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Man’s Best Friend

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“Jonathan is the father of a 14-year-old girl, as is Beth,” says Chalfant. “I think it’s very hard for him to see a child abandoned like that.”

Given his overflowing humanism (so apparent in his film Philadelphia), it’s odd that the movie Demme is best known for, the one that brought him an Academy Award, is the gruesome The Silence of the Lambs. He’s ambivalent about that. When he speaks of it, he takes the emphasis off the liver-and-fava-beans-and-a-nice-Chianti stuff and focuses on Jodie Foster’s Clarice Starling, the young woman who triumphs over her demons—internal and external—and emerges into the light. That’s why he (and Foster) turned down the chance to make author Thomas Harris’s sequel, Hannibal, in which Starling’s spirit is crushed. A semi-heroic serial killer doesn’t suit him either.

Demme is never casual about characters dying onscreen. Maybe that’s because there seem to be no expendable characters in his films, no extras—only individuals we haven’t met. Friends, family members, and colleagues are always popping up in the background.

The final, extended musical sequence in Rachel Getting Married was like a giant Demme-artistic-family reunion. (Among the wedding guests are “Sister” Carol East, Roger Corman, Robyn Hitchcock, and Demme’s daughter Josephine. His son, Brooklyn, is seen playing guitar.) Some viewers thought it went on too long, but Demme needed that larger multicultural family, I think, to balance out the sadly dysfunctional nuclear family at the movie’s center.

It was also telling that both Rachel’s fiancé (played by Tunde Adebimpe, the lead singer of TV on the Radio) and her father’s second wife (Anna Deavere Smith) were black. Family Week has similarly “color-blind” casting: DeWitt is white and Bernstine, as her sister, is African-American. “We’re so deep into that world now that it’s not a consideration anymore,” says Demme. “It’s perfectly all right to do race-mixing, and as a theatergoer, I like it. I find it a lot more interesting than an all-white cast. As Family Week started to get realer, I asked Beth, ‘Do you think we could do a black version and a white version on alternating nights?’ and she said, ‘I think it would be too expensive.’ ”

Some film directors keep a bubble around themselves, afraid of losing their own unique visions, whereas Demme loves experimentation, and his appetite for culture is voracious. He lives primarily in the Hudson Valley, but several years back he downsized his production company there, Clinica Estetico (“It expands and contracts like an accordion,” he says), and started spending more time in Manhattan. His wife, Joanne Howard, is going for a master’s in fine arts at Hunter College, and his daughter Josephine loves the city. Many nights he’s at the theater, movies, or concerts. He’s made two concert films with Neil Young, and he was about to leave for Haiti—one of his favorite places and the subject of two of his documentaries—to make a film with Arcade Fire when the earthquake hit. (He hopes to resurrect the project in a few months.) He’s working on an animated adaptation of Dave Eggers’s Zeitoun and a possible HBO series with Walter Mosley.

But one thing theater offers that film doesn’t is the chance to see a live audience respond to live actors for the first time. Chalfant recalls, “I’ve never seen in my life the look on Jonathan’s face after the first dress rehearsal in which guests, mostly friends of his, were invited—the look of pure delight and wonder, like a kid who gets his first Lionel train set.”

I see Demme for the last time after the first public preview, and he appears dazed with happiness. “I sat in the theater and didn’t take notes,” he says. “It was easy to pretend that I’d come down to the Lucille Lortel to see the new version of the Beth Henley play with a cast I admired a lot. I enjoyed it enormously. I said, ‘That was terrific. I’m going to recommend it to all my friends.’ ”

The end of his own role in sight, he’s back to promoting the artists he loves.


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