As with some of those directors, Demme came up in an era of cheap B-movies and learned his trade under the legendary indie schlockmeister Roger Corman, who produced many of Demme’s early works. In 1971, he wrote a biker film called Angels Hard as They Come, which Corman produced and Demme’s friend Joe Viola directed. It was enough of a hit that Demme got to serve as a second unit director on Viola’s follow-up The Hot Box in 1972. Impressed with his craft, Corman gave Demme his own movie to direct—the classic exploitation film Caged Heat, a “women in prison” picture that debuted in 1974.
Caged Heat featured all the cheap thrills of the B-movie genre—sex, nudity, violence—but also possessed a winking sense of humor and a social consciousness, unusual enough to have it stand out among Corman’s vast filmography. After a few other such films, including Crazy Mama (1975) and Fighting Mad (1976), Demme broke into the mainstream with the trucker comedy Handle With Care (1977) and the thriller Last Embrace (1979). Then, in 1980, came the Oscar-winning dramedy Melvin and Howard. A strange mix of slice-of-life realism and absurd comedy (based on the true story of a man who claimed to have met magnate Howard Hughes in the Nevada desert in the late ’60s), it won supporting actress Mary Steenburgen and writer Bo Goldman Academy Awards.
In the ’80s, Demme was mostly known for wild comedies. With the World War II-set Swing Shift (1984), he clashed with stars Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn over the tone of the film (they wanted a lighter one, and prevailed, but his darker director’s cut still exists). 1986’s road caper Something Wild was a cult hit that introduced Ray Liotta to the world; 1988’s Married to the Mob is a superb mix of kitchen-sink drama and gangster lunacy, starring a luminous Michelle Pfeiffer and featuring an unhinged Dean Stockwell (who was Oscar-nominated) and Mercedes Ruehl. The ’80s also brought Stop Making Sense and Demme’s filming of Spalding Gray’s one-man monologue Swimming to Cambodia (1987). The latter is a mesmerizing work that demonstrates the power of Demme’s cinematic eye (he loved intense, direct-to-camera close-ups) in even the most inert setting (a man sitting behind a desk and talking to the audience).
But Demme’s high point—commercially, critically, and artistically—was 1991’s The Silence of the Lambs. His adaptation of Thomas Harris’s crime thriller starred Jodie Foster as FBI agent Clarice Starling and Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter, the imprisoned psychopath tapped to help her understand the mind of a serial killer she’s pursuing. Released in February, typically a dead zone for major films, it was a box-office smash and an Oscar bonanza, winning the five major trophies (Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, Actor, and Actress) for only the third time in movie history. The Silence of the Lambs is one of the most consequential thrillers ever made, one that proved lurid violence and almighty tension could go hand-in-hand with committed characterization and believable, methodical plotting.