Jonathan Demme, the Oscar-winning filmmaker who observed emphatically American characters with a discerning eye, a social conscience and a rock ’n’ roll heart, achieving especially wide acclaim with “The Silence of the Lambs” and “Philadelphia,” died on Wednesday at his home in Manhattan. He was 73.
His publicist, Leslee Dart, confirmed the death. Mr. Demme disclosed that he had cancer in 2015.
Mob wives, CB radio buffs and AIDS victims; Hannibal Lecter, Howard Hughes and Jimmy Carter: Mr. Demme (pronounced DEM-ee) plucked his subjects and stories largely from the stew of contemporary American subcultures and iconography. He created a body of work — including fiction films and documentaries, dramas and comedies, original scripts, adaptations, and remakes — that resists easy characterization.
A personable man with the curiosity gene and the what-comes-next instinct of someone who likes to both hear and tell stories, Mr. Demme had a good one of his own, a Mr. Deeds kind of tale in which he wandered into good fortune and took advantage of it. A former movie publicist, he had an apprenticeship in low-budget B-movies with the producer Roger Corman before turning director.
Mr. Demme became known early in his career for quirky social satires that led critics to compare him to Preston Sturges. They included “Handle With Care” (1977), originally titled “Citizens Band,” about eccentric rural Americans linked by trucks and CB radios, and “Melvin and Howard” (1980), a tale inspired by true events, which starred Jason Robards as the billionaire recluse Howard Hughes and Paul Le Mat as an earnest gas station owner who picks him up in the desert after Hughes has had a crash on his motorcycle. Hughes ostensibly leaves a colossal fortune to the man, who never gets the money, of course, losing his claim to it in court.
Later, as a known commodity, Mr. Demme directed prestige Hollywood projects like “Beloved” (1998), an adaptation of Toni Morrison’s novel about the lingering, post-Civil War psychological horror of slavery, with Oprah Winfrey and Danny Glover in starring roles, and “The Manchurian Candidate” (2004), a remake of the 1962 Cold War drama of the same title about a brainwashed American prisoner of war. Mr. Demme’s updated version, starring Denzel Washington, Meryl Streep and Liev Schreiber, takes place during the Persian Gulf war.
A Batch of Oscars in the ’90s
Mr. Demme may be best remembered for two films from the 1990s that were, at the time, his career’s biggest anomalies. The first, “The Silence of the Lambs” (1991), was a vivid thriller based on the novel by Thomas Harris that earned five Oscars, including best picture and best director. Unlike his previous films, with their mischievous pleasure and tender melancholy, this was straightforward and serious storytelling with only a few moments of shivery humor.
The story is told largely from the perspective of an F.B.I. trainee who becomes a key figure in the pursuit of a serial killer known as Buffalo Bill when she is assigned to conduct a prison interview with Hannibal Lecter, a mad and murderous psychiatrist, hoping to extract from him clues to Bill’s identity.
Mr. Demme’s next narrative venture, “Philadelphia” (1993), brought to the fore a strain of advocacy that was otherwise evident in his documentaries about Haiti; former President Jimmy Carter; New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina; and his cousin Robert W. Castle, a white activist priest in Harlem.
It was the first big-budget Hollywood film about AIDS, and with its forthright depiction of homosexuality, homophobia and the disease that was rampaging through gay communities, it was a turning point in the way mainstream movies treated gay men and lesbians, who had previously been handled with hush-hush delicacy or flamboyant caricature. Mr. Hanks won an Oscar, and so did Bruce Springsteen, for the song that introduces the film, “Streets of Philadelphia.”
Rock music — music in general, really, but rock and its Caribbean siblings most of all — is central to many of Mr. Demme’s films. Among them was one of his last, “Ricki and the Flash” (2015), which starred Meryl Streep as the aging singer of a bar band in California who is the ex-wife of a well-to-do Indianapolis businessman (Kevin Kline) and the estranged mother of their children.
“Music was my first love, movies came second,” Mr. Demme once told the New York newspaper The SoHo News. In a 1988 interview with Premiere magazine, he said: “I grew up with rock ’n’ roll — literally,” adding, “The first rock song I remember was ‘Sh-Boom,’ and since then I’ve never stopped obsessing on at least something.”
The synchronization with music and narrative is evident in “Something Wild” (1986), a “really screwball” comedy, as Pauline Kael of The New Yorker described it, that “breaks conventions and turns into a scary slapstick thriller.” The beginning, set in New York City, has a telling establishing shot, perfect for the time and place — the Reagan ’80s, with its ostentatious masters of the universe and a teeming, disdainful underclass — in which the head of a young man shouldering a boom box is held firmly in the frame before the camera moves.
The movie tells the story of Charlie Driggs (Jeff Daniels), a straight-arrow tax consultant who is seduced away from his humdrum office life by a charmingly flaky young woman played by Melanie Griffith. Calling herself Lulu, she inveigles him into a road trip that takes them from rebellious delight into danger and violence (in the form of Lulu’s ex-husband, an ex-con played by Ray Liotta in his movie debut) before its rather pallid Hollywood denouement.
What elevates the ending from disappointing sentiment to a winking, it’s-only-a-movie joy is the credit sequence, in which the singer Sister Carol, who plays a minor role in the film, sways against a graffiti-splashed wall and performs a reggae variation on the 1960s standard “Wild Thing.” The song was one of 49 to be featured in the movie, which also included music by Jimmy Cliff, Oingo Boingo, Fine Young Cannibals and David Byrne of Talking Heads.
