There are plenty of modern-day directors who are cool, as Jonathan Demme was, and some who perhaps have as much heart. But no one else has shown such perfectly balanced proportions of both.
In obvious ways and in subtle ones, Demme, who died on April 26 at age 73, approached every project with an unapologetically liberal bent and, even more important, with supreme compassion for the off-kilter beauty of everyday Americans. You can see that in movies like 1993’s Philadelphia, one of the first Hollywood films to deal openly with AIDS and homophobia, and 1977’s Handle With Care, about a group of people in small-town Nebraska whose lives intertwine in a kind of rambunctious mess. Demme created characters who take chances, who define themselves two and three times over–like Lulu (Melanie Griffith) in 1986’s Something Wild, a hot ticket in a flapper’s bob who kidnaps straitlaced banker Jeff Daniels, whisking him off on a crime spree. His career was a kind of coffee shop where everyone could come together and find something to talk about, or laugh about.
Sure, we have only one life to live. But even though we’re fond of telling ourselves that life is short, in reality–if we’re lucky enough to live a normal life span–it’s actually quite long, or at least capacious. Demme’s films, at their best, assured us that there was always room for more–more wildness, more heartbreak, more work, more joy, more love. He was unfailingly generous with us, his audience, and he sought to bring us closer rather than divide us. Maybe that’s why it hurts so much to lose him.
This appears in the May 15, 2017 issue of TIME.