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(Jonathan Demme, 1990)


“I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti.”


Jonathan Demme . 1990  


After be all studios turned  down the Thomas Harris novel, Gene Hackman snapped up the rights to be  the  first film  he thought of directing... The  book was highly cinematic,  "the movie was just clicking in  my mind."  It would star Michelle Pfeiffer as the young FBI agent, John  Hurt or Robert Duvall as Hannibal the Cannibal and, busy enough behind the camera, Hackman would take the small role of Clarice's FBI boss, Jack Crawford. 

Ted Tally  was the first writer on the job. "Hackman gave me his approval finally after a lot of discussion. He didn’t have much input. We only had meetings where I pitched my ideas. It was basically, go write the first draft. We didn’t talk much about it. He hadn’t decided whether he was going to also try to play Lecter, while directing it. He thought he might have to drop back to playing Crawford, the FBI boss. He did say, maybe Bobby will play Lecter, but I didn’t have the nerve to ask, Bobby who? Bobby Duvall? Bobby Redford? Bobby De Niro? He just assumed that I would know who Bobby was. And then he quit, while I was writing my first draft. He never called me. I just heard one day from my agent, Gene Hackman’s dropped out of the project. "

The legend says Hackman’s daughter read the book and said : ‘Daddy, you’re not making this movie.’

Hackman was in the Oscarnight audience  inside LA’s Shrine Civic Auditorium on March 9, 1989. He was nominated (again) for  playing another FBI agent dealing with racism at its murderous worst in Mississippi  Burning. Hackman kept seeing clips from Alan  Parker's  film that night and realising that Lambswould be even  more bleak  and violent, he knew he could not hack it and he walked away...

"God bless Gene Hackman’s daughter, if that’s true, and that’s what I’ve always heard," said Jonathan Demme during the film’s 25th anniversary year of 2016. ."God bless her!"

Demme was keen to pick up the pieces. "Oh my God, yes. I just knew it could be scary as hell, an incredible picture. Ted Tally did a remarkable job on the screenplay… I wanted to make a Psycho calibre fucking terrifying movie!" And he did. With close-ups, subjective camera and implying rather than actually showing, the absolute horrors of the tale. This was Demme’s finest hour (helped by an editing cut suggested by William Goldman).  

Indeed, the film was so good it ruined his career. Apart from Philadelphia, 1993 , none of fhis later work had the same cinematic impact. (The Paris-made Truth About Charlie, 2002, and his re-tread of The Manchurian Candidate, 2003, just sucked).

Clarice Starling .  Having had her Married To The Mob, Demme also saw Michelle as Clarice. She soon had second thoughts. Like Hackman, she was "unable to come to terms with the overpowering darkness of the piece."

Becoming notorious for turning down excellent material (like Jodie Foster’s roles in Taxi Driver, The Accused) Debra Winger refused. Meg Ryan was next to drop out. "The script was great but the milieu scared me.   Such a dark world." Andie MacDowell "had a hard time with the subject matter.


“Those kind of movies disturb me, they terrify me.

I don’t want those images in my head.”


Demme was seeing Madeleine Stowe and Emma Thompson among others. "Jodie was always in my mind," Tally told