The Oscars didn’t traditionally give awards to cannibals. But on March 30, 1992, for the first time since 1976 and only the third time in the history of the Academy Awards, one film won the “Big Five,” walking away with Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay (whether original or adapted), Best Actor, and Best Actress. A grisly thriller filled with graphic violence, disturbing imagery, flung bodily fluids, and, yes, generous discussion of cannibalism, The Silence of the Lambs checked only a few of the boxes usually associated with Oscar-winning films. Yet more than a year after it arrived in theaters, nothing could stand in the film’s way on Oscars night (not even noisy protests outside the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion). It was, unexpectedly but undeniably, the year of the cannibal.
Then again, pretty much everything about The Silence of the Lambs seemed unlikely. That Thomas Harris’s bestselling 1988 novel would be turned into a movie was probably inevitable; that Jonathan Demme would direct the adaptation was not. Demme got his start making exploitation films for Roger Corman like his directorial debut, 1974’s Caged Heat (one of the era’s best women-in-prison movies). But it was the 1977 film Citizens Band (a.k.a. Handle with Care), an ensemble piece inspired by the Citizens’ Band craze, in which Demme came into his own as a director of eccentric comedies filled with memorable, carefully crafted characters. He made another thriller, 1979’s Last Embrace, and then moved on to Melvin and Howard, Swing Shift, Something Wild, and Married to the Mob. Demme had made memorable digressions with the masterful Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense and an inventive film version of Spalding Gray’s monologue Swimming to Cambodia, but by the end of the ’80s, everyone knew he made warm, quirky, deceptively complex comedies. Then, suddenly, he didn’t. As Sheila Benson wrote in her Los Angeles Times review of The Silence of the Lambs, “The Jonathan Demme of Something Wild or Melvin and Howard or Stop Making Sense might not be the first director one would think of for suspense or bloody terror; his touch has always seemed lighter, his interests more quirky and off the mainstream. So much for pigeonholing.”
In retrospect, however, the shift looks less shocking—and like less of a shift altogether. Something Wild begins as a madcap comedy but changes gears radically midway through with the arrival of a dangerous character played by Ray Liotta. By film’s end, it’s taken a deadly, suspenseful turn, yet it plays like a Demme film throughout thanks largely to a pervasive sense of empathy. For all that sets it apart from Demme’s previous films, The Silence of the Lambs has that same empathy in abundance, as do its central characters. FBI agent Clarice Starling and psychiatrist–serial killer Hannibal Lecter share a tremendous gift for understanding other people, though they apply that gift differently. If The Silence of the Lambs wasn’t a film Demme previously seemed likely to make, it was one for which he was nonetheless unusually well suited.
When Demme joined, the film already had acclaimed playwright Ted Tally in place as screenwriter. It would soon add Anthony Hopkins as Lecter and—after Demme’s first choice, Michelle Pfeiffer, turned down the role—Jodie Foster, a recent Best Actress winner for The Accused, as Starling. Nothing about the film’s pedigree suggested it would be a run-of-the-mill cop versus killer movie. But nothing about it suggested it would become a multi–award winning Oscar favorite, either. Silence entered wide release on February 14, 1991, a date far removed from the usual year-end window for awards contenders.
Orion Pictures, the studio behind The Silence of the Lambs, was no stranger to the Academy Awards, having won Best Picture prizes for Amadeus and Platoon. A few weeks after Silence’s release, Dances With Wolves would repeat the feat, but nothing about the studio’s treatment of Silence suggested it was being positioned to do the same. “There’s no way Orion saw it as an awards contender,” says Katey Rich, who covers the Oscars and other awards for Vanity Fair.
Silence would soon, however, become a much-needed hit for Orion. The movie earned widespread critical acclaim and enjoyed sustained box office success, debuting in the top spot and stayed there for five weeks. Even after being supplanted by Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze, the film stuck around and ultimately earned $131 million at the domestic box office.
