‘The Silence of the Lambs’ devoured the competition and won the top 5 Oscars

It was thirty years ago, on Valentine’s Day. A love affair with Oscar was about to begin. The psychological thriller “The Silence of the Lambs” opened in movie theaters to widespread critical acclaim. Based on the novel by Thomas Harris and starring 1988’s Best Actress Jodie Foster (“The Accused”) and Anthony Hopkins, the film knocked another spine-chiller (the Julia Roberts headlined “Sleeping with the Enemy”) off the top of the American box office chart. “Silence” would remain there for an impressive five weeks, grossing more than $130 million domestically and just over $270 million worldwide.

While the film pulled off the rare feat of pleasing both movie reviewers and regulars, it was initially seen as a wild card as an Oscar contender. After all, it was released before the 63rd Academy Awards (celebrating the best work of 1990) were even presented. Would “Silence” still resonate a year later? And then there was the issue of the subject matter. While the 1970s saw the Academy make some gritty choices (“The French Connection,” “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “The Deer Hunter,”) the conservative 1980’s had largely yielded serious, politically correct period selections (“Chariots of Fire,” “Gandhi,” “Out of Africa,” and “Driving Miss Daisy”) or sentimental, human-centric options (“Ordinary People,” “Terms of Endearment” and “Rain Man.”) Could a story about a cannibal really whet the academy’s appetite?

Thanks to 1991’s relatively weak cinematic offerings, “The Silence of the Lambs” looked like a surefire Oscar player by the end of the year. The New York Film Critics Circle helped to solidify its standing, giving it Best Film plus Best Director (Jonathan Demme,) and also handing Foster and Hopkins the top acting honors. Meanwhile, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association went bonkers for “Bugsy,” awarding the biographical crime drama Best Film and Best Director (Barry Levinson) as well as Best Screenplay. Star Warren Beatty had to settle for Best Actor runner-up to Nick Nolte in Barbra Streisand’s family saga “The Prince of Tides.” Also featured prominently in Martin Scorsese’s terrifying “Cape Fear” remake, Nolte’s tide appeared to be coming in.

With the Oscar race so seemingly wide open, Disney launched a massive campaign for its smash animated feature, “Beauty and the Beast.” Like “The Silence of the Lambs” “Beauty” was a hit with both critics and audiences alike. While it bowled over children and brought tears to the eyes of adults, could it really tempt the Academy? Speaking on a special holiday movie edition of “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” the late film critic Gene Siskel expressed hope that it would, saying that “Beauty” deserved to be the first animated film to receive an Academy Award nomination. “For Best Picture?” – a confounded Oprah Winfrey asked? “Yes,” Siskel affirmed. Long before Gold Derby, a real gold derby was in the making.

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For anyone hoping to read tea leaves at the Golden Globe Awards, the leaves were evenly scattered. Best Motion Picture – Drama nominees “Bugsy, “JFK,” “The Prince of Tides,” “The Silence of the Lambs” and the female road adventure “Thelma and Louise” each took home one major award. Nolte nailed Best Actor over Hopkins. Foster edged out both “Thelma” (Geena Davis) and “Louise” (Susan Sarandon) to nab Best Actress. (Though “T & L” was consoled with Best Screenplay.) “JFK” gave way to Best Director Oliver Stone. Finally, the year’s big “Terminator” and future California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger revealed “Bugsy” the night’s big winner. “We’re so confused at this table,” an exasperated Beatty said upon accepting the Globe. Most awards watchers could relate.

Adding to the perplexity was the fact that the evening’s biggest beast was none other than “Beauty and the Beast,” hailed Best Motion Picture – Comedy or Musical and also collecting Best Score and Best Song. Could “Beauty” hit the same high notes at the Oscars?

On the day of the nominations in February, the late film commentator Joel Siegel offered a preview on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”  By his assessment – “Bugsy,” “JFK,” “The Prince of Tides” and “The Silence of the Lambs” were all “sure things” for Best Picture nods. He explained that voters would have to look back to the previous February to remember “Silence,” but emphasized that “this was an unforgettable film.” For the fifth slot, Siegel singled out “Beauty and the Beast” and the crowd-pleasing “Fried Green Tomatoes” as the likeliest contestants – reporting that “Beauty” would make history by breaking into the Best Picture category. “I think that would be great,” GMA co-host Joan Lunden opined.

Siegel added that Foster and Hopkins were also “Silence” certainties. While discussing Best Actor possibilities, Siegel noted that Hopkins was classified as Best Supporting Actor by the National Board of Review, but added that “I think he’ll be nominated here.”

The official announcement was made by academy president and 1951’s Best Supporting Actor Karl Malden (“A Streetcar Named Desire”) and 1986 Best Actress nominee Kathleen Turner (“Peggy Sue Got Married.”) A few things immediately jumped out. “Bugsy” landed Supporting Actor nods for both Harvey Keitel and Ben Kingsley, yet failed to deliver for Best Actress hopeful Annette Bening. “The Prince of Tides” earned acting nods for both Nolte and supporting player Kate Nelligan plus Best Picture, yet missed out on Director for Streisand. And 1990’s double Oscar champ Kevin Costner (Best Director and Best Picture for “Dances with Wolves”) would be sitting this one out, having been slighted in the Best Actor lineup for “JFK.” This hardly surprised Siegel, who described the actor as being good in “kind of a merry-go-round role – where everything happens around him.”