Mr. Byrne also scored Mr. Demme’s “Married to the Mob,” a gaudy 1988 farce in which Michelle Pfeiffer plays the wife of a Long Island gangster (Alec Baldwin) who tries to exit the mob life after her husband is bumped off when he dallies with the girlfriend of the local boss (Dean Stockwell). Things get especially dicey when she moves with her young son into a shabby Manhattan apartment and strikes up a romance with an F.B.I. agent (Matthew Modine) who has her under surveillance.
“Jonathan Demme is the American cinema’s king of amusing artifacts: blinding bric-a-brac, the junkiest of jewelry, costumes so frightening they take your breath away,” Ms. Maslin wrote. “Mr. Demme may joke, but he’s also capable of suggesting that the very fabric of American life may be woven of such things, and that it takes a merry and adventurous spirit to make the most of them.”
A Happenstance Start
Robert Jonathan Demme was born on Long Island, in Baldwin, on Feb. 22, 1944, and grew up mostly in nearby Rockville Centre, where he listened to music and went to the movies.
His father, Robert, was a publicist in the travel industry; his mother was the former Dorothy Rogers. (At 71, Dorothy Demme appeared in a music video for UB40 and Chrissie Hynde directed by her son. She later appeared in some of his films, including “Something Wild” and “Philadelphia.” She died in 1995.)
He also became a critic for a shopping guide in Coral Gables, for which he wrote a glowing notice for “Zulu” (1964), about a bloody 19th-century battle between British soldiers and African warriors, a film whose executive producer was Joseph E. Levine, the founder of Embassy Pictures, the film’s American distributor.
It happened that Mr. Levine was on vacation in Miami Beach, staying at the Fontainebleau Hotel, where he had become acquainted with the hotel’s publicist, Robert Demme. The elder Demme introduced Mr. Levine to his son, whose review of “Zulu” impressed him. Mr. Levine offered him a job.
In 1971, he took a job as a unit publicist in Ireland for a Roger Corman film, “Von Richthofen and Brown,” about a German flying ace. Shortly after that, he began making films of his own for Corman’s production company. He wrote (with Joe Viola) and produced a biker film, “Angels Hard as They Come,” and wrote and directed a handful of others, including “Caged Heat” (1974), a heavy-breathing women’s prison movie, and “Crazy Mama” (1975), a campy road story with a ’50s rock score that starred Ann Sothern and Cloris Leachman as mother-and-daughter outlaws.
After other directors passed on “Citizens Band,” a script by Paul Brickman, Paramount hired Mr. Demme to direct it.
Thom Mount, who headed production at Universal, called Mr. Demme to direct “Melvin and Howard” after Mike Nichols had dropped out. The movie opened the New York Film Festival and drew rave reviews, a pair of Oscars (for Mr. Goldman’s script and for Mary Steenburgen’s supporting role as Melvin’s beleaguered wife) and a best picture citation by the National Society of Film Critics.
Mr. Demme’s first marriage, to Evelyn Purcell, ended in divorce. He later married Joanne Howard, an artist. She survives him along with three children, Brooklyn, Ramona and Jos. Complete information on survivors was not immediately available. Mr. Demme also had a home in Nyack, N.Y.
Mr. Demme was a member of the alternative arts scene of Lower Manhattan, which included Mr. Gray, who died in 2004, as well as Mr. Byrne and the composer and performer Laurie Anderson, who scored “Swimming to Cambodia.”
Better was “The Truth About Charlie” (2002), a well-paced remake of “Charade,” the 1963 thriller set in Paris about a woman (Thandie Newton in the Audrey Hepburn role) pursued by men who are out to reclaim a treasure filched by her husband, who has turned up dead.
And even better was “Rachel Getting Married” (2008). Set during a weekend in which Rachel (Rosemary DeWitt), a white woman, is to wed her black fiancé, Sidney (Tunde Adebimpe), the film presents a diverse gathering of two families and various friends within and around the sprawling Connecticut home of Rachel’s father (Bill Irwin) and his second wife (Anna Deavere Smith).
Filmed in a documentary like style with an array of musical genres on the soundtrack — though it is only music that the wedding guests hear — “Rachel Getting Married” recalls another Altman film about a similar occasion, “A Wedding,” in its piling up of characters and snatches of conversation. It gives viewers a sense of being wedding guests themselves — “an experience we’ve all had,” as the critic Roger Ebert wrote. He added, “We don’t meet everyone at a wedding, but we observe everyone.”
In many ways, “Rachel Getting Married” synthesizes the main characteristics and concerns of Mr. Demme’s body of work. Among the wedding guests are character actors who make appearances in other Demme films, so there’s a family within a family on the screen. And in its obvious but casual multiethnicity, the movie recognizes, with the progressive hopefulness often present in his films, an American whole after providing many close-ups of individual slices.
“It might seem that this tableau is a kind of utopian wish fulfillment, the naïve projection of a longed-for harmony that does not yet exist,” A. O. Scott wrote in his Times review. “To some extent, this may be true, but the texture of ‘Rachel Getting Married’ is so loose and lived in, its faces (many of them belonging to nonprofessional actors) so interesting and real, that it looks more plausibly like a mirror of the way things are.