In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. All posts should be considered to have a blanket “spoiler alert” on them. Today’s installment is the 1992 winner The Silence of the Lambs. Is it better than Crash?
I can’t be sure, but The Silence of the Lambs might be the most decorated movie in history to use the c-word twice in the first 15 minutes.
The Silence of the Lambs is all about ugliness. It’s about what we consider ugly (deviancy) and what is ugly (violent madness). It’s about how brilliance goes two different ways, but how those paths can fork out even after that.
Everyone knows the basic story: Buffalo Bill is kidnapping and killing women, Hannibal Lecter is the only man crazy enough to know how he thinks, and Clarice Starling is the only woman who can maybe find the link between the two in time. Spoiler alert or no, you know this. You know this because everyone knows this.
It’s worth bringing up here that a quest to see every single Best Picture Oscar winner means watching a lot of movies everyone already knows. Everyone knows (more or less) the story of Braveheart and Rocky and Casablanca and Gone with the Wind. It can be easy to dismiss stories that iconic with a sort of “eh, I know those, I’m good.”
You cannot do that with The Silence of the Lambs. You must not do that. You need to see Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins in this movie if for no other reason than to gain new appreciation for what you think you already know. You need to replace your acting benchmarks for greatness.
The Silence of the Lambs is one of three movies ever to win “the big five” Oscar awards (screenplay, both acting awards, director, and picture) and shares that honor with It Happened One Night and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. To keep the frame of reference for when Lambs came out, that year also saw the release of JFK, Beauty and the Beast, and Hook. Lambs was an immediate part of the pop culture landscape. Billy Crystal hosted the Oscars that year and came out in Hannibal Lecter’s trademark dolly and mask. America’s concept of the criminally insane was forever changed, both by Buffalo Bill and by Hannibal Lecter.
America also got a new favorite line to do in a creepy voice (an award previously held, I hope, by anything Vincent Price ever said) with Lecter’s line about eating someone’s liver. You know the line. I’m not going to include it; I don’t even need to list it. Everyone you’ve ever met has told everyone they’ve ever met that line. The American Film Institute listed it as even more iconic than “Bond. James Bond.” in their list. It is an instantly recognizable representation of evil and madness. It’s tidy that way.
What is lost along the legacy of that line is that it is surrounded by an incredible, outstanding scene of Lecter meeting Clarice for the first time. The scene’s most chilling elements have nothing to do with Lecter saying he ate someone – they are everything else. The best part is the chill that we feel for Clarice as she tries to act unafraid. The line itself is outstanding, but it’s a blunt object at this point. The rest of the scene is all finesse in its horror. It is terrifying with opportunity, because the unaccustomed viewer knows Lecter says this one creepy thing, but they don’t know about his love of control. They don’t know that his madness manifests in creating and solving puzzles more than outward acts of terror and mayhem. He’s mostly a quiet kind of insane – but yeah, he’ll also eat your liver.
The Best Part: The meeting scene. It happens 15 minutes into the movie, but it perfectly establishes everything in the movie’s world. Clarice is inwardly strong but outwardly terrified, and that combination just might keep her both sane and alive. Lecter is defensive, but also willing to tip his hand if he thinks he needs to do so. The audience wants Clarice to hold back, but we love that she can bare herself – even though in this case it’s to a demented cannibal.
The Worst Part: This feels very, very small, but I kept noticing it. An important part of the tension of The Silence of the Lambs is about how Clarice has enemies that aren’t literal. She’s haunted by her past as much as she’s ever hunted by murderers. They handle her past well — it spawns the title — but the attempts to remind everyone that she’s a lady and ladies have it tough don’t all land. Some, like a discussion between Clarice and her boss about establishing that she’s not lesser because she’s a woman really work despite being obvious. Others, like how every single man she encounters stands too close and checks her out, are maybe too obvious.
Is It Better or Worse than Crash? The common thread between the two movies? Relentlessness. Lambs is about pursuit in the face of danger and Crash is about confirming or rejecting your biases. One character in Crash wants to so strongly be an anti-racist (one of the only ones in the film) and ends up shooting someone of another race before abandoning his car to hide the body. Lambs teaches that pursuit can be dangerous but rewarding, and that not everyone can pay that price. Crash teaches that all attempts to better yourself or achieve anything will be met with failure. Lambs lacks a distinct moral on purpose, Crash has a terrible moral on accident.
Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @alexbad.
Image credit: Oscars.org