Ted Demme

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The Independent Online

Edward Demme, film director: born New York 26 October 1964; married Amanda Scheer (one son, one daughter); died Santa Monica, California 13 January 2002.

Ted Demme was a lively and promising young director who, in his brief career, had not yet made a picture distinctive enough to allow him to emerge fully from the shadow of his more famous uncle, the Oscar-winning Jonathan Demme (Something Wild, The Silence of the Lambs, Philadelphia). However, he remained happily philosophical about the family connection. "No matter what I do," he said, "on any level there's always some Jonathanism that's in my blood which I'm very proud of and have no problem with."

The younger Demme's work was characterised by vitality and efficiency, an unusual combination which proved especially advantageous when he took on a formulaic star vehicle such as the comedy Life (1999), in which he marshalled two rambunctious stars (Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence) while still introducing into the movie some unexpectedly poignant or downbeat notes.

But such big-budget productions were not immediately to his taste, and he disliked the ostentatious climate of modern Hollywood, observing, "Film-makers and studios should start to tuck it in a little bit, because films wouldn't have the pressure they have if the word wasn't out about how expensive they were." Like his uncle, Demme reserved his real affection for those edgy, colourful productions that took him, and the audience, far from the beaten track.

He was born in New York City in 1964. His career took in producing, acting and work as a freelance production assistant, before a stint at MTV, where in 1988, aged 23, he created and produced the series Yo! MTV Raps. It was commonly felt that the supposedly cutting-edge channel had been tardy in its response to the rise of rap and hip-hop, but Demme's concept, which combined videos, live performance, interviews and comedy sketches, offered substantial compensation. At the peak of its popularity, the series was being aired six nights a week, and even after the departure of Demme and his celebrity presenters it lasted until 1995.

Demme's 1993 feature film début, the light-hearted whodunit Who's the Man?, capitalised on his MTV success, drawing on the show's stars and milieu, but his 1994 follow-up, The Ref (released in Britain as Hostile Hostages), was a more encouraging work, and remains Demme's most original and abrasive film. This story of a burglar (played by Denis Leary, whose stand-up show No Cure for Cancer Demme had filmed in 1992) who breaks into the home of a feuding married couple (Kevin Spacey and Judy Davis) highlighted Demme's nimble comic timing, and his ease with actors.

The picture attracted rave reviews, and remained dear to Demme. "I always thought it would be a great anti-Christmas movie," he observed. "My fantasy is that in 10 years, when they're still watching It's a Wonderful fucking Life, people will go, 'Let's watch that really nasty Christmas movie, The Ref.' " But he had found it difficult working for Disney – "They treated me like a rookie," he complained – and was glad to make his next film, Beautiful Girls (1996), for Miramax, the Disney subsidiary devoted to more offbeat projects.

Beautiful Girls, about a man returning to the small-town where he was raised, was more melancholy and contemplative, and featured wonderful ensemble acting from an impressive cast (Uma Thurman, Matt Dillon, Timothy Hutton, Natalie Portman). Like The Ref, it failed to find much favour at the box- office, but established Demme as a film-maker to watch.

For a while, Demme seemed to be biding his time, making a second stand-up film, Denis Leary: lock'n'load (1997), as well as directing Leary in the crime drama Snitch (a.k.a. Monument Ave) (1998), and co-producing both the Emmy award-winning civil-rights television movie A Lesson Before Dying and the Oscar-nominated Tumbleweeds (both 1999).

For anyone who had watched Demme's progress with interest, his appointment as director of Life was disheartening, and though he invested the picture with warmth, he was clearly more at home with his next film, Blow (2001), a multi- generational portrait of the notorious drug dealer George Jung, starring Johnny Depp and Penelope Cruz. Although the movie proved commercially successful, it was rightly identified by many as being derivative, having purloined most of its cinematic vocabulary from films such as GoodFellas and Boogie Nights. Nevertheless, it had sparkle and good intentions, and now seems to offer an accurate indication of where Demme's career was at shortly before his death: bubbling with a potential that was still a film or two away from being properly realised.

Whether or not his planned next feature, the thriller Nautica, would have marked the point at which he got into his stride is unknown. But you always felt that, like his uncle, who only approached excellence with his fourth film (Citizen's Band in 1977), Ted Demme would eventually make the movie that would show his previous work to have been mere preparation.

Ryan Gilbey