We lost one of our more promising movie directors over the weekend. Ted Demme, nephew of a more famous director but steadily working to make his own name over the past decade, died on January 13 at only 38. Playing basketball at a charity event, he apparently collapsed -- at 38? -- and was rushed to the hospital "in full cardiac arrest." He leaves behind not only a grieving uncle (Jonathan Demme, director of The Silence of the Lambs), widow (Amanda Scheer-Demme, a music producer on most of her husband's films as well as for Steven Soderbergh), two children (one only six weeks old), and friends and close collaborators (Denis Leary, with whom he worked numerous times; Richard LaGravanese, with whom Demme was planning a documentary); he also leaves behind a pretty solid -- if cruelly abbreviated -- body of work.
Demme got his start at MTV, producing Yo! MTV Raps, working on videos, and pulling together various rap stars for his feature debut, 1993's Who's the Man? That film also featured a comedian who'd appeared in a series of MTV commercials Demme had directed: Denis Leary, whose concert films No Cure for Cancer (1992) and Lock 'n Load (1997) Demme also directed. Leary appeared in two of Demme's best films -- 1994's The Ref, in which Leary played a criminal comically bedevilled by his captives Kevin Spacey and Judy Davis, and 1998's Monument Ave, in which he played a criminal tragically bedevilled by his suicidally stupid cronies.
Compare the above two Leary movies and you see that Demme had range -- he was interested in more than one story. Even though Monument Ave could be read as a Mean Streets knock-off, and his final film, last year's Blow, could be seen as GoodFellas Lite, Demme tried his hand at other character studies. 1996's Beautiful Girls might be many people's favorite Demme film. Without a hint of guns or violence, Demme and screenwriter Scott Rosenberg painted a grim but hopeful portrait of a bunch of clueless guys and the women who have to deal with their commitmentphobia and obsession with supermodels. Demme also managed to get what may still be the definitive Natalie Portman performance, and a rare funny movie appearance by Rosie O'Donnell (who played a clip from the film on her Monday show after a choked-up and respectful tribute).
Even Beautiful Girls had a morose cloud hanging over it, though. Demme had a consistent melancholy style, from the bickering dysfunction of The Ref to the rise-and-fall spiral of Blow (which Leary executive-produced). His movies had weight; he made you feel that the characters and their struggles meant something. The one aberration in the Ted Demme portfolio is 1999's Life, which tried to have serious passages but was too locked into being a vanity project for Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence. If it had been filmed with lesser stars, it might've amounted to something more; then again, it might not have been made, either. Life was probably just Demme proving he could make a big Hollywood star vehicle; it probably also greased the wheels for his making the imperfect but compelling Blow, which has turned out to be his swan song.
It wasn't supposed to be that way, of course. Demme was a busy guy; in addition to his TV work (directing episodes for Homicide: Life on the Street and the short-lived Action), Demme was also a producer (Rounders, A Lesson Before Dying, Tumbleweeds) and, in recent months, an aspiring film historian. He and writer-director Richard LaGravanese (Living Out Loud) had announced plans to make a documentary on the great filmmakers of the '70s -- the ones, like Scorsese and Coppola, who made the masterpieces that inspired Demme and so many others to enter the field. "Our goal," Demme said last year, "is to write a love letter to the artists that made the '70s the greatest decade in American filmmaking ... The thing that motivated us was to keep alive the stories of these great artists."
If Ted Demme had lived longer, maybe he himself would've gotten to make equally great films to inspire a future generation. We'll never know now.
Ted Demme films reviewed on this website:
- Monument Ave