Why Its Win At The Oscars Couldn’t Have Happened Before — Or Since
As someone who has studied the Academy Awards even longer than he has studied television, I’m fairly certain that Silence of the Lambs probably couldn’t have won Best Picture in any other year.
Let’s start with something I feel will not be debated: 1991 was a very dark year for motion pictures. Some people say films in the 1970s were even darker, and there has been debate that the nominated films in 2020 would make you want to cut your throat. Some of the contenders this year actually could have done that, and I’m not only talking about Hannibal Lecter and Buffalo Bill.
During the summer, some of the major hits were The Fisher King Terry Gilliam’s most successful film that begins with a massacre being cause by the influence of a shock jock (Jeff Bridges) and features that the jock ‘redeeming’ himself by helping a lunatic (Robin Williams) search for the Holy Grail. There was Fried Green Tomatoes, the movie whose charming narration by Jessica Tandy covered up a story that involved a lesbian love affair, spousal abuse leading to the death of husband and his body being served as barbecue to the law enforcement. I don’t think I have to remind anybody about the impact of Thelma & Louise. And these, by the way, were considered comedies that year. (There was, of course, a major exception to this rule which I will get to in a moment.)
By the end of the year the major contenders for Oscars, along with Silence of the Lambs and Thelma and Louise were:
Bugsy: Barry Levenson’s biopic which the story of how Bugsy Siegel (Warren Beatty) basically helped invent Las Vegas and how it ended up leading to the mob killing him. Best known today for the beginning of Beatty and Annette Bening’s affair and eventual marriage, it is actually a well shot, directed and superbly acted film.
The Prince of Tides: Barbara Streisand’s adaptation of Pat Conroy’s best-selling novel, it tells the story of how Tom Wingo (Nick Nolte) helps explain to a psychiatrist (Streisand) the history of his troubled family which has led to his sister’s suicide attempt. A dark film which deals fundamentally with a father who regularly beats his family, the films centers on a trauma when three criminal invade a house and rape the mother, the daughter…and Tom.
JFK: So much has been said about Oliver Stone’s historical film (I’ve said a lot in a couple of pieces) that its simpler to say that this may arguably be the single most controversial film the Academy would ever consider for Best Picture.
The critics’ awards did little to clarify the front runner and the Golden Globes, which were slowly beginning to take on the role of serving as a precursor for how the Oscars might actually go, did absolutely nothing to clarify things. Indeed, their approach in 1991 was much like that of Alice in Wonderland; that nobody should lose, that all should have a prize. Bugsy took Best Drama, Oliver Stone took Best Director, Nick Nolte won Best Actor, Jodie Foster took Best Actress and Best Screenplay went to Callie Khouri for Thelma & Louise. The big winner was on the Best Musical or Comedy prize — and it was a huge shock: Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. The studio’s first nomination of any kind of Best Picture, it not only took Best Musical or Comedy, but also Best Score and Best Song. But even then I don’t think anybody seriously thought it had a chance of beating out Thelma and Louise or The Fisher King for a Best Picture spot because it was a Disney cartoon, and even worse it was rated G.
There were a lot of surprises when the Oscar nominations were announced in February, both when it came to who was nominated and who wasn’t. People were upset because Streisand, for her second major prestige film, was not nominated for Best Director. People were stunned when Beauty and the Beast defied the odds and became the first animated feature to get a Best Picture nomination. And perhaps because of these twin shocks, no one was able to work out amazement that The Silence of the Lambs — which had been released the previous February — was contending for every major award.
Ever since people have been saying that Best Pictures can be released in February. But the fact is, it didn’t happen that often in the modern era — it was an oddity when a movie released as far back as the summer got a Best Picture nod — and it really shouldn’t have happened that year. It is my belief that the studio wanted to release the film to contend for Oscars in the winter of 1990, but the field was so crowded (and so likely to go to Dances with Wolves) that they chose to release in February. That the critics had such a long memory says more to their mindset — even then, the majority of serious movies began to fill theatres in September.
