It took Anthony Hopkins just 25 minutes to win the Oscar in what would become the role of a lifetime: beneath the mask of Hannibal The Cannibal
The Silence of the Lambs, the multiple Oscar-winning movie directed by Jonathan Demme (who sadly left us in 2017), has just turned thirty, released in American cinemas on Valentine’s Day 1991 and since then breaking box office records all over the place.
The film had actually been ready for a year at least but Orion Pictures decided to put it on the back burner for a while so that it would not interfere with the success of Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves, another film Orion was hoping would make a splash on the night of the Oscars.
The producers’ hunch was rewarded with Costner’s movie coming out with seven Oscars in 1992 and Demme’s masterpiece collecting the “Big Five”, the Oscar for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress” and “Best Adapted Screenplay” (written by Ted Tally).
Demme’s.movie was only the third ever to win five Academy Awards, following in the footsteps of Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night in 1934 and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest directed by Milos Forman in 1975. Since The Silence of the Lambs, no other film has managed to win the Big Five.
The movie plot immediately became part of popular culture but we can sum it up one more time: the FBI is on the trail of a ruthless serial killer – the notorious Jame Gumb nicknamed Buffalo Bill and played by Ted Levine – whose horrendous hallmark is to cruelly skin his victims, all lovely young womcn.
New recruit Clarice Sterling (Jodie Foster) is assigned to investigate the case and carry out interviews which will prove extremely illuminating with Doctor Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), a once forensic psychiatrist and criminologist who was put away in the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane accused of having killed and eaten the bodies of six of his patients.
Clarice, wielding the weapon of ruthless sincerity, earns the respect of the evil but brilliant Doctor Lecter, developing a sort of empathic (and perilous) rapport which will lead her to capture Buffalo Bill.
Thirty years on it is impossible to imagine a better matched pair than Foster and Hopkins who, both winning an Oscar, went on to become Hollywood superstars.
And yet, the role of Clarice Sterling had been first offered to Michelle Pfeiffer who didn’t feel like playing the part because of the “grim subject matter”.
At that point there was a chance for Foster who had literally fallen in love with the book of the same name by Ed Harris (on which the film is based) when it first came out in 1988. The year after Jodie had also won an Oscar for her moving performance in The Accused, a film directed by Jonathan Kaplan. Yet that was not enough to convince Demme who during Foster’s audition for the part had doubts about her strong Boston accent. But then Pfeiffer turned it down and movie history took a different turn.
For Hopkins, it was all more straightforward. Demme had had his eye on him for years, ever since his superb performance in The Elephant Man (1980) directed by David Lynch.
The director knew he would be just perfect for the part of Doctor Lecter also because of the meticulous care the British actor took with each and every role he played. Yet he had initially tried to play the more popular (and box office friendly) card of Sean Connery. The ex- 007 let that particular ship sail, dismissing the screenplay of The Silence of the Lambs as “revolting” – and there was no coming back from that.
And so Anthony Hopkins took the part and, in the brief space of 24 minutes and 52 seconds (the total time he appears on screen as Hannibal the Cannibal), portrayed his character so well that he won an Oscar.
It was no new entry for the Guinness Book of Records though; in fact in1964, Patricia Neal had won the Oscar for her performance as Alma Brown in the film Hud directed by Martin Ritt where the main character was played by one Paul Newman. On that occasion, Neal appeared on screen for just 21 minutes and 51 seconds. Basically three minutes less than Hopkins/Lecter…