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Amanda Demme is glad to no longer be the life of the party

She once packed celebrities into raucous parties at the Roosevelt Hotel but now enjoys a quieter identity as a photographer. Her works will be at Obsolete in Venice.

May 04, 2013|By Gina Piccalo
  • Amanda Demme in her studio in Atwater Village.
Amanda Demme in her studio in Atwater Village. (Anne Cusack, Los Angeles…)

This story has been updated. See note below.

Amanda Demme isn't who she used to be. And that's probably a good thing. Just ask her.

She'll tell you she's been in hiding for six years, casting off the pretensions that came with life as a famous (and infamous) Hollywood impresario.

"It was a great time," Demme said last week of that raucous era at the Roosevelt Hotel, when A-listers clamored to get into her parties. "But it was a time. Lost my mind."

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Amanda Demme: In the May 4 Calendar section, an article about photographer Amanda Demme said that Demme's work is being shown at the Venice gallery Oblivion. The gallery's name is Obsolete.

Now 47, Demme lives a quieter existence as a fine art portrait photographer. Her days revolve around her utilitarian Atwater Village studio, a cavernous space filled with antique ephemera. Everyday objects from the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries inspire her to create images so hyper-real, they're often mistaken for oil paintings from some indeterminate past.

"It's the most vulnerable place you can be," Demme said of her life as a visual artist. She was traipsing around her studio as she spoke, draped in a vintage men's jacket, her curly mane covered by a wide-brimmed felt hat she made herself, pausing periodically to dissect one of her images. "I've invested my entire world in this work."

On Saturday, Demme debuts at the Venice gallery Obsolete, showing oversized portraits from her "Work" series. The only sign of her glamorous past are the few celebrity friends who served as subjects, actors Casey Affleck, Ione Skye, Jeanne Tripplehorn and Patricia Arquette among them. She says she doesn't even know who's invited to her private opening. "I don't have anybody's numbers anymore," she said.

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Still, Demme's private opening on Wednesday night was so packed it was tough to see the art. It was a mature, but stylish crowd and not lacking in celebrity. Joaquin Phoenix, Maria Bello, Vince Vaughn and Gina Gershon milled around while lesser knowns ate spaghetti off small plates and marveled at the work's realism.

On a cloudy afternoon last week, Demme was scrambling to prepare for the show. One of her long antique worktables was strewn with prints and she studied every one, as if seeing it for the first time. A dozen or more portraits were stacked against a far wall, each image depicting various shades of resignation and even naked despair.

In one, a Fatty Arbuckle type in an old-fashioned pilot's helmet gazes at the darkness below as if preparing to leap. In a black-and-white photo next to it, Spike Jonze crouches in a makeshift phone booth with a fedora over his face, a la Buster Keaton. In another, Skye wears a vintage housekeeper uniform and vacuums with one hand at her brow. When asked if there's a particular era she's trying to telegraph, Demme shook her head.

"It's more about an emotional state," she said. "Each one of the characters is an extension of me. Abandonment. Loneliness. Isolation. Some things I feel every day."

Demme doesn't elaborate because she doesn't really have to; the details of her tragedy have been public for years. Her filmmaker husband, Ted Demme, died in 2002 of a heart attack at age 38 after playing a charity basketball game, leaving Demme to raise her 6-week-old son and a 4-year-old daughter. She was forced to grieve publicly while groping for a new identity, because, as she told The Times in 2004, "I sunk my entire persona into the backbone of that man."

Demme continued her rise as a music supervisor, with films such as "Garden State" and "Mean Girls." Then she branched out to event production and in 2005 was hired by Thompson Hotels to give the nightclubs in the newly renovated Roosevelt some celebrity cred.

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It worked — too well. In a matter of weeks, celebrities packed the poolside Tropicana Bar, and anybody else who made it past Demme's velvet rope could consider it a career achievement in itself. In one three-week period, Courtney Love left in an ambulance and Demme herself ended up in police custody for a noise violation.

Then, former Denver Broncos star Terrell Davis sued the hotel for alleged discrimination over a tussle at the Tropicana. (That part of the suit was later dismissed.) Complaints of underage drinking and noise became routine. Hotel management eventually got fed up with the drama and three days after Demme got Prince to play a show in the lobby, surprised her with an email, terminating her contract.

"It ended in a real fury," she says now, "for no fault but my own."

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