I have one especially cherished memory of him: in spring 1992, at the Oscars, his film version of The Silence of the Lambs had won three awards so far: Best Actress Jodie Foster, Best Actor Anthony Hopkins, and Best Adapted Screenplay by Ted Tally. Then Demme won Best Director.
Jonathan Demme clearly did not expect to win. He was surprised and delighted. And then gave a 3 minute, 34 second acceptance speech. Enthusiasm, love, and laughs and giggles on the Oscar stage (honestly, the film then winning Best Picture, with its producers kind of colorlessly accepting their statues, was a bit of an anticlimax). And winning for making one of the most harrowing films I'd ever seen.
But being harrowing was not the only reason for that film's power: The Silence of the Lambs is a deeply humane film, in a way I felt its grand-Guignol 2001 sequel Hannibal never was. And that was partly because Demme was a deeply humane filmmaker: lingering on his films' characters, exposing their inner lives as much as possible, making the audience feel for them. And he did this over and over in his work.
I'm reading people's remembrances of Jonathan Demme in the wake of this news, and I am relieved to learn that he was a good person in general: enthused for others, advocating for them, embracing them and their work. (Demme was so impressed with the script for the deeper-than-it-looked cheerleading film Bring It On that he personally lobbied the head of Universal to get the film greenlit; it had been languishing in development for years before that.) Him taking to heart criticisms of the portrayal of gender, sexuality, and queerness in Lambs led to him directing Philadelphia; he was willing to learn more about queer issues and give queer characters more chances to star in stories. A major studio film tackling the AIDS crisis was a big deal in the early 90s, as was the movie tackling head-on the issue of homophobia and pointing out that it's messed up, and as was giving the movie's queer characters a wide spectrum of emotional life: letting them work, letting them party, letting them joke, while also letting (for example) Antonio Banderas' character say goodbye to his partner by individually kissing each knuckle on his bedridden partner's hands. Humanity in facets: Demme loved showing that.
We lost Demme to cancer. Turns out Demme kept working while fighting his cancer: an episode he directed of the Fox TV show Shots Fired airs tonight, coincidentally. He leaves a greatly varied career of movies, TV, documentaries, and concert films, including one of the all-time greats, Talking Heads' Stop Making Sense.
Thank you, Jonathan Demme.