Oscar Voters Break With Tradition

`The Silence of the Lambs' sweeps awards despite its grisly subject matter

A PIECE of conventional wisdom was erased when "The Silence of the Lambs" swept the top prizes at this year's Academy Awards.

Since the academy's membership is somewhat older than the general population of moviegoers - and reputed to be more conservative, as well - it's often said that particularly violent or raunchy films are at a disadvantage.

Try telling this to best director Jonathan Demme, best actor Anthony Hopkins, best actress Jodie Foster, and best adapted-screenplay writer Ted Tally, all of whom earned Oscars for "The Silence of the Lambs." Capping their triumph was a best-picture prize for the movie itself, which apparently charmed academy voters with its grisly tale of a female FBI agent, a serial killer, and a deadly psychiatrist with a cannibalistic streak.

Adding to the irony, portions of the gay community had targeted this year's ceremony for a protest against homophobia in Hollywood films - and "The Silence of the Lambs," with its depiction of a sexually ambiguous murderer, was seen by many activists as a prime offender. Just about everyone participating in the 3 1/2-hour ceremony wore a small red ribbon to signify compassion for people suffering from AIDS, but nobody associated with "The Silence of the Lambs" mentioned this crisis (or gay-bashing or big otry) in an acceptance speech.

Mr. Demme is known as a humanistic artist and he has expressed concern that aspects of "The Silence of the Lambs" strike some observers as homophobic. Perhaps his silence on this subject during Oscar night was merely an oversight. But could it be that lack of sympathy with the protestors' cause spurred some academy members to vote for a movie they would otherwise have found too nasty? It's a question worth pondering.

"Bugsy," the most nominated film in the race, is closer to the academy's usual taste - a genre picture with flashy performances - but it scored only two prizes out of 10 chances. The provocative "JFK" won two out of eight. Even worse befell "The Prince of Tides," a glossy melodrama that left empty-handed despite seven nominations.

In areas where the voting might have served a socially constructive purpose, the academy blew its opportunity. Agnieszka Holland lost the adapted-screenplay prize, even though a win for her "Europa, Europa" would have rebuked Germany's peculiar decision to withhold that movie (about a Jewish boy during the Nazi era) from the race for best foreign-language film. John Singleton lost his bids for best director and best original screenplay, even though "Boyz N the Hood" marks him as an extraordinary new tale nt.

Moviegoers don't expect the Oscars to change the world, of course. But movies do affect us all, and it would be nice if Hollywood could turn its awards into more than a self-congratulatory exercise. That would be movie magic worth cheering.

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