The Silence of the Lambs won the Oscar for Best Picture of 1991, and four others: Best Director (Jonathan Demme), Best Actor (Anthony Hopkins), Best Actress (Jodie Foster) and Best Adapted Screenplay (Ted Tally). It lost Best Film Editing and Best Sound, the latter to Hugo winner Terminator 2: Judgement Day. So far it is the third and last film to win Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, Best Picture, and Best Screenplay, after It Happened One Night (1934) and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
That year’s other Best Picture nominees were Beauty and the Beast, Bugsy, JFK and The Prince of Tides. I have not seen any of them, and had not seen the winner before either, the first year since 1970 for which that is the case. I have seen thirteen other films made that year, listed here roughly in IMDB order: Terminator 2: Judgement Day, Cape Fear, Thelma & Louise, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey, The Fisher King (actually only got part way through this one), The Naked Gun 2½: The Smell of Fear, The Commitments, Highlander II: The Quickening (there should have been only one!), Soapdish, Operation Condor (a Jackie Chan film which I watched because the female co-lead, Eva Cobo, is my twin), Enchanted April and Prospero’s Books. I liked all of these except The Fisher King and Highlander II, but I think The Silence of the Lambs is a worthy Oscar winner in that company.
Unusually, IMDB users rate the film top on both systems. (The last film to top both lists was Alien, from 1979; the other Oscar-winners to top both lists were One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in 1975, Casablanca back in 1943 and All Quiet on the Western Front way way back in 1929/30.)
Here’s a trailer.
None of the cast had been in Hugo-winning films or in Doctor Who. There is a surprise crossover with a previous Oscar-winner: Roger Corman, much much better known as a director and producer. Here he plays the Director of the FBI; seventeen years ago, in The Godfather, Part II, he was one of the senators ineffectively quizzing the Corleones. He turned 95 last Monday. (Trivia: the office where he is filmed as FBI Director was at the time the real-life office of Elizabeth Dole, the U.S. Secretary of Labor.)
This is a film about the relationship between novice FBI Agent Clarice Starling, played by Jodie Foster, and imprisoned serial killer Hannibal Lecter, played by Anthony Hopkins. The actual plot is barely relevant, but it concerns Starling’s pursuit, advised by Lecter, of another serial killer, and Lecter’s concurrent escape from custody. We had four Oscar-winners in a row in the 1970s which were about crime and law enforcement (The French Connection, The Godfather, The Sting and The Godfather, Part II), but this is the first one since then.
I really liked it. Thrillers are not my genre in general. I find screen violence very icky. There are some other problems which I will get to below. But its’s well-made, well-paced and looks and sounds utterly convincing. I’m putting it in tenth place in my overall league table of Oscar winners, ahead of Rain Man (which has a less convincing plot) and behind One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (which is a little less icky).
Having said that, there are problems. Trans (and indeed queer) people can justifiably feel aggrieved that the killer who Starling is chasing is depicted as a man trying to become a woman. The script mumbles that real trans people are not like that at all, but I fear that point will be lost on most viewers. (The book is a lot clearer on this.) However, as I said before, the actual hunt for the serial killer is background to the central business of Starling and Lecter.
All the main characters are white, but there are a sprinkling of black actors, most notably Kasi Simmons as Starling’s best friend Ardelia Mapp. Simmons has gone on to a very successful career as a director.
I thought Howard Shore’s music was pretty good. We will be hearing from him again when I get to The Lord of the Rings.
The supporting actors are all good – I’ve called out Kasi Lemmons above, but also worth noting Scott Glenn as Clarice’s boss Jack Crawford, Anthony Heald as Lecter’s banal guardian Chilton, and Brooke Smith as potential victim Catherine Martin.
But the film is utterly made by the dynamic between Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins in the four (only four!) scenes that they have together. Hopkins is a convincing monster, always several steps ahead of the game, compellingly horrible. (More trivia: with twenty-four minutes and fifty-two seconds of screen time, Hopkins’ performance in this movie is the second shortest to ever win an Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role, with David Niven in Separate Tables (1958) beating him, at twenty-three minutes and thirty-nine seconds.)
