Jonathan Demme, director of 'Philadelphia,' dies at 73

The Oscar-winning director Jonathan Demme, 73, who filmed  Beloved and Philadelphia here and put the city on the map as a film-production destination, died Wednesday morning in New York City. Family sources say the cause of death was esophageal cancer and complications from heart disease.

"Philadelphia was really his second city," said Sharon Pinkenson, executive director of the Greater Philadelphia Film Office, who spoke to Mr. Demme in March when he was in town to sell part of his Haitian art collection at Germantown's Material Culture. It was then that Mr. Demme revealed he was sick -- news that devastated Pinkenson, who credits the director with putting the city on the film-production map. Philadelphia, released in 1993, was the local film office's first major production. 

"It was the first time I worked with a major film from beginning to end in this job, and we became lifelong friends. He set the standard," Pinkenson said. "He was a very gentle soul and extremely passionate about what he did, and he treated everybody like they belonged to his family, and that set a standard among the crew and the actors. It was all about the love and the passion for what you do. I compare every director to Jonathan."

Pinkenson remembers Mr. Demme had a hard time coming up with a name for the movie -- it had been tentatively called Jonathan Demme's Fall Movie. He held a contest, with the winner to be awarded a dinner at Le Bec-Fin. 

"Then on a lunch break, Jonathan came up to me and said, 'We've decided to call the movie Philadelphia. ' I could hardly speak. I had to go call my mother," Pinkenson said. "I mean, to have an important movie like this named after your city -- how do you top that?"

The movie stars Tom Hanks as an HIV-positive lawyer who loses his job and sues his firm. His lawyer is played by Denzel Washington. Hanks, who won an Oscar for the role, issued a statement Wednesday, saying, "Jonathan taught us how big a heart a person can have, and how it will guide how we live and what we do for a living. He was the grandest of men."

The film also earned an Oscar nomination for screenwriter Ron Nyswaner, with whom Mr. Demme worked closely on the story and script.

"The burden was on Ron to realize gay relationships and characters in a way those characters are lacking in movies," Mr. Demme said at the time. "The responsibility to flesh out [Washington's character's] homophobia and AIDS phobia was on me."

"Finding the basic story took months. Writing took a year and a half. During that time, the Clarence Cain v. Hyatt Legal Services case had happened," he said, referring to the lawsuit brought by an HIV-positive Philadelphia lawyer against his firm for unreasonable firing, "and we wanted to steer clear of those characters."

Mr. Demme recalled being thrilled that he was able to attract Hanks.

"Were we happy that Tom has this giant, trusting, adoring following? Yeah! We were slapping five all over the office, because Tom really does have a constituency."

The movie made $77 million and received mostly positive reviews, though it drew some criticism for being too politically correct -- a label Mr. Demme disputed with characteristic passion.

"One of the things that people find fault with is the political correctness of the casting. They find fault with the fact that a white man goes to a black attorney, that a white man is in love with an Hispanic man [Antonio Banderas]. They find fault with the fact that the white man's family is so supportive. It's so politically correct. My reaction to that is, Excuse me! Has anyone taken a look at what America looks like at the moment? There's a whole bunch of different kinds of people. Good Lord! And, in terms of the supporting family thing, they are out there too, and if this movie is labeled PC for being inspired by families like that, well, tough s-."

Mr. Demme loved the experience of shooting in the city, and he chose Philadelphia as the site of his adaptation of Toni Morrison's novel Beloved, starring Oprah Winfrey, released in 1998. 

"We all hoped that one day we would be lucky enough to film again in Philadelphia," Mr. Demme said at the time. "We just never thought it would happen so quickly."

Beloved was shepherded to the screen by Winfrey, who wanted a woman to direct the film and who had shopped the project to The Piano's Jane Campion and Jodie Foster without success. Meanwhile, Mr. Demme had spotted Richard LaGravanese's script and contacted Winfrey. Winfrey said everything that had gone wrong with other directors went right with Mr. Demme. He shared her enthusiasm for the story, her understanding of its complex racial and psychological themes, and he did not rule her out for the lead. 

"Jonathan is the first director who said that is a decision we should make together," Winfrey said at the time.

Mr. Demme later said he received a basket of food and a facetious "condolence" note from Foster, another longtime friend, that said, "Hope this helps to get your white ass through Beloved."

Mr. Demme started out making B-movies (Handle with Care in 1978) for producer Roger Corman in the 1970s.  Ron Howard, who also got his directing start with Corman, issued this statement: “Jonathan Demme was a great artist, humanitarian, activist and  a warm encouraging colleague. I’ve known very few like him. He will be missed.”

Working for Corman, Mr. Demme displayed a talent that enabled him to graduate quickly to Hollywood features while  retaining his quirky point of view -- Melvin and Howard (1982), Something Wild (1987), and Married to the Mob (1991). 

He won an Oscar for The Silence of the Lambs (1992), and turned from there to passion projects like Philadelphia

"Our story could be set in any major city and most small towns at this stage. I mean, it deals in a very head-on way with such subjects as AIDS, lawyers, the American justice system, homophobia, all other kinds of prejudices," Mr. Demme said in 1992 of his decision to set Philadelphia here.

"But, then, we decided that Philadelphia, being known as the City of Brotherly Love, the city where the Declaration of Independence was written, brought a special kind of resonance to a story about acceptance and brotherhood. "

Mr. Demme also loved music, and he directed several ground-breaking music documentaries, notably Stop Making Sense with the Talking Heads and Neil Young Trunk Show, filmed over two concerts at the Tower Theater in Upper Darby. He also directed Bruce Springsteen's video for "Streets of Philadelphia," a song he commissioned for the film that featured many shots of the city.

Mr. Demme made frequent trip to Haiti and was an activist involved in attempts to provide assistance to that nation. He made the documentary Haiti Dreams of Democracy in 1988, and The Agronomist, a 2003 documentary about Jean Dominique, Haitian activist and radio journalist.   

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