The (Almost) Impossible Oscars Success of 'The Silence of the Lambs'

How a movie about cannibals and skin suits took home Hollywood's highest honor and why it still matters.

The Silence Of The Lambs
Orion Pictures

What’s the only horror movie to win Best Picture? This nifty bit of trivia is handy for pub quizzes and Jeopardy tenures, but the answer being The Silence of the Lambs is at once a crowning achievement and a startling source of bewilderment. Bewildering not because it wasn’t deserving — oh boy, was it ever! — but because of the incredible uphill battle that it took to get there.

Jonathan Demme‘s 1991 adaptation of the Thomas Harris novel of the same name is a movie with a success story as rich as the on-screen narrative. The Silence of the Lambs, both the book and movie, follow FBI trainee Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) as she tracks down a serial killer dubbed Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine), with the assistance of imprisoned cannibalistic psychopath Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins).

As far as the story beyond the film goes, the three central accomplishments here are the film’s unconventional path to success, the history that it made as a horror movie, and the significance of it winning the big five Oscars.

The Silence of the Lambs is still to this day the most well-known adaptation of Harris’ Hannibal Lecter book series, but it wasn’t the first. Five years prior, Michael Mann’s Manhunter was released to mixed reviews and underwhelming box office numbers. It was slammed as serving up style over substance (a statement as plainly wrong as it is cliche, but I digress). The diminishing returns from the movie meant that producer Dino De Laurentiis loaned the rights to Orion Pictures for free, with the company eventually approaching Demme to direct this new venture.

A number of notable actors, including Michelle Pfeiffer and Sean Connery, turned down the respective roles of Clarice and Hannibal Lecter. They, of course, went to Foster and Hopkins. The former, while she was fresh off an Oscar win for 1988’s The Accused, wasn’t Demme’s first choice for the role of Clarice, but her passion for the character convinced him.

Screenwriter Ted Tally had pursued the adaptation, and the content marked a deviation from his prior films, which consisted of a made-for-TV biopic and a romantic drama. Demme himself was more well versed in lighter fare, known at that time for comedies like Something Wild and Married to the Mob.

This is to say that although many in the cast and crew had earned prior recognition and accolades, they were still a bit of a ragtag bunch driven by passion and risk, not an eagerness for straightforward Oscar bait.

The film also didn’t have the rollout of most awards contenders. It premiered in February, becoming a sleeper hit that conjured titillation, terror, acclaim, and controversy in equal measure. In addition to being a box office smash hit, it can’t be said enough that it is truly a masterclass in filmmaking, with every single element utilized perfectly.

Demme’s astute direction is that of a craftsman at the top of his game. The film’s manipulation of conventions, from the fourth-wall breaking to tricky cross-cutting, is purposeful and ingenious. The performances are all stellar, with particular recognition going to Foster and Hopkins. The script is wondrous and rich, with an impeccable sense of pace. In addition to the lines about chiantis and screaming lambs that carry pop-culture currency, there are some touches in the script worthy of whole essays — Clarice’s remark, upon seeing a victim’s glitter nail polish, that it “looks like town” to her is so good I want to print that page and hang it on my wall.

With every facet of the movie being so praiseworthy, it seems logical that the film would emerge as a frontrunner in awards season, but as even the most casual Oscar viewer knows, the Venn diagram of “great movies” and “Oscar winners” is far from a perfect circle. Especially for a movie about cannibalism, torture pits, and human skin suits.

Only a small handful of horror films have ever been nominated for best picture. The Silence of the Lambs became the third, following The Exorcist and Jaws. If that wasn’t enough of a challenge it also came out thirteen months before the Oscars ceremony took place in 1992.

The traditional release window of Oscar contenders is September to December. That’s not to say that films released outside of that can’t win, but in the last forty years, only eight Best Picture winners have been released earlier than September (Chariots of Fire came out in April, Crash, Gladiator, and Braveheart came out in May, The Hurt Locker in June, Forrest Gump in July, and Unforgiven in August). The Silence of the Lamb‘s fellow Best Picture nominees from 1991 had all come out in either November or December. To say one of these things is not like the others is an understatement.

It’s impossible to say exactly why the film managed to accomplish the improbable. Sure, the quality of The Silence of the Lambs absolutely helped, but to stay relevant for over a year requires more than that. I’d argue that, in a strange twist of fate, all of the things against The Silence of the Lambs created a perfect storm that worked in its favor.

The two major elements against the movie are the polarizing grisly subject matter and the early release date that poses a challenge to relevancy. To the first point, while the fleshy dissections and bloody displays alienated some, these elements made the film hard to forget. In both subject matter and cinematic execution, The Silence of the Lambs is pure nightmare fuel.

This means that for those who championed the film (or even those who just found it quotable enough), it was no insurmountable challenge to keep it in the conversation for a year. It’s no surprise that at what is reported to have been an especially raucous Oscars ceremony, The Silence of the Lambs was the centerpiece before it even won a single award.

Furthermore, while it’s unusual for Best Picture contenders to be released earlier than the fall season, three of the six other horror movies that have been in contention were earlier releases. Jaws was a summer hit, coming out in June 1975, The Sixth Sense, eight years after The Silence of the Lambs, came out in August, and, perhaps most notably, Get Out was also released in February and stayed in the Oscar conversation, being nominated for four awards, including Best Picture, and taking home the gold for Jordan Peele’s original screenplay.

With such a small sample pool of horror movies to compete for Best Picture, any takeaways from overarching trends are speculation. But still, it makes sense that a genre built on shock, when executed well, is capable of firmly staking a claim in the pop culture hivemind.

But The Silence of the Lambs didn’t just make history as the only horror movie to win Best Picture. It made history as the only horror movie to take home the big five.

Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, and Screenplay. These awards comprise a coveted quinfecta at the Oscars. To be nominated in all five is an accomplishment in and of itself, something that a total of only forty-three films have pulled off. Of those, only three have won all five: It Happened One Night in 1935, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in 1976, and The Silence of the Lambs.

This is a rare and special achievement, a once in a blue moon success story. Not to diminish the accomplishments of the other two Big Five winners, but The Silence of the Lambs, in particular, feels like catching lightning in a bottle.

These wins were well-deserved — Demme, Hopkins, Foster, and Tally hit career highs with The Silence of the Lambs. But its success was also a win for a type of movie, one that requires risk and passion as well as craftsmanship and commitment. All too often, Oscar-bait movies are ones seen as being easy sellers; they’re sentimental, clean, and moralizing. The Silence of the Lambs is anything but easy. That’s what made it a gamble. That’s what made it pay off.

Horror movie junkie, fan of Old Hollywood, defender of Grease 2.