Remember the good old days when the Oscars rewarded actors for their punishing abilities to withstand the course of a three-hour run time? Well, in 1991, they abandoned that premise to offer stalwart stage actor Anthony Hopkins an Oscar for a film in which he has little more than a cameo with just under 16 minutes of screen time. In many ways, it was an insult to his fellow nominees, particularly when Robin Williams’s fragile turn in The Fisher King was also in consideration for the glittering prize.
Although The Silence of The Lambs is one of the more risible entries to nab the trophy for Best Picture – it has none of the grandeur of The Lion In Winter, or the heart of The Elephant Man, two worthier vehicles Hopkins had brought to the Academy – it did somehow manage to fool the American public into thinking it was a worthy piece of art, as opposed to the throwaway porn it should be remembered as.
The film singlehandedly wasted the talents of actress Jodie Foster, and unlike the book on which it was based, made no effort to provide a context for Buffalo Bill’s mania with slaughtering women. J.K. Rowling only had to throw on a copy of The Silence of The Lambs to support her distrust of “men dressing up as women”, which likely accounts for her more transphobic stances in recent years.
And then there’s Hopkins, a truly brilliant actor, who is forced to throw out catchphrases in the hope of coming across as whimsical and clever, in an effort to match the animal magnetism of Robert Harris’s creation. Unlike Brian Cox, Hopkins did not have the voice to draw in listeners, and he certainly lacked Mads Mikkelsen‘s smouldering looks, which is why he needed to showcase a certain danger in an effort to show why so many victims fell for Hannibal Lecter’s charm.
What we get is a camp construction of an actor posing as a Hammer monster, engaging in a form of cosplay that compensates for a lack of charisma and appeal. We find more menacing portraits on the streets of Dublin, and although it’s not Hopkins’s fault that he is so fey, he never feels threatening. Every threat he gives feels empty, and no matter the presentation of the “friends” and “chianti”, the fact that the assailant could be taken down by a good tickle.
It doesn’t help that he borrowed from his training as a burgeoning actor, searching for a mentor to guide him to a higher plane of thought. “I’ve never admitted this publicly, but when I was in the Royal Academy, there was a teacher we had, a Stanislavsky method teacher, and he was lethal,” Hopkins admitted in 2021. “He was very charismatic, and he was deadly. He would rip you apart. He would take you apart intellectually. He’d just smirk, and he’d say, ‘No. Do it again.’ You’d do a piece, and he’d say, ‘Do it again. No.’”
Where Robert Harris poured over police reports and Cox channelled the posturings of famed Scottish killer Peter Manuel, Hopkins merely emulated the teachings of an eccentric drama teacher to flesh out his interpretation of Lecter. Despite the characters’ overt fascination with violence, Hopkins plays him with camp detachment, uneager to throw himself into the vortex of aggression or acidity. Ultimately, Hopkins plays Lecter like Roger Moore played James Bond, but there are no safari suits or underwater vehicles to support this transformation, nor are there any comedic silhouettes to justify this display of pantomime.
It’s like going from a subterranean thriller to a 1970s pastiche, and whatever pacing The Silence of The Lambs had unwittingly drummed up – because it certainly wasn’t organic creativity – is lost whenever Hopkins walks onscreen. Tellingly, when Hopkins reprised the role of Hannibal, it was done under the pretence of a black comedy, culminating in a scene in which the killer feeds a prisoner his own brain as his daily meal.
Glaringly, Hopkins agreed to star in a remake of Manhunter, Red Dragon, turning in another awful performance in a thriller that was haughty, hackneyed and deeply unnecessary. Mercifully, the Hannibal series returned the character to his grittier roots, complete with an actor who was perfectly adept at being dense and dark, yet charming and sensual.
Mikkelsen is a much better Lecter, as is Cox. Indeed, anyone could have performed Lecter better than the Welsh actor, and the fact that he was rewarded with an Oscar stands as one of the grossest moments of misjudgement in the industry’s history. Hopkins would grow tired of the association with the character, and liberated by Mikkelsen’s worthier performance, he decided to take on roles that showed his vulnerability as an artist. His performance The Father had all the flairs that was so sorely absent from his performance in The Silence of The Lambs, and on this occasion, it was a deserved win.