As the director of over 60 projects, Jonathan Demme, who died of complications from esophageal cancer on April 26, 2017, was a creative force to be reckoned with. With films like Philadelphia, The Manchurian Candidate, and Married to the Mob, Demme cemented himself as a highly acclaimed director with a distinctive point of view. He was known his ability to elevate projects and to get stunning performances out of his actors. All of which is evidenced in Silence of The Lambs.
Based on novel of the same name written by Tom Harris, Silence of the Lambs became a cultural touchstone in the 1990’s. It brought Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins into the spotlight in ways that they had not previously enjoyed, and more importantly, was the first film to win a Big Five Academy Award and be a horror film. Despite the fact that the film has been classified as a “thriller” since its initial release, it is without a doubt a horror film. And as such, makes it all the more surprising that it was able to win Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Adapted Screenplay. Typically, horror films are not celebrated during awards season.
The fact that it was heralded and lauded to such a degree goes to show you how incredibly well made and well cast Silence really was. Despite both Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins winning Oscars for their performances, neither of them were initially considered for the roles. Gene Hackman was the first contender for Hannibal Lector and, believe it or not, the person that Jonathan Demme wanted for Clarice was none other than Married To The Mob star Michelle Pfeiffer.
The film still stands as a testament to incredibly high quality filmmaking. It’s a subtle mix of bombastic characters, beautiful cinematography, and honest acting. If handled another way, the character of Hannibal could have either been a cartoon or simply one-dimensional. But thanks to Ted Tally’s screenplay and Demme’s directing the characters feel fleshed-out, like they’re living, breathing people. They feel honest, even in their operatic natures.
And such honesty is exactly what makes it so terrifying. The fact that everything is just happening. Forget massive crane shots or insane wirework. Instead Demme chose good lighting and honest depictions of sadists and cannibals doing what they do with nary a flinch. Still regarded as the cause of a renaissance in the Thriller genre, it spawned an army of films that wanted to imitate and mimic the stylistic tropes of the film and garner even a minor amount of the success the film achieved.
Silence of the Lambs is a rare example of a film that transcended its genre, developed a cult following, and enjoyed mainstream success. It’s one of the few pure examples of what can happen when you try a subject with respect, integrity, and don’t try to make it overly commercial. On the surface, a film about a serial killer, cannibalistic doctor, and FBI upstart probably wouldn’t set the world on fire. However, Demme and the rest of the creative team endeavored to create a picture that stated true to its core idea, and they were rewarded hardily for it. Even today, Silence of the Lambs is one of the films that people talk about in terms of an uncompromising vision, direct and truthful acting, and its visceral palpable atmosphere.