THE BEST PICTURE PROJECT – ‘Silence of the Lambs’ (1991)

In 1992, the 64th Academy Awards ceremony was held at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles. Honouring the films released between January 1, 1991, and December 31, 1991, the awards were held on March 30. For the third consecutive year, the ceremony was hosted by Billy Crystal.

With his nomination for Best Director for his film Boyz in the Hood, John Singleton became the first African-American to be nominated in this category. At only 24 years-old, Singleton also became the youngest person to be nominated for Best Director – a record he still holds to this day. Nominated for Best Supporting Actress and Best Actress respectively for the film Rambling Rose, Diane Ladd and Laura Dern became the first mother and daughter nominated in the same year.

Disney’s Beauty and the Beast became the first animated film in Oscar history to receive a nomination for Best Picture. The film received six nominations in total, and walked away with Academy Awards for Best Score and Best Original Song for the film’s title track. The song’s lyricist Howard Ashman had passed away a year prior from AIDS-related complications. His win made Ashman the 12th posthumous winner in Oscar history.

Leading the way this year with 10 nominations was Barry Levinson’s gangster biopic Bugsy, followed by Oliver Stone’s controversial drama JFK with eight. But the night belonged to Jonathan Demme’s psychological horror Silence of the Lambs, which became only the third (and, so far, final) film in Oscar history to win the “Big Five” Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director for Demme, Best Actor for Anthony Hopkins, Best Actress for Jodie Foster, and Best Adapted Screenplay.

The nominees:
Beauty and the Beast
The Prince of Tides
Silence of the Lambs

The winner:
Silence of the Lambs

Based on Thomas Harris’ 1988 novel of the same name, Silence of the Lambs is the gripping and twisted psychological tale of the hunt for a serial killer. Young FBI agent Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) is assigned to help find a missing woman to save her from a psychopathic serial killer who skins his victims. Clarice attempts to gain a better insight into the twisted mind of the killer by seeking the help of another psychopath – Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), a brilliant and renowned psychiatrist turned infamous psychopathic serial killer. FBI agent Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn) believes that Lecter, who is also a very powerful and clever mind manipulator, has the answers to their questions and can help locate the killer. However, Clarice must first gain Lecter’s confidence before the inmate will give away any information.

Why did it win?
After years of typical, banal, Oscar-bait films winning Best Picture, the Academy finally broke tradition with a film that shattered all preconceived notions of what constituted a Best Picture winner. Silence of the Lambs did not have history in its favour. No horror film had ever managed to win Best Picture. The Academy had nominated films of this genre, but none had ever succeeded in winning. Nor had any film released in February, a full 13 months before the Oscar ceremony. Best Picture winners had to be seen towards the tail-end of the season to truly be a contender. In fact, only four films released before May had ever even received Best Picture nominations, but none of them had succeeded in winning.

So, how did such an anti-Oscar movie not only take home Best Picture, but become only the third film in history to capture the Big Five categories as well? Chalk it up to a case of exhaustion. After almost a decade of awarding sweeping biopics and epic sagas, the Academy were clearly in the mood for something decidedly different. Silence of the Lambs afforded them that opportunity like never before. The film represented the chance to award a genre the Oscars had long ignored. It also stood as a game-changer, in terms of when an Oscar contender needs to be released during the year. In 64 years of Academy Awards history, no film had broken the rules quite like Silence of the Lambs.

But being different isn’t enough to win Best Picture. There’s obviously far more to it than just that. Silence of the Lambs was an iconic piece of cinema which grabbed the cultural zeitgeist like nothing else in 1991. Both a commercial and critical smash, the film became a pop-culture phenomenon, cemented by the legendary performances of its two leads and a screenplay full of quote-worthy dialogue. The response to the film was astounding, which made it a proposition too hard for the Academy to ignore.

On a modest budget of $19 million, Silence of the Lambs was a box-office smash hit. The film earned over $130 million at the U.S. box-office to end the year as the fourth highest-grossing film of 1991, beaten only by big-budget rivals Terminator 2: Judgement Day, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, and Beauty and the Beast. The film also earned a further $142 million internationally to bring its worldwide total to over $273 million, making it the fifth highest-grossing film of 1991 worldwide.

