How Demme showed us America’s nightmare

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(CNN) — If Jonathan Demme, who died Wednesday at age 73, had done nothing else in his movie directing life except “Something Wild,” “Stop Making Sense” and “The Silence of the Lambs,” his place in history would be secure — and exalted.

But there are two other films that, as we get deeper into this still-new century, I sense will be reevaluated far from their respective contexts as “up-to-the-minute social drama” and “prestige literary project” and be appreciated as idiosyncratic inquiries into the human psyche.

There is “Philadelphia” (1993), for which Tom Hanks won the first of two consecutive Oscars, playing an AIDS patient suing the law firm that dismissed him. And, even more significantly, there is “Beloved” (2002), Demme’s adaptation of Toni Morrison’s prize-winning novel about the legacies of American slavery.

To be sure, each of the first three movies I mentioned at the beginning represents a peak in each stage of Demme’s career. “Something Wild,” made in 1986 and considered his masterwork by many critics, placed Jeff Daniels, Melanie Griffith and Ray Liotta as the romantic triangle in a road comedy that both unsettled and charmed its audiences. That was the best example of Demme’s early quirky period, a compound of bent Americana and hip buffoonery.

“Stop Making Sense,” 1984’s filmed record of the Talking Heads rock group performing at what may have been its commercial and artistic peak, remains a model of its kind; it perfectly melds the colorfully staged grandeur of a classic MGM musical with the frenzied montages typifying of the emerging music-video genre.

Not since Fred Astaire’s pas de deux with a hat rack had the movies offered a more stunning interplay of human and thing as lead singer David Byrne moving his rail-thin body both with and at odds with his even thinner microphone.

And then there’s “The Silence of the Lambs,” Demme’s 1991 commercial breakthrough that won Oscars for the movie, its lead actors Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster, and Demme, himself.

The dark eccentricities curling along the edges of even Demme’s sunnier comedies (1988’s “Married to the Mob,” for example) oozed to “Silence’s” front-and-center. And yet what still distinguishes this glossy, high-end shocker from most others in its genre is Demme’s humane point-of-view toward even the most inconsequential and unsavory of the story’s characters.

“The Silence of the Lambs'” success empowered Demme to take on bigger studio projects, though none enjoyed the same critical acclamation or blockbuster receipts.

Which brings us to “Beloved” (2002).

The Toni Morrison adaptation of her 1987 novel, whose crash-and-burn at the box office was viewed at the time as near catastrophic (making back little more than $23 million of its reported $58 million budget), applies to antebellum and postbellum American history an especially nightmarish viewpoint that movie audiences weren’t ready for at the time.

Demme makes Morrison’s visions of memory and loss seem so tangible, most especially in the presence of the movie’s title character, the ghost of a young slave girl played by Thandie Newton.

With movies such as 2013’s “12 Years a Slave” receiving greater attention and Oscar approbation, “Beloved’s” time may come around again. (And besides, no movie with a performance as electrifying as Newton’s should remain forever in the shadows.)

Not all Demme’s movies were great or even very good; no director’s were or are. But what’s making many of his friends and fans unhappy about his passing are his humanity and the abiding possibility that he could surprise us all again.

He’d done it before, after all. We used to bother going to movie theaters because we expected surprises. And now? It’s that dangling question that makes you miss him more.

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