By Travis Johnson

Director Jonathan Demme, who won the Academy Award for Best Director for his work on the 1991 thriller, The Silence of the Lambs, has died. According to a statement issued by his publicist, Demme passed due to complications arising from esophageal cancer, which the filmmaker had been battling for some time.

Demme broke into the film industry, like Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese, through the hands-on training ground that was Roger Corman’s New World Pictures. Demme started out as a publicist, then screenwriter for the B-movie King, penning Angels Hard as They Come and The Hot Box, before making his feature directing debut with Caged Heat.

Crazy Mama (Bill Paxton’s feature debut, oddly enough), with Cloris Leachman, followed, and a string of action comedies and low budget thrillers thereafter as Demme developed his voice. It wasn’t long before the major studios came calling, but Demme disowned his first major project, the Kurt Russell/Goldie Hawn WWII comedy Swing Shift, after a troubled production.

Over the course of his career, Demme tackled a wide range of genres and topics. His mainstream directing career aside, he is most notable for his string of music documentaries, beginning with the landmark Stop Making Sense in 1984. The Talking Heads movie is still considered one of the best concert films of all time. Demme went on to make films on artists as diverse as Neil Young, Robyn Hitchcock, and Justin Timberlake. He also made a number of well-regarded documentaries, including Cousin Bobby, about his actual cousin, an Episcopalian minister, and Man From Plains, focusing on former president Jimmy Carter.

The ’90s saw Demme’s career peak with the massive success of the thriller, The Silence of the Lambs. Adapted from the landmark novel by Thomas Harris and originally intended as a vehicle for Gene Hackman, the film went on to win the “big five Oscars” (director, actor, actress, screenplay, and film) and made Hannibal Lecter the quintessential modern cinematic boogeyman. Philadelphia followed, partly in response to accusations of homophobia leveled at The Silence of the Lambs. The courtroom drama shined a spotlight on the AIDS epidemic and garnered Tom Hanks his first Oscar.

Later years saw Demme’s productivity wax and wane, and while he produced many worthwhile films (his remake of The Manchurian Candidate is overdue for reappraisal, and Rachel Getting Married is masterful) he never quite recaptured his early ’90s success. His final feature, Ricki and the Flash, saw Meryl Streep take on the role of of an ageing barroom rocker.

Tributes from Demme’s friends and colleagues have flooded social media:


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