The Best Picture Project – The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

Directed by Jonathon Demme

Screenplay by Ted Tally, based on the novel by Thomas Harris

Starring Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins

It’s somewhat funny that, as I work myself through this project, I’ve described various Best Picture winners as ‘perhaps the darkest Best Picture winner ever,’ or some sentiment along those lines.  I’ve said this about Oliver!, I’m sure I said it about The Lost Weekend, and if I didn’t say it about Platoon, I don’t know why.  The reason this is funny is that, there can truly only be one film to hold the title of ‘darkest Best Picture’, and with all due respect to those other films that I might have tried to include in the race, the reality is that The Silence of the Lambs is easily the darkest of the Best Picture winners ever, hands down.

After all, the film concerns the hunt for a serial killer who is killing his victims so that he may harvest their skin to use in constructing a flesh-suit.  That the FBI, in the hunt for this killer, is aided by a psychopathic, cannibal psychiatrist who ultimately escapes custody, sure to murder again.  Yes, the first serial killer is ultimately caught, so there is ostensibly a happy ending, but at what cost?  The release of an even more psychopathic murderer?  While other Best Picture winners may have a bit of darkness to them, I think that when a movie with a cannibal as a main character wins Best Picture, the argument is essentially over.

Because it’s so bleak and dark, The Silence of the Lambs winning Best Picture almost seems like an accident.  After all, the two films that preceded it to the honor were Driving Miss Daisy and Dances With Wolves, two films that, even though they had dark moments, were ultimately about uplift and redemption, something that you can hardly see in Silence of the Lambs.  After those two films, it is unthinkable that something like Silence of the Lambs could be invited to join the club, especially given the Academy’s penchant for ignoring these kinds of films.  To be fair, though, 1991 was clearly the year of feel-bad movies, given that all five nominees, Silence of the Lambs, Beauty and the Beast, Bugsy, JFK and The Prince of Tides, were built around major-bummer scenarios, and even the happiest of the bunch, Beauty and the Beast, was not exactly the most heart-warming of Disney tales.

Still, what might look like an anomaly, the triumph of The Silence of the Lambs has worn well the test of time and its superiority has largely been without question.  It truly is one of those rare films where the immediate opinion of critics and moviegoers nicely dovetails with the historical legacy of the film.

Unlike many other films to win Best Picture that eventually succumb to some form of criticism, The Silence of the Lambs endures, and rightfully so.  Little surprise, then, that you won’t get any criticism from me.  Better, contrary to my tendency to proclaim a given movie just five or ten minutes of edits away from being perfect, The Silence of the Lambs is one of those rare films I find nearly perfect as is.

Honestly, I could not imagine any piece of the film being cut out and if I had to change anything at all it would be some of the accents.  As a Midwesterner I have the universal American accent and therefore naturally reject most others as being stupid, West Virginia accents included.  However, this is a minor quibble that I’m not too upset to let go because the rest of the movie was fantastic.

Trivia

The Silence of the Lambs is actually the second sequel to win Best Picture, though, to be fair, it’s only marginally a sequel.  The original film, Manhunter, was based on another Harris novel, Red Dragon, and was only incidentally about Hannibal Lecter and was made by Michael Mann, much in the same way he made the Miami Vice TV series.  The failure of that film allowed a completely new team of filmmakers to pick up the ball and make a film that is also only marginally about Hannibal Lecter.   Still, adopting an expansive view, I’m inclined to see it as a sequel of sorts and therefore note that after Godfather part II, The Silence of the Lambs is only the second sequel to win Best Picture.

The Silence of the Lambs is only the third film to win the Big Five awards of Picture, Director, Actor, Actress and Screenplay.  The others were It Happened One Night and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.  One wonders what they have to talk about at the club meetings.

It’s worth noting that Frankie Faison appeared in both Manhunter and The Silence of the Lambs, though not as the same character.  He plays a police officer in one, while in the other he is a guard at the asylum.

Anthony Hopkins winning Best Actor garnered no controversy beyond the fact that it is essentially a supporting film.  In the film he appears for only only 16 minutes.  There were supporting actors that year who had more screen time.

While it’s pretty famous that Roger Corman has a small role in the – Jonathon Demme is a former protégé of Corman’s – I couldn’t help but notice George Romero run through one of the scenes in the picture, as one of the officers who hustles Clarice Starling out of holding area for Lecter, once he’s moved.  He has no lines and is barely on-screen at all, but it was a nice to see him run through.

For a list of other winners and films seen, click here.

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