What is so extraordinary about Anthony Hopkins’ performance in “The Silence of the Lambs”?


In The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Anthony Hopkins delivers a stellar performance as the convicted serial killer Hannibal Lecter. His performance is in fact so good that it earned him an Oscar for Best Actor despite appearing on screen for only 16 minutes, the smallest screen time ever needed to win that award. Hopkins’ acting was superb and well deserving of the win, but it would not have been possible if it weren’t for the immense anticipation and aura built around the character Hannibal while Lecter is off screen.

The anticipation built in the lead-up to meeting Lecter for the first time is enormous. Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) is first told that she is to meet with him by agent Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn), who emphasizes to her “you don’t want Hannibal Lecter inside your head.” The lengthy build up continues in the office of Frederick Chilton (Anthony Heald), where he discusses Lecter with a sense of morbid exaltation. During a drawn out descent from his office to the lower levels of the asylum where Lecter is kept, Chilton tells Starling of a time where Lecter managed to briefly escape and eat the tongue out of a nurse’s mouth, never letting his heart rate exceed 85. Our journey to meet Lecter ends with a long walk through the hallway of the most deranged and psychopathic inmates the asylum houses, with Lecter’s cell at the end. The inmates we see before Lecter are outwardly psychotic and mentally unstable, and as we venture further down the hallway our expectations for the insanity of Lecter grow. Instead he is calm, composed, well spoken and smiling. His cell is decorated with paintings that demonstrate artistic talent and a vibrant imagination. His appearance suggests a peaceful character, yet the security measures to confine him exceed those of all the other inmates. Our expectations of Lecter are subverted, and our knowledge of his violent past seems to contradict his calm exterior. This groundwork lays the platform for Hopkins to deliver a superb performance.

Throughout the course of the film, the information we learn about Lecter heightens his on-stage presence as a powerful, almost omnipotent force. Miggs, the inmate who threw semen at Starling, is driven to suicide by Lecter’s psychological torture as punishment for his behaviour towards Starling. Without touching Miggs Lecter kills him. While on her way to speak to Lecter, a police officer asks Starling if Lecter is a vampire. Starling responds, “They don’t have a name for what he is.” Most of what we see of Lecter’s ingenious escape is the aftermath. He transforms his temporary cell into a smoky and morbid scene, with the disfigured and brutalized corpse of an officer he slays strung across the room like a bloody sculpture. He even manages to trick the EMTs into escorting him from the scene by wearing the face of the second slain officer. We see none of this, as to show Lecter doing these things would probably draw us out of the suspension of disbelief. Much of Lecter’s actions are too insane to be believably constructed on screen, which is why the decision to deliver them either as conversation among other characters or as the aftermath of his heinous actions works so well. It leaves the carnage to our imagination.