It stuck around in other ways, too, becoming an era-defining pop culture reference point. As 1991 rolled on, even the seemingly vanishing few who hadn’t seen the film couldn’t help encountering its (frequently misquoted) famous lines, jokey references to cannibalism in late-night monologues, and sketch show parodies. Though no other February release had generated awards buzz—sorry, King Ralph—Silence made a deep enough impression to become a contender months later, joining the Oscars race alongside a handful of (mostly late-year) releases like JFK, The Fisher King, The Prince of Tides, Thelma & Louise, Rambling Rose, Boyz n the Hood, Bugsy, and (most surprisingly) Beauty and the Beast.
As that race escalated, no discernible consensus pick emerged. The L.A. Film Critics Association bestowed Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay honors to Bugsy and awarded its acting prizes to Nick Nolte for The Prince of Tides and Mercedes Ruehl for The Fisher King. (Ruehl would eventually win an Oscar for that role in the Best Supporting Actress category.) The National Society of Film Critics threw its weight behind Mike Leigh’s Life is Sweet and David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch. The New York Film Critics Circle, however, would prove to be a bellwether, honoring Silence, Demme, Foster, and Hopkins in the top categories (while picking Naked Lunch screenplay over Tally’s work). “Critics giving something a push can really make a huge difference and make a studio think, ‘Oh, we better do something about this,’” Rich notes, adding, “I think we dismiss the power of critics when it comes to the Oscars, a lot of times for good reason, but that kind of drumbeat can really make a big difference.”
When the Academy announced nominations for the 64th Academy Awards on February 19th, JFK, The Prince of Tides, Bugsy, and Beauty and the Beast all received Best Picture nominations alongside Silence. With 10 nominations, Bugsy picked up more than any other film, followed by JFK (with eight) and The Prince of Tides and The Silence of the Lambs (with seven each). As the first animated film to contend for Best Picture, Beauty’s nomination became one of the top points of discussion in the run-up to the ceremony. Every Oscars season has its story lines and animation’s newfound mainstream respectability became one of them, along with the controversy over JFK’s free interpretation history and Barbra Streisand’s failure to secure a Best Director nominee despite The Prince of Tides’s seven nominations in other categories.
The story line around Silence involved a different sort of outrage. In this current era of instant online reactions and instant, unshakable controversies it’s hard to imagine how loud a protest had to be to be heard in 1992. But, in the midst of Oscars season, ACT UP and Queer Nation made sure their objections to Silence of the Lambs (and the gay killer played by Tommy Lee Jones in JFK), were heard via a loud protest outside the Academy Awards ceremony with chants of “Hey, hey! Ho, ho! Homophobia has got to go!,” a round of heckling directed at Foster (“Quick, get out of the closet. There’s a big moth in there.”), and multiple arrests. It was the culmination of more than a year’s worth of discomfort that had been building since the film’s release. Earlier in 1991, GLAAD had spoken out against the homophobia they perceived in the portrayal of Jame Gumb, the serial killer played by Ted Levine who kidnaps women to skin them for their flesh in an attempt to make a wearable suite of female flesh.
As Jeffrey Bloomer pointed out in a 2017 analysis for Slate, the controversy predated the creation of the vocabulary and understanding to object to Silence’s depiction of Gumb as transphobic. And though the film, like the novel before it, goes out of its way to note that Gumb isn’t really transgender, it’s easy to see why Silence stirred objections, particularly in the context of its times, when depictions of LGBTQ+ characters were rare and usually unflattering, if not outright hateful. Fairly or not, the protests seemed to take Demme by surprise. “I hadn’t been paying attention to the absence of positive gay characters all that much, so I came away from the protests enlightened,” he told Rolling Stone in 1994. Whatever the director’s intent, Gumb’s portrayal remains an element with which even admirers of the film continue to wrestle. “Silence of the Lambs is a perfect movie,” Emily St. James wrote in Vox last year. “Except it’s also a movie that helped perpetuate one of the worst, most transphobic stereotypes of all.”
