film. "I feel the film is richly permeated by feelings of love and attachment between Tom and many people in his life, including Antonio," he added. "Their scene together toward the end of the picture in the hospital is one of the most intimate, beautiful scenes between two people I've seen in a long, long time. I think it's stunning."

A kiss between the men, he continued, might have kept the film from reaching some audiences. "With Philadelphia -- I'm sorry, Larry Kramer -- I didn't want to risk knocking our audience back 20 feet with images they're not prepared to see," he said. He noted that the film also showed Denzel Washington's character, lawyer Joe Miller, getting over his homophobia during the course of representing Beckett.

Philadelphia, with an original screenplay by gay writer Ron Nyswaner, wasn't a reaction to the criticism over The Silence of the Lambs, Demme told the Beast in 2014, but he noted, "I see the linkage, and on a certain level, lucky me to have the opportunity to do a very positive gay film on the heels of being accused of making a film that had very stereotypical gay characters." Philadelphia, he said, "came because so many of my loved ones were getting sick, including Juan Botas, and my producing partner's dear friend had AIDS." Botas, a filmmaker, was the "soul mate" of Demme's wife, artist Joanne Howard, Demme had told Rolling Stone in the 1994 interview.

Demme made several other acclaimed films, such as 1980's Melvin and Howard, based on the true story of a working-class man, Melvin Dummar, who claimed eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes had left him a fortune (Mary Steenburgen won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for the film as Dummar's wife, Linda); 1984's Swing Shift, with Goldie Hawn and Christine Lahti as workers in an aircraft plant during World War II; 1986's Something Wild, a dark comedy starring Melanie Griffith, Jeff Daniels, and Ray Liotta; and 2008's Rachel Getting Married, with Anne Hathaway as a woman coming out of rehab to attend her sister's wedding.

Demme was also well known for his effective use of music, including rock, reggae, and more, in his movies, and he made several music documentaries, on performers as diverse as Talking Heads, Neil Young, and Justin Timberlake.

He is survived by his wife and three children.

(Video) Jodie Foster Pays Tribute to 'Friend and Mentor' Jonathan Demme:

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