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Opinion | Matthew Bernstein

Jonathan Demme — a populist of the best sort

Jodie Foster and Jonathan Demme attended an Academy Museum celebration of the 25th anniversary of “Silence Of The Lambs” in 2016.
Jodie Foster and Jonathan Demme attended an Academy Museum celebration of the 25th anniversary of “Silence Of The Lambs” in 2016. Cindy Ord/Getty Images

“The Silence of the Lambs” is not the kind of film people think of owning and watching over and over again, but my wife and I have made it a part of our collection. I’d go so far as to say that we put this grisly tale of serial killing and cannibalism in that special category of (forgive me) cinematic comfort food — those certain movies that one might channel-surf onto late at night and then float away on, past one’s bedtime.

If there’s one single reason for this, it’s not Anthony Hopkins’s scene-stealing relish in playing the imprisoned Hannibal Lecter, and it’s not Jodie Foster’s plucky heroine, FBI agent Clarice Starling. It’s the directing, the steady, steely, and, above all, profoundly human touch of Jonathan Demme, who died Wednesday, at 73, after a battle with cancer.


There’s a temptation to connect everything that happens today with the tumultuous political reality in which we find ourselves, but in this case, it’s particularly fitting to recognize that, throughout his career, Demme was a populist of the best sort. In films such as “Melvin and Howard,” “Handle With Care,” and “Something Wild,” he didn’t trade on the lives of ordinary people; he celebrated them and, in the process, made these under-the-surface lives extraordinary.

It was this gift that made it possible for Demme to invert the process and make the extraordinarily perverse and violent events in “The Silence of the Lambs” palatable by bringing the characters down to some kind of human level. You could see it in Lecter’s delicate fondness for Starling or, most jarringly, in the horrific confines of serial killer Jame Gumb’s stale home. You could see it in the obtrusive male gaze that followed Starling, through POV camerawork and deft use of bit players, almost from the opening shot, making the film a powerful feminist statement without ever being heavy-handed.


Demme’s acceptance speech at the 1992 Oscars, where he won best director, resurfaced Wednesday, and watching it again is a clinic in how to be real in the land of make-believe. In just a little more than three and a half minutes, Demme pays tribute generously to colleagues on the film, family (“hi, mom,” “thanks, dad”), influences (Hal Ashby and Martin Ritt, two directors in the same mold), and up-and-coming filmmakers who, almost 25 years before #OscarsSoWhite became such an urgent hashtag, happened to be black or female (John Singleton, Ernest Dickerson, and first-time director Jodie Foster). And, while fellow Oscar winners Hopkins and Foster were drawing most of the attention of audiences, Demme pointedly thanks actor Ted Levine for his “exceptionally courageous” performance as the serial killer.

It is, of all things, an exceptionally humble speech — another stark contrast to hold up against the current political landscape.

Matthew Bernstein is The Globe’s letters editor. He can be reached at matthew.bernstein@globe.com.