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4 Greatest Movie Moments From Director Jonathan Demme

Jonathan Demme is an Academy Award-winning film director who has been working in the movies since the 1970s. While his mainstream films have been few, they have been critically acclaimed and highly influential. His often emotionally-charged movies are remembered for their colorful characters but it is his masterful use of the camera in telling a story that makes his work so remarkable. Here are the 4 greatest movie moments from director Jonathan Demme.

4) Ray’s Violent End

Jonathan Demme
Ray Liotta (Something Wild, 1986)
FILM: Something Wild, 1986     STARS: Melanie Griffith, Jeff Daniels, Ray Liotta

A quirky action/romance, this stylized film sees a distraught man named Charlie (Jeff Daniels) estranged from his wife, getting caught up with a new woman named Lulu (Melanie Griffith), who picks him up outside a café after she sees him leave without paying. The two set off on an adventure where they commit a few petty crimes. Meanwhile, Lulu changes her persona and appearance while Charlie begins to fall in love. But things get dark fast when we learn that Lulu (whose real name is Audrey) has an ex-husband named Ray (Ray Liotta). Ray wants Audrey back and circumstances lead the three to end up at her home where a confrontation escalates. It doesn’t end well for Ray.

Jonathan Demme
Ray Liotta (Something Wild, 1986)

The scene is a frantically-paced cut between the three leads as Charlie fights to free himself from being handcuffed under a bathroom sink to Ray attacking Lulu in the bedroom. Demme uses slow camera movements, up close to the actors (his signature), careful to keep his lens on the faces and, interestingly, the feet, of the cast, never showing us the real violence, only the implication. This is a tense, surprisingly personal moment that is supremely well-acted but made all the more effective by Demme’s subtle direction.

3) Once In A Lifetime

Jonathan Demme
David Byrne (Stop Making Sense, 1984)
FILM: Stop Making Sense     STARS: Talking Heads

This shockingly good concert film is widely considered to be one of the best ever made. Conceived by Talking Heads lead, David Byrne, the show begins with Byrne walking alone onto an empty stage, the scaffolding and set pieces piled up far behind him. He carries a boom box, sets it down and performs a solo rendition of Psycho Killer before being joined onstage at ever increasing rates, by other band members, singers, and stage decorations. Shot mostly from a distance with minimal intrusion on the band themselves, it’s a vivid, oddly hypnotic experience that is devoid of the elaborate light and sound spectacles of usual concert footage and instead showcases a brilliant, innovate musical group at the peak of their movement.

Jonathan Demme
David Byrne (Stop Making Sense, 1984)

By the time it reaches the twelfth song of a sixteen-song set, the stage is complete and the players are all accounted for. The wide, simple two-level set is dark, with minimal lighting, but at dead center is the always interesting-to-watch Byrne in his iconic tan suit, cast in deep shadow. The powerful lyrics of Once in a Lifetime, punctuated by Byrnes spastic, jerky motions make this the song the show’s highlight, while Demme shows great restraint, holding his camera fixed on the mesmerizing Byrne.

2) Can You Feel It, Joe?

Jonathon Demme
Tom Hanks (Philadelphia, 1993)
FILM: Philadelphia     STARS: Tom Hanks, Denzel Washington

The first wide-release, mainstream film to address HIV/AIDS, homosexuality and their widespread discrimination, this Academy Award-winning film was groundbreaking for the time. The story of a successful lawyer who is sabotaged after it is discovered he is homosexual and inflicted with HIV, it stars Tom Hanks as Andrew Beckett, a man facing a series of closed doors in pursuit of a case against the large firm where he was unexpectedly fired. He eventually gets the attention of small time personal injury lawyer Joe Miller (Denzel Washington), who comes to defend him in court.

Jonathon Demme
Denzel Washington (Philadelphia, 1993)

During the trial prep, after a costume party where Joe and his wife are invited to meet many of Andrew’s friends, Joe and Andrew work alone at a table among the remnants of the now finished party. Andrew is dying. He is on an IV and the probability of his surviving to end of the case are slim. Joe wants to work, but Andrew is still caught up in the glory of his friends and the invaluable adoration of his fleeting life. He hears La Mamma Morta, an opera aria sung by Maria Callas, on the stereo behind him and stands up. Miller, who is dealing now with his own homophobia, sees Andrew in new light as the dying man describes the story in the song. Demme’s direction has us swinging above and around Beckett, as if in orbit. The music grips while the moment paints the two characters with light and color as Andrew moves about in shades of flickering red while Miller emerges from the shadows, leaving behind his ignorance, now illuminated by his new friend’s deeply personal journey.

1) The Screaming of the Lambs

Jonathan Demme
Anthony Hopkins (The Silence of the Lambs, 1991)
FILM: The Silence of the Lambs     STARS: Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins

The Silence of the Lambs is the first (and only, as of this writing) Horror film to win the Best Picture Academy Award. That stems from the great cast, led by Jodie Foster as a Clarice Starling, a new FBI agent, and Anthony Hopkins as the jailed, cannibalistic madman Hannibal Lector, whom she uses to try and stop a serial killer. A profoundly effective psychological thriller, the film’s gripping realism and sharp dialog made this a critical favorite and household names out of the cast.

Jonathan Demme
Jodie Foster (The Silence of the Lambs, 1991)

There are a host of great moments in this, Demme’s finest work, with most of them coming from the formidable relationship of Starling and Lector, who are at all times separated by heavy glass or bars. It is this dynamic, which prevents them from interaction in any other way but verbally, that creates such palpable tension. Demme utilizes this well throughout, especially in an early scene where the two first meet. But it is much later, after we have learned more about these characters, where the back-and-forth in their interactions is best handled. With Lector in a cage at the center of a large room, Starling stands just beyond a barrier where she confronts Lector, but he won’t budge until she tells him the final part of a quid pro quo story she began earlier about her nightmares. She divulges the truth about a childhood experience where she witnessed the slaughter of lambs. As crucial as the moment is to the plot, Demme’s direction makes this the film’s most memorable scene. Employing his tactic for tight profile shots, he draws even closer than usual, filling the screen with Lector’s twisted face. Starling is always seen from Hopkins point of view, pacing from side to side, something that usually one on the inside of a cage might do. The metaphor is obvious and we see that the cage is merely a symbol and that the truth is opposite. It is the greatest directed moment by Jonathan Demme.

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