The Best Picture Winners: The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

| January 13, 2018

Oscar’s 90th birthday is just 48 days away and to celebrate, every other day from now through March 4th, I will be taking a look at each and every film selected for his top award – the good, the bad and the sometimes not-so deserving.

It was frustrating to be a critic during the 1992 Oscar season because – in a very rare circumstance – there was no way to easily deduce which of the five nominees for Best Picture would be the winner.  It had been a good year for movies but not a great year for prestige pictures and that left the voting academy to select among five films that they didn’t really like.   All five films had something running against them: Bugsy  as a vanity project; Beauty and the Beast was a cartoon; JFK was too controversial: The Prince of Tides was directed by a woman; and The Silence of the Lambs was already 11 months old.

In a move that I suspect had more to do with Anthony Hopkins’ universally celebrated performance as Hannibal Lector, The Silence of the Lambs not only won Best Picture but became only the third film in history to win Oscars for Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress and Screenplay.  It was a popular choice – it was the 5th highest grossing movie of the year, and thanks to Hopkins possibly the most quotable.

I can see what the fuss was about.  Unlike the vast galaxy of serial killer movies that had preceded it, The Silence of the Lambs seemed able to capture a certain element that others did not.  Director Jonathan Demme (working closely within the realm of Thomas Harris’ book) turned what could have been just a police procedural about the hunt for a serial killer into a journey into the caverns of madness.  There is an overriding sense of blood, sweat and decay here and its palatable.  You can feel it.  The Feds are tracking a psychopathic serial killer who is targeting overweight women for purposes suited to the family The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

That’s the outward story.  The inward story – a silly regeneration of the adage that ‘it takes one to know one’ – follows a newly minted FBI agent Clarice Starling (Best Actress winner Jodie Foster) who is assigned to help track this serial killer with information from his former psychiatrist – also a serial killer.  The story is the journey she must take into the mind of madness and even into combat with her own personal demons to help the women who are being hunted and killed.  Demme’s direction gives the film a Grimm’s fairy tale element, beginning with an brilliant opening shot of our heroine climbing a hill out of a forest that might be right out of Red Riding Hood – she climbs the hill, and for the rest of the movie never really stops climbing.

And yet, as wonderful as Jodie Foster is, our mental imagery of this film rests with Anthony Hopkins.  With an unnerving stare the voice of a snake charmer, Hopkins created a villain for the ages, twisting what could have been just a screaming, drooling psychopath and gave him charm, an animal like existence and an original personality. The character is given a murderous past that includes cannibalism but is also supplied with one of the most intimate and dangerous jobs that one have: He’s a psychologist.

Most characters get more interesting as we learn more about them. Lecter is actually more interesting the less we know about him (which is why I think the prequel Hannibal Rising was a mistake). Lecter feeds off inward psychological pain because his glass prison prevents physical harm. We know that he is dangerous even from that cell when we’re given the information that he talked the man in the next cell into swallowing his own tongue. He strikes up a deal with Starling: She can have a piece of information about the killer (known as “Buffalo Bill”) in exchange for pieces of information about her sad childhood.

That may be the most appealing aspect of Hannibal Lecter, here is a man so evil and so sly and so clever that he can perform his evil deeds while confined to an impenetrable cell. He’s so charming that we’re drawn in to his personality and so when, in the third act, he escapes, we’re with him. In Lecter, Hopkins created one of the greatest villains in motion picture history, not by wielding a knife but by a sharp intellect that we find, well, appetizing.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.