And even then there was a factor that I’m not sure anyone considered — Anthony Hopkins listed as Best Actor. As I mentioned in my previous article the role of Hannibal Lecter takes up little more than twenty minutes of screen time. It’s a supporting role, and indeed Hopkins did take a couple of Supporting Actor critics’ prizes. But he insisted on being listed as Best Actor for the Golden Globes — being listed for Supporting Actor, he would say later, would have been like saying: “Please give me an Oscar.” So he was nominated in the lead category. It would be the first in a series of battles during the decade defining what kind of role was a lead and what was supporting — films like Pulp Fiction and Fargo would be among the major combatant later on.
The Silence of the Lambs got eight Oscar nominations, third behind Bugsy and JFK. Historically, the film that gets the most nominations usually wins. But I think the reason The Silence of the Lambs did as well as it did wasn’t as much due to its quality as to the other contenders.
Beauty and the Beast is as much a classic as The Silence of the Lambs and compared to the darkness at the heart of the four other nominated films, it was a real tonic. But the fact is the Academy has never felt that an animated feature deserves to be considered Best Picture, a fact that spelled out when they created the Best Animated Film category a decade later. Even then, it was clearly a putdown to say that films like The Lion King or Shrek or Toy Story just didn’t deserve to be considered in the same breath as Braveheart or Life is Beautiful or Gladiator, films that I frankly consider among the worse choices for nominations or awards the Academy’s made.
JFK was a brilliantly made film, but it was far too controversial. And since the Academy goes out of its way to avoid controversy at every opportunity (unless of course they create it themselves) they were never going to give the film Best Picture. The fact that they gave it so many nominations at all is a tribute to just how brilliant the technical level of the filmmaking and the brilliance of the acting were. (It’s definitely not because of historical accuracy because even the people who love it admit it’s more of a diatribe than a coherent story.)
The Prince of Tides had the problem that its director wasn’t nominated and that has always been a problem with Best Picture nominations that don’t get one. Never mind that Driving Miss Daisy, a far more questionable choice, had won Best Picture with no corresponding directors nod, had won two years earlier or that within the next twenty years films would be winning Best Picture without a Best Director nomination being a factor. The Academy was still stuck on these manners.
In all candor Bugsy should have won Best Picture. It had taken the Golden Globe for Best Drama, the story of Warren Beatty and Annette Bening’s romance had become as much as a part of the film’s saga as anything and it had gotten the most nominations of any movie — ten. Furthermore, compared the other live action nominees, it was far more typical of the kind of the movie the Academy tends to love. It was a period piece that featured some of the best actors and actresses working (it still comes as a shock that his role as Mickey Cohen was the only time Harvey Keitel has ever gotten a Oscar nomination for anything) and compared to Silence of the Lambs it was actually lighter in tone. I’m still kind of shocked, thirty years after the fact, that Lambs was able to beat it, much less manage to sweep all five major categories — Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Actress and Screenplay — something that had only been done twice before with It Happened One Night and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
And I’m certain The Silence of the Lambs’ success story could not be repeated now. In 1992 a relatively new company called Miramax would make history with one of the most unforgettable sleeper hits The Crying Game. Harvey Weinstein deserved all the disgust and loathing that he did for his sexual history, but just as repugnant would become his approach to winning an Oscar and the subsequent destruction of Hollywood filmmaking. Weinstein would pioneer the trend of making the race for Oscars all about the campaign rather than the movie. I don’t deny that many of the movies that Miramax would make were classics — it’s hard to argue about The Piano or Pulp Fiction or The English Patient. But merit, if it had ever counted for something when it came to the Oscars, would be utterly buried in ad campaigns and interviews and endless mailing lists. The Silence of the Lambs in that sense represents the end of an era which is a far darker legacy than any of the horror we saw onscreen.