Oscar Movies: Silence of Lambs, The (1991)

Director Jonathan Demme began his career directing exploitation films for Roger Corman, then proceeded with a series of uniquely American quirky comedies, such as “Handle With Care” and Melvin and Howard.” Though a genre film (horror-thriller), Demme decided to give The Silence of the Lambs the treatment of an art film in order to elevate its status.

Based on Thomas Harris's popular novel, the suspenseful, gruesome psychological thriller centers on the battle of nerves of an FBI trainee's (Jodie Foster) with a diabolical psychiatrist-turned-cannibal in trying to hunt down a serial killer.

The acting of the two stars is superb. Anthony Hapkins almost makes a hero of out of Hannibal Lecter's sadistic, unrully demon, who becomes Clarice's sparring partner. As Clarice, Foster's initial gentle naivet is wining, gradually transforming from a country girl with a hidden past into a mature, alert woman. Demme intended the movie to be creepy and disconcerting in its sly hints of romantic attraction between Hannibal Lecter and Clarice.

At Oscar time, “Silence of the Lambs” swept all the major awards: Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, and Adapted Screenplay. In only three times in the entire Academy's history, a single film has been recognized in all top categories: “It Happened One Night” in 1934, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest” in 1975, and “Silence of the Lambs.”

Reel/Real Impact

There were articles in the popular Press about men having to see psychologists after viewing the film. First Lady Barbara Bush walked out on the film protesting, “I didn't come to a movie to see people's skin being taken off.”

Released in February, “Silence of the Lambs” was the first of the five nominees to open theatrically. By Oscar time, the picture has grossed $130.7 million, which made it the last successful movie released by the then bankrupt Orion Pictures, the company responsible for the Oscar-winner of the previous year, Kevin Costner's Dances With Wolves. The bizarre situation was not lost on Demme, who said in his accepting remarks, “I know everyone feels the incredible irony of what's happened to Orion.”

Gay activists threatened to disrupt the Oscar show as protest against the treatment of homosexuals by Hollywood in this movie, as well as in Oliver Stone's JFK (also nominated that year for Best Picture) and the Sharon Stone vehicle, Basic Instinct, which was released in February 1992, during the Oscar campaign.

Oscar Nominations: 7

Orion

Picture, produced by Edward Saxon, Kenneth Utt, and Ron Rozman
Director: Jonathan Demme
Screenplay (Adapted): Ted Tally
Actor: Anthony Hopkins
Actress: Jodie Foster
Film Editing: Craig McKay
Sound: Tom Fleischman and Christopher Newman

Oscar Awards:

Picture
Director
Screenplay
Actor
Actress

Oscar Context:

In 1991, “Silence of the Lambs” competed for the Best Picture Oscar with Disney animated feature “Beauty and the Beast”; Warren Beatty' star vehicle, the crime-gangster bio “Bugsy”; Oliver Stone's paranoid bio-thriller “JFK”; and Barbra Streisand's therapeutic romantic melodrama “”The Prince of Tides.”

The Sound Oscar went to “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” and the editing to “JFK,” to Joe Hutshing and Pietro Scala.