Adding to the film’s stellar box-office success, Silence of the Lambs received an overwhelmingly positive response from critics, with many calling it the best thriller of its time. Entertainment Weekly called the film “a supremely sensuous and hypnotic thriller,” Newsweek hailed the film the “grandest guignol Hollywood has produced in years,” and the New Yorker declared it “artful pulp — tabloid material treated with intelligence and care and a weird kind of sensitivity.”

Silence of the Lambs swept through precursor season, with only one bump along the way. The National Board of Review and the New York Film Critics both declared it their Best Picture winner. But the Golden Globes all but snubbed the film, choosing Bugsy as their winner for Best Motion Picture – Drama and JFK for Best Director. When Bugsy became the frontrunner with the most Oscar nominations, the race began to heat up. But, much like last year, the guilds would all but end the race, after the Producers, Directors, and Writers guild awards all went the way of Silence of the Lambs. The film had overcome enormous obstacles to rise as the frontrunner for the Academy Awards, and heading into the ceremony, it was an unstoppable force the Academy could not ignore.

Did it deserve to win?
After a couple of baffling decisions, we’re finally back on track with a truly deserving winner. No one can argue against Silence of the Lambs winning Best Picture. Don’t even try. There was simply no other film worthy in 1991. No, not even Beauty and the Beast. Silence of the Lambs still stands as one of the most perfectly crafted films of all time. A taut, gripping, suspenseful thriller of the highest order, elevated even higher by its impeccable cast, its smart and captivating screenplay, and its sublime direction.

In Jonathan Demme’s capable hands, he keeps his tale relatively simple and devoid of the excess and jump-scares so often associated with the horror/thriller genre. Instead, we’re gifted with a tight and suspenseful cat-and-mouse game between two highly intelligent and talented individuals, as their twisted relationship fluctuates wildly between master and student. You’re never quite sure who is playing who, and it makes for genuinely captivating cinema.

Cemented by the iconic and sublime performances of Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins, the film stands as one of the best co-lead productions of its era. Foster, with her quiet and stoic performance, gifts Clarice with such strength and determination, even though she’s entirely out of her depths, and never truly in control of her world. Foster’s performance is so layered with a character who is desperate to prove herself in a man’s world, yet still tragically tormented by her past, leading her right into Lecter’s grips. And what is there to be said of Hopkins’ performance that hasn’t already been said. It’s one of the most iconic performances ever committed to film. Chilling yet eloquent, startling yet inviting, horrifying yet alluring. There’s something so bizarrely dazzling about Hannibal Lecter, and Hopkins’ work is genuinely masterful. Hopkins and Foster have the most electric chemistry, and their scenes together are downright stunning.

The film is elevated even further by Tak Fujimoto’s glorious cinematography and Craig McKay’s editing, with the film’s visual style creating such a brilliant sense of foreboding and dread. The film never lags, and the tension never falters. The film keeps you guessing right to its shocking and unsettling conclusion. And that night-vision sequence in Buffalo Bill’s basement still has the power to take your damn breath away. It’s a remarkable piece of cinema that is every bit as gripping now as it was in 1991. It’s hard to summon the words to properly encapsulate what a masterpiece Silence of the Lambs truly is. But, given its icon of cinema status, you likely know that for yourselves.

The 1990s will come to represent a frustrating time for Best Picture winners, with many upcoming winners fairly unworthy of the Academy’s top prize. However, they started the decade in true style with one of the most deserving winners there has ever been. Silence of the Lambs re-wrote the rulebook on what makes a Best Picture winner, and its victory still stands as one of the most groundbreaking in Academy history. It paved the way for films outside the typical Oscar mould to break through, and it’s a road Get Out may well follow this year to Oscar glory. There has never been a Best Picture winner quite like Silence of the Lambs, and perhaps there never will be again. A true moment in history and a truly deserving winner of Best Picture.