The protests continued outside the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on Oscars night, where, for a while, it looked like Silence of the Lambs might not get much more notice than Billy Crystal’s memorable entrance, in which he was wheeled in on a hand trolly wearing a straitjacket and mask restraint. (“I look like the goalie for the SAG hockey team,” he quipped.) As the film lost in two technical categories (Best Editing and Best Sound), the jokes focused more on the presidential primaries, Orion’s woes, and Streisand’s exclusion than any of the nominees. A group of astronauts thanked Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award–winner George Lucas from orbit, and Satyajit Ray accepted an honorary Oscar from his hospital bed. But when the evening arrived at the top awards, it was Silence all the way. A seemingly surprised Demme made pains to praise Harris’s “extraordinarily moral and an amazing book,” but Foster’s acceptance speech would prove to be the most memorable. She thanked Demme “not just for his talent but for his goodness” and teared up as she referred to Clarice as an “incredibly strong and feminist hero.” To cap the evening, Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor announced Silence’s Best Picture win. At that point, it was no surprise.
But what did it all mean? At the time, Chicago Tribune critic Dave Kehr suggested the night marked a sea change: “The sweep for the extremely violent Silence suggests that the Academy has reached a long-delayed but inevitable turning point away from the warm-hearted, humanistic films that have traditionally taken home Oscars and toward the coarser, more commercial sensibility that actually sells most of today’s tickets.” If Kehr was a bit off in overlooking Silence’s humanistic qualities—think of the heartbreaking way Demme’s camera lingers over the bedroom of one of Gumb’s victims as Clarice thumbs through her belongings—he was right about its outlier status among Oscar winners. With the exception of Platoon, the previous decade or so of Best Picture winners alternated between intimate dramas (Rain Man, Ordinary People, Terms of Endearment) and sweeping spectacles (Gandhi, The Last Emperor, Out of Africa).
A horror film at heart, Silence of the Lambs didn’t fit either category. But if Silence’s wins didn’t break the Academy of its tendency to nominate a certain type of film, as Kehr suggested it would, it at least nudged it in a new direction. Wins for Unforgiven and Schindler’s List would soon follow amongst more traditional victors like Forrest Gump. Orion Pictures’s financial troubles would hinder its ability to be adventurous in the years that followed, but in retrospect, it’s evident that Miramax and other indie (and indie-ish) studios thrived on the ground Orion helped clear. Silence also had an even more profound impact on television via procedurals that began employing far more gore than in the past and shows like The X-Files, which borrowed the movie’s general aesthetic and looked to Clarice as inspiration for the character of Dana Scully.
Whether the sweep could happen again remains another question. The stars aligned for one film to take the big five only twice before: It Happened One Night in 1935 and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in 1976. Little seems to unite those films beyond being, in Rich’s words, “big, broadly loved movies with two major male and female performances.” That combination might not sound like that much of a rarity, but in the years since Silence of the Lambs, only seven films have locked down nominations in the five top categories: The Remains of the Day, The English Patient, American Beauty, Million Dollar Baby, Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle, and La La Land. Of these, American Beauty came closest to joining Silence and its predecessors. (Annette Bening’s loss to Hilary Swank for Boys Don’t Cry spoiled the feat.) It’s hard to imagine a movie never repeating the achievement, but it’s just as hard to picture the theoretical movie that might.
Maybe that’s for the best. In March of 1991, Dances With Wolves defeated Goodfellas for Best Picture, Kevin Costner beat Martin Scorsese as Best Director, and it all seemed like business as usual. Meanwhile, in theaters, audiences were surprised and shaken by a disturbing, deeply considered, and remarkably executed movie about an erudite cannibal, a killer with a basement dungeon and a gift for needlework, and an FBI agent determined to seek justice. If few could have predicted that the world would embrace such a film before its release, fewer still could have imagined its night of victory one year later. It would be foolish to try to create a film built to win every top prize. But when one that can pull off that trick does emerge—a film so widely embraced and undeniably remarkable that of course its wins make sense—Silence of the Lambs suggests it will be difficult to stop, with or without characters with a taste for human flesh.
Keith Phipps is a writer and editor specializing in film and TV. Formerly: Uproxx, The Dissolve, and The A.V. Club.