And Jodie Foster is impossible to take your eyes off as Starling. A neat directorial trick: when characters are talking to her, they often talk directly to the camera, but when she is talking to them, she is always looking slightly off-camera, meaning that we directly experience her point-of-view, but not theirs, hence encouraging us to more readily identify with her. She carries the weight of the narrative; we learn lots about her and perhaps also reflect about how we would react when put into a similarly stressful situation. She is completely fascinating.
The film’s key moments are the four conversations between the two, which are just masterpieces of acting and cinematography. This is the last of them.
I had not seen this film before, but it’s been one of the better discoveries of this project.
As usual, I read the book as well. The second paragraph of the third chapter is:
Dr. Hannibal Lecter himself reclined on his bunk, perusing the Italian edition of Vogue. He held the loose pages in his right hand and put them beside him one by one with his left. Dr. Lecter has six fingers on his left hand.
It’s impossible to read the book now without seeing Foster and Hopkins in your mind’s eye, but this is not necessarily a bad thing of course. A couple of plot points which are really important did not make it to the screen – the illness and death of Crawford’s wife, much of Starling’s back story, Lecter’s pun on the colouring agent for feces, and the explanation of the serial killer’s psychology and strategy. Starling is if anything an even more three-dimensional character on the page. It’s just as well paced, and if anything it’s even better than the film. You can get it here.
Next up is that year’s Hugo winner, Terminator 2: Judgement Day.
1920s: Wings (1927-28) | The Broadway Melody (1928-29)
1930s: All Quiet on the Western Front (1929-30) | Cimarron (1930-31) | Grand Hotel (1931-32) | Cavalcade (1932-33) | It Happened One Night (1934) | Mutiny on the Bounty (1935, and books) | The Great Ziegfeld (1936) | The Life of Emile Zola (1937) | You Can’t Take It with You (1938) | Gone with the Wind (1939, and book)
1940s: Rebecca (1940) | How Green Was My Valley (1941) | Mrs. Miniver (1942) | Casablanca (1943) | Going My Way (1944) | The Lost Weekend (1945) | The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) | Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) | Hamlet (1948) | All the King’s Men (1949)
1950s: All About Eve (1950) | An American in Paris (1951) | The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) | From Here to Eternity (1953) | On The Waterfront (1954, and book) | Marty (1955) | Around the World in 80 Days (1956) | The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) | Gigi (1958) | Ben-Hur (1959)
1960s: The Apartment (1960) | West Side Story (1961) | Lawrence of Arabia (1962) | Tom Jones (1963) | My Fair Lady (1964) | The Sound of Music (1965) | A Man for All Seasons (1966) | In the Heat of the Night (1967) | Oliver! (1968) | Midnight Cowboy (1969)
1970s: Patton (1970) | The French Connection (1971) | The Godfather (1972) | The Sting (1973) | The Godfather, Part II (1974) | One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) | Rocky (1976) | Annie Hall (1977) | The Deer Hunter (1978) | Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
1980s: Ordinary People (1980) | Chariots of Fire (1981) | Gandhi (1982) | Terms of Endearment (1983) | Amadeus (1984) | Out of Africa (1985) | Platoon (1986) | The Last Emperor (1987) | Rain Man (1988) | Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
1990s: Dances With Wolves (1990) | The Silence of the Lambs (1991) | Unforgiven (1992) | Schindler’s List (1993) | Forrest Gump (1994) | Braveheart (1995) | The English Patient (1996) | Titanic (1997) | Shakespeare in Love (1998) | American Beauty (1999)
21st century: Gladiator (2000) | A Beautiful Mind (2001) | Chicago (2002) | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) | Million Dollar Baby (2004, and book) | Crash (2005) | The Departed (2006) | No Country for Old Men (2007) | Slumdog Millionaire (2008) | The Hurt Locker (2009)
2010s: The King’s Speech (2010) | The Artist (2011) | Argo (2012) | 12 Years a Slave (2013) | Birdman (2014) | Spotlight (2015) | Moonlight (2016) | The Shape of Water (2017) | Green Book (2018) | Parasite (2019)
2020s: Nomadland (2020) | CODA (2021)