Sunday, February 14, 2016

Nothing But the Best: "The Silence of the Lambs" (1991)

Anthony Hopkins
Welcome to the series Nothing But the Best in which I chronicle all of the Academy Award Best Picture winners as they celebrate their anniversaries. Instead of going in chronological order, this series will be presented on each film's anniversary and will feature personal opinions as well as facts regarding its legacy and behind the scenes information. The goal is to create an in depth essay for each film while looking not only how the medium progressed, but how the film is integral to pop culture. In some cases, it will be easy. Others not so much. Without further ado, let's start the show.

Background Information

The Silence of the Lambs
Release Date: February 14, 1991
Director: Jonathan Demme
Written By: Thomas Harris (Novel), Ted Tally (Screenplay)
Starring: Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins, Lawrence A. Bonney
Genre: Crime, Drama, Thriller
Running Time: 118 minutes

Oscar Wins: 5
-Best Picture
-Best Director
-Best Actor (Anthony Hopkins)
-Best Actress (Jodie Foster)
-Best Adapted Screenplay

Oscar Nominations: 2
-Best Sound
-Best Editing

Other Best Picture Nominees

-Beauty and the Beast
-The Prince of Tides

And the winner is...

There has never been a Best Picture winner quite like director Jonathan Demme's The Silence of the Lambs. Beyond its murky placement in the horror genre, it's a film that retaliates against the norms of what a prestige picture is supposed to have. It opened on Valentines Day and introduced a wider audience to elegant serial killer Hannibal Lecter as he helped an FBI agent track down a serial killer. For starters, it was more graphic and disturbing than any film that had won before while also managing to turn its subject into an engrossing experience almost done with a voyeuristic lens. The film, which spawned several sequels and a TV series, remains just as vital today as it did in 1991, and continues to frighten viewers with some of the best direction possibly ever seen by a Best Picture winner.

The one thing that should be noted is that the work of Hannibal Lecter is nothing new in 1991. Thomas Harris' iconic character actually served as the basis for a Michael Mann film from 1986 called Manhunter. When Harris wrote a book sequel to that film's original source, it quickly became a hot commodity. Jodie Foster loved the book, but lost the rights to Gene Hackman - of whom planned to direct and star in it. By some stroke of luck, he changed his mind following his attendance of The Academy Awards one year where he saw a clip from his nominated performance in Mississippi Burning, at which point he vowed to not do anything that violent. The rights eventually fell to Orion, who bought the rights for $500,000. Screenplay writer Ted Tally would write the script, but had to change the names for legal reasons. It wasn't until Dino DeLaurentis (who financed Manhunter) gave Orion character rights that it became a legitimate Hannibal Lecter film.

Despite Foster's insistence, she wasn't the first pick for Clarice Starling. It was Michelle Pfeiffer, who had to back out when the subject matter proved to be too disturbing for her (a common trend among several rejected actors). It was only then that she got the gig. Upon Demme suggesting the role to Anthony Hopkins, he initially assumed it was a children's movie. He was also recommended based on his work in The Elephant Man. His one remark? He didn't understand why he was chosen because his character in The Elephan Man was nice, whereas Hannibal Lecter was "evil." Demme convinced him, claiming that the serial killer was a good man with an insane brain. Hopkins, Ted Levine, and Scott Glenn all researched serial killer culture to prepare for the roles. All were disturbed by what they found. Glenn, with assistance from the FBI, listened to a tape of one such killer raping a victim and turned it off after a minute, believing that he had lost innocence (he also changed his liberal views on the death penalty).

The film achieved a rare feat when it gained complete access to work with the FBI. Why? It was believed in part to be because it could be used as a recruiting tool to find more female agents. They helped in authenticating the details as they filmed around West Virginia and Pennsylvania - including how  the autopsies were handled. The team was also allowed to film at their headquarters in Quantico, VA. There were some complaints that the place looked too dull. Demme thought that it was necessary to make the film feel the part. The only major part that the FBI disagreed with Demme on was in regards to Clarice's final confrontation with serial killer Buffalo Bill (based on a mix of Ted Bundy, Ed Gein, and Gary Heidnick). Demme held his ground and convinced them that it would work as an emotional cue. Otherwise, the FBI would claim to be very proud of the final result. It did help that a few members had background roles in the final film.

