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How Jonathan Demme’s ‘Silence of the Lambs’ Broke Countless Oscar Conventions

The further I spin away from “Moonlight’s” best picture victory last February, which none of us really had the chance to unpack in all the chaos of the Oscars climax, the more stunned I am by its sheer unlikeliness. That exciting moment broke countless conventions.

So, too, did “The Silence of the Lambs” 25 years ago. With director Jonathan Demme’s untimely passing this morning, I’m reminded of just how many “rules” that film broke, and how it — like “Moonlight” — is a constant reminder: let convention be damned when it comes to the Oscar race.

To start, it was a horror film. Skew it to “thriller” if you want, but no movie as horrific as this had ever claimed the Academy’s top prize. And how could it? It’s difficult for genre filmmaking to translate broadly enough. Science-fiction is often the poster child for this, but horror faces an even steeper climb.

Not only did it win best picture, but it also claimed the top four Oscars: lead actor, lead actress, director, and screenplay. To put that into perspective, only two other films have done it: “It Happened One Night” and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”

Furthermore, the movie was a February release. It won best picture on March 30, 1992, a full 13 months after it landed in theaters. That would be virtually unheard of in most seasons, as studios often back-load the year with their prestige content, with a specific eye toward the Oscar race. Along with “Annie Hall,” “Forrest Gump,” “Braveheart,” “Gladiator,” “Crash,” and “The Hurt Locker,” “The Silence of the Lambs” is one of only seven movies in the last 40 years to win the industry’s top prize with a release date earlier than August.

How did the film pull off these various feats, particularly in a year that wasn’t hurting for competition? At the Golden Globes, “Bugsy” (best picture — drama), “JFK” (best director), and Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” (best picture — comedy or musical) were the big victors. Nick Nolte even won best actor there for “The Prince of Tides,” over Anthony Hopkins’ iconic portrayal of Hannibal Lecter. Those films, along with Demme’s, made for a sterling Oscar lineup, but the Academy — and the Directors Guild — opted for the Demme’s work in the end.

In simple terms, the movie was a legitimate phenomenon. More than $130 million in domestic box office receipts was nothing to sneeze at. Hopkins’ work — quite limited in screen time, despite being considered a lead — had become instantly classic. So the Academy was no doubt responding in part to the film’s pop cultural footprint.

But underneath all of that was Demme’s steady, confident hand. “The Silence of the Lambs” doesn’t go out of its way to wow you. Aesthetically speaking, other than an inspired night vision sequence, it’s rather unfussy. But through deft handling of the actors, skillful editing that builds a suspenseful narrative, moody cinematography that adds an edge, and an original score that hits the perfect notes at the right moments, it ultimately becomes a gripping cinematic experience — one that, clearly, the industry couldn’t ignore.

How did “The Silence of the Lambs” pull it off? Obviously, for various reasons. But behind all of them there was one constant: Jonathan Demme.

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