When Turner named the alphabetically advantaged “Beauty and the Beast” as the first Best Picture nominee, enthused press members erupted in applause. As she continued, Siegel’s forecast proved to be correct, with “Bugsy,” “JFK,” “The Prince of Tides” and “The Silence of the Lambs” rounding out the list. Back at the GMA studio, Siegel was asked about the Best Picture favorite. “This is a horse race between ‘The Silence of the Lambs’ and ‘Bugsy’ and I think that’s going to be.” He added “But watch out for ‘Beauty and the Beast.’”

In the weeks leading up to the Academy Awards ceremony, odds-makers struggled to identify the Oscar frontrunner. Entertainment Weekly repeated its “Total Oscar” edition from the previous year, with its intriguing points system assessing each entrant. It gave “The Silence of the Lambs” a narrow edge for Best Picture, with the “lurid nature” and “unconventional genre” being its biggest drawbacks. “Beauty and the Beast” received surprisingly high marks, primarily for its “chance to make history” and the fact that it was the “only all-out feel-good film” of the five. The magazine also warned that the film lacked Director and Screenplay nominations, and that actors “would be wary of voting for a film in which none of them appear.” “Bugsy” also had a strong points tally, mainly since “ten nominations indicate widespread support.”

TV Guide weighed in on the event, and analyzed that it was highly unlikely for “Beauty” to snag the most prestigious prize. It also downplayed the prospects of the year-old “Silence,” and cautiously forecast “Bugsy” as the most likely winner.

On a special “Road to the Oscars” television show, film critic Elvis Mitchell also discounted “Silence,” describing it as “essentially a B movie – although a very good one.” He hesitated, but predicted that since Oliver Stone would probably win Best Director for “JFK,” the Best Picture winner would “more than likely be ‘Bugsy.’”

Interestingly enough, all three of the aforementioned outlets picked Nolte for Best Actor. The consensus seemed to be that Nolte had pulled a one-two punch the same way that Michael Douglas had in 1987, with “Wall Street” and “Fatal Attraction.” (Douglas hit the jackpot for the former.) And Hopkins was competing for a “smallish role for a lead Oscar.” EW proclaimed that he would have had Best Supporting Actor “all sewn up.”

When the grand event finally arrived, host Billy Crystal made his entrance as Hannibal Lecter – strapped down, wearing the notorious mask, and being pulled by two orderlies. (All this as the orchestra played Howard Shore’s haunting “Silence” score.) Crystal approached Hopkins in the audience, playfully asking “I’m having some of the Academy over for dinner. Care to join me?” It was the perfect start to an extraordinary evening.

As the presentation of the awards commenced, no one film seemed to dominate. “Bugsy” picked up trophies for both Production and Costume Design. “JFK” walked away with Film Editing and Cinematography. “Terminator 2: Judgement Day” crushed the Sound, Makeup and Visual Effects categories. Best Picture was still anybody’s guess.

Then reigning Best Actress Kathy Bates (“Misery”) arrived to put the current Best Actor candidates out of their misery. The audience went wild after watching Hopkins’ famous clip speaking of the “census-taker” who tried to test him, and whose liver he ate “with some fava beans and a nice Chianti.” They also cheered loudly for a dramatic excerpt from Nolte. When the camera turned back to Bates and a five-shot of the nervous gentlemen, Bates paused before reading the name on the card.

“And the Oscar goes to Anthony Hopkins in ‘The Silence of the Lambs.’”

The auditorium was anything but silent as Hopkins jumped out of his seat and everyone quickly rose to applaud him. Hopkins looked ready to take a big bite out of Bates, then held up the trophy in triumph. It was evident that “Lambs” had escaped the slaughterhouse.

Michael Douglas came out to present Best Actress, ultimately declaring Foster the winner. It was her second Oscar in three years, yet she failed to get the standing ovation that was afforded to Hopkins.

Costner then returned to inaugurate a new Best Director. He presumably voted for his “JFK” commander-in-chief Stone. But the name on card was Demme for “Silence.”

1960 and 1966 Best Actress Elizabeth Taylor (“Butterfield 8” and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”) and 1986 Best Actor Paul Newman “The Color of Money” had the honorable task of divulging the year’s Best Picture (though it was pretty obvious by that point.) After an introductory joke which included a reference to “cannibal indigestion,” Taylor unsealed the envelope and joyously read “The Silence of the Lambs” as Oscar’s new Best Picture. (Even Newman smiled with approval.) “Silence” had not only devoured the competition, it had become just the third motion picture in history (after 1934’s “It Happened One Night” and 1975’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”) to fly off with the top five Oscars: Picture, Director, Actor, Actress and Screenplay. Just like the famous finale, Dr. Lecter was getting the last laugh.

In hindsight, the “Silence” sweep should hardly have been a surprise. The late film critic Roger Ebert had confidently called it, explaining that “people can’t stop talking about this movie.” While “Bugsy” and “JFK” would have been more traditional choices, both failed to elicit passion and were clearly struggling in the screenplay, directing and acting races. As for “Beauty and the Beast,” it was never going to be the belle of the Oscar ball. It was an honor for it “just to be nominated.” (Ironically, a tale as old as time.)

Three decades later, “The Silence of the Lambs” is still regarded as one of the greatest films of all time. Masterful storytelling. Agonizing suspense. Sensational shockers.

It’s no mystery as to why Oscar fell in love.

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