There was no Oscar buzz for mid-winter movies when THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS opened on Feb. 14, 1991.
Oscar contenders opened late in the year then, as they still do, to avoid being forgotten by Academy voters. Moreover, grisly horror thrillers weren’t likely Oscar nominees then and that’s still the case 31 years later.
SILENCE was driven by Jonathan Demme’s directing, Ted Tally’s screenplay, and Anthony Hopkins & Jodie Foster’s performances — all Oscar winners in 1992. Plus — it won Best Picture and also had film editing & sound noms. In retrospect, it’s hard to believe it almost didn’t get made, but SILENCE was in trouble at Orion Pictures from the start.
It was based on Thomas Harris’s 1988 novel but wasn’t the first book about Dr. Hannibal Lecter. The film that introduced Lecter was the 1986 thriller MANHUNTER, based on Harris’s 1981 novel RED DRAGON, in which Lecter was played by Brian Cox, best known today for SUCCESSION.
Before SILENCE was published, Orion signed Gene Hackman to direct and possibly play Lecter. They were going to split paying the $500,000 rights fee and they also needed to acquire the rights to Lecter. Those were owned by Dino De Laurentiis, who produced MANHUNTER. Because that film had died at the boxoffice, Dino didn’t charge for the Lecter rights.
Orion & Hackman hired Tally in November 1987. Harris knew Tally and had sent him an advance copy. Tally was midway through writing draft one when Hackman dropped out because he decided he didn’t want to play any more violent roles. The financing evaporated quickly. Mike Medavoy, an Orion partner & production chief, asked Tally to keep writing while new money and a new director were found. Jonathan Demme, who directed Orion’s 1988 hit MARRIED TO THE MOB, said yes after reading the novel. Things began moving quickly. Tally and Demme met in May 1989, no big rewrites were needed and filming began Nov. 15.
Demme’s first choice for Lecter was Sean Connery, who passed. Dustin Hoffman, Jack Nicholson & Robert De Niro were among those considered before Hopkins was cast. Demme’s first choice for Clarice was Michelle Pfeiffer, who declined because Orion wouldn’t pay her $2 million fees. Demme hired Foster after just one meeting.
SILENCE cost $19M to make and did about $273M worldwide. Although De Laurentiis missed out on SILENCE, he went on to produce its 2001 sequel HANNIBAL, which did nearly $352M, and its 2002 prequel RED DRAGON, which did over $209M — both of which, of course, starred Anthony Hopkins as Dr. Lecter.
“When Silence of the Lambs did well commercially it was more than anything. My partner Ed Saxon and I were just so relieved that finally, we had made a movie that had made some money!” – Jonathan Demme