Oscar Directors: Hitchcock–We Love Thrillers but We Don’t Honor Them with Oscars

Judging by the scarcity of Oscar nominations and awards, suspense films, like action?adventures, are more appreciated by filmgoers than the Academy voters.  For some reason, well?made, artistic thrillers are perceived in the industry and within the Academy as a disreputable product of sheer craftsmanship rather than genuine film art.
 
In the Academy’s entire history, only three thrillers, Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940), Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs (1991), and last year’s Joel and Ethan Coen’s No Country for Old Men have won the Best Picture Oscar. 
 
Based on Daphne du Maurier’s popular novel, Rebecca was Hitchcock’s first American movie, in which he cast Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine in the starring roles.   The film is distinguished by an exquisite cinematography (George Barnes won an Oscar), and great ensemble acting, headed by Judith Anderson, as the malevolent housekeeper, in one of her most memorable portrayals.
 
In 1940, Rebecca competed against another Hitchcock film, Foreign Correspondent, which deals with espionage in Europe. The film was interpreted by some as an endorsement of the American involvement in the war, because its producer, Walter Wanger, was known for his antifascist views. Both Rebecca and Foreign Correspondent were popular with the public; Rebecca grossed in rentals the then phenomenal 1.5 million dollars.
 
Demme began his career directing exploitation films for Roger Corman, but, aware of the genre’s dishonor, he gave The Silence of the Lambs the treatment of an A-Grade art film. Based on Thomas Harris’s best?seller, the suspenseful and gruesome thriller centers on the battle of nerves between an FBI trainee named Clarice (Jodie Foster) and a diabolical psychiatrist turned cannibal, who becomes Clarice’s sparring partner, in her efforts to hunt down a serial killer. The acting of the two stars is superb. Anthony Hopkins almost made a likable hero of out of Hannibal Lecter’s sadistic, unruly demon. As Clarice, Foster embodies the gentleness of an initially naive county girl who becomes susceptible to Hannibal’s advances. 
 
For some viewers, the movie was too creepy and disconcerting in its hints of romantic attraction between Hannibal and Clarice. Conservative moviegoers were outraged by the picture. First Lady Barbara Bush stormed out of the theater, protesting, “I didn’t come to a movie to see people’s skin being taken off.” Then gay activists threatened to disrupt the Oscar show as a protest against Hollywood’s representations of homosexuals in The Silence of the Lambs, as well as in Oliver Stone’s JFK (also Best Picture nominee that year) and the Sharon Stone psycho-thriller, Basic Instinct, which was released during the 1992 nomination period.
 
The first of 1991’s five nominees to be distributed theatrically, The Silence of the Lambs opened at an unusual time, in February. By Oscar time, the picture has grossed 130.7 million dollars, which made it the last successful release by the then?recently bankrupt Orion Pictures, the company responsible for Dances With Wolves, the Oscar?winner of the previous year. This bizarre financial situation was not lost on director Demme, who remarked, “I know everyone feels the incredible irony of what’s happened to Orion.”
 
The Silence of the Lambs swept all five major Oscars: Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, and Adapted Screenplay. Only two other films in the Academy’s history have been recognized in all top five categories: It Happened One Night in 1934, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in 1975.
 
With the exception of Demme and the Coen brothers, no filmmaker has ever won a directorial Oscar for a thriller, including Hitchcock, the genre’s acknowledged master. 
 
Hitchcock was nominated five times: for Rebecca, Lifeboat (1944), Spellbound (1945), Rear Window (1954), and Psycho (1960), one of his last undisputed successes. Four Hitchcock films were nominated for Best Picture, the aforementioned Rebecca and Foreign Correspondent, Suspicion, and Spellbound. Failing to give Hitchcock a legitimate Oscar, the Academy compensated Hitchcock with a 1968 Honorary Oscar. 
No wonder, the master was cynical in his views of the Oscar, telling a reporter he wasn’t disappointed, because, “Why do I want another doorstop?”