Hopkins had the most liberty with his character. He claimed that his voice for Hannibal Lecter was a mix of "Katharine Hepburn and Truman Capote." His initial jail cell was changed to a window to create a better sense of connectivity to Foster. Early on, Hopkins insulted Foster's southern accent in a genuine moment of improv that upset the performer (Foster later thanked him). Among Demme's camera tricks was the use of gazing at women. This results in most male actors looking directly at the camera when addressing Clarice while her close-ups are usually off-center, as to suggest that we're seeing her through the male point of view. Hopkins would take the camera technique one step further by suggesting that he lock eyes with the camera upon his introduction, as to create him as an all-knowing being. He also suggested that in later scenes that he wear white (instead of the traditional orange and yellow) to appear more menacing. Not too bad for a character whose screen time clocks in at 16 minutes of actual screen time (and 25 if you count the scene itself).  

The film was set to open in December of 1990, but was held off so that Orion could focus on Dances with Wolves: the film that would eventually win Best Picture that year. The studio released it in February on Valentines Day to general success. By the end of the first week, the film made back its budget and was quickly met with almost universal acclaim (the only mainstream critic to dislike the film was Gene Siskel). By the time that the film closed in October of 1991, it had grossed $272 million internationally ($130 million in America alone). Among its other achievements was that it became the first Best Picture winner to be readily available on home video upon its announced nomination. Considering that Orion was also going bankrupt at the time, it was a miracle that it scrapped together $200,000 on an awards campaign.

The results paid off with a solid seven Oscar nominations. Along with It Happened One Night and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, it became one of the only films to win "The Big Five," or top categories given out by the ceremony. By coincidence, it was also similar to the previous holders in that it didn't win any other award. While technically a crime thriller, many consider it to be a horror film and thus qualifies it as the first horror film to win Best Picture (though The Exorcist and Jaws beat it for nomination). Hopkins' win also marked the second-shortest screen time of a performance in the Best Actor field following David Niven's Separate Tables performance - only a minute shorter than Hopkin's. If it wasn't clear how successful the film was, even Oscar host Billy Crystal got in on the action by at one point parodying Hannibal Lecter's famous scene where he's pushed around while being tied up.

The final ironic tie-in was that Demme won Best Director, beating Ridley Scott (Thelma & Louise). Scott would go on to direct the first sequel Hannibal nine years later. Hopkins would reprise his role for Hannibal and Red Dragon before bowing out. In recent years, he admitted to regretting his choice to reprise the role (as all of his costars didn't), believing that he did it right the first time. Still, the legacy of Hannibal Lecter was met with an ongoing franchise that also included several book sequels from Harris (the latest being from 2006). The most recent involvement was with the series Hannibal, which aired for three seasons and received critical acclaim. The Silence of the Lambs was also partially responsible for helping to popularize the trend of serial killers and true crime throughout the 90's, with many Hannibal Lecter-knockoffs being not too far behind.

Among its other reputations is its relationship to the LGBT community. The film's villain Buffalo Bill has been accused of being a bad representation of a transgender character due to his repulsive actions and that it perpetuated a bad stereotype. Demme tried to defend it by saying that he felt that Buffalo Bill's character wanted to be a woman because it was easier for him. Upon this revelation, he discovered the problem with the lack of positive gay characters in film, thus resulting in Philadelphia. It's a film that won Tom Hanks his first Best Actor Oscar. During his speech, he spoke of his gay high school teacher (who wasn't publicly gay at the time). This is alleged to have inspired the film In & Out. So while The Silence of the Lambs has a problematic depiction of gays, it did more than enough good after the fact. However, there are those who are also opposed to the film's depiction of women, believing to create a fetish from the victims.

While it seems impossible to go nowadays without knowing who Hannibal Lecter is, it should be a tribute to the impact of The Silence of the Lambs. It was a film that defied odds and became one of the scariest and tensest films to ever win Best Picture while creating some of the most iconic imagery to ever come from the medium. With excellent direction from Demme, the film withstands the test of time, remaining just as haunting and powerful as ever. It's a work of art as well as exploiting the vulnerability of society in the early 90's, whose interest in true crime stills seems shockingly dark compared to other decades. Even if Hannibal isn't real, his present in pop culture continues to be, and that may be enough for a film that is over a quarter of a century old.

No comments:

Post a Comment