Jonathan Demme, the Oscar-winning filmmaker who observed emphatically American characters with a discerning eye, a social conscience and a rock ’n’ roll heart, achieving especially wide acclaim with “The Silence of the Lambs” and “Philadelphia,” died on Wednesday at his home in Manhattan. He was 73.
His publicist, Leslee Dart, confirmed the death. Mr. Demme disclosed that he had cancer in 2015.
Mob wives, CB radio buffs and AIDS victims; Hannibal Lecter, Howard Hughes and Jimmy Carter: Mr. Demme (pronounced DEM-ee) plucked his subjects and stories largely from the stew of contemporary American subcultures and iconography. He created a body of work — including fiction films and documentaries, dramas and comedies, original scripts, adaptations and remakes — that resists easy characterization.
A personable man with the curiosity gene and the what-comes-next instinct of someone who likes to both hear and tell stories, Mr. Demme had a good one of his own, a Mr. Deeds kind of tale in which he wandered into good fortune and took advantage of it. A former movie publicist, he had an apprenticeship in low-budget B-movies with the producer Roger Corman before turning director.
Mr. Demme became known early in his career for quirky social satires that led critics to compare him to Preston Sturges. They included “Handle With Care” (1977), originally titled “Citizens Band,” about an eccentric network of rural Americans linked by trucks and CB radios, and “Melvin and Howard” (1980), a tale inspired by true events, which starred Jason Robards as the billionaire recluse Howard Hughes and Paul Le Mat as an earnest, good-natured gas station owner who picks him up in the desert after Hughes has had a crash on his motorcycle. Hughes ostensibly leaves a colossal fortune to the man, who never gets the money, of course, losing his claim to it in court.
“Mr. Demme and Bo Goldman, his screenwriter, take Melvin’s tale at face value and present the movie as Melvin’s wildest dream,” Vincent Canby wrote in a review in The New York Times. “The comic catch is that this wild dream is essentially so prosaic. It’s also touched with pathos since Melvin — in spite of himself — knows that it will never be realized. This is the story of his life.”
Later, as a known commodity, Mr. Demme directed prestige Hollywood projects like “Beloved” (1998), an adaptation of Toni Morrison’s novel about the lingering, post-Civil War psychological horror of slavery, with Oprah Winfrey and Danny Glover in starring roles, and “The Manchurian Candidate” (2004), a remake of the 1962 Cold War drama of the same title about a brainwashed American prisoner of war. Mr. Demme’s updated version, starring Denzel Washington, Meryl Streep and Liev Schreiber, takes place during the Persian Gulf war.
Mr. Demme may be best remembered for two films from the 1990s that were, at the time, his career’s biggest anomalies. The first, “The Silence of the Lambs” (1991), was a vivid thriller based on the novel by Thomas Harris that earned five Oscars, including best picture and best director. Unlike his previous films, with their mischievous pleasure and tender melancholy, this was straightforward and serious storytelling with only a few moments of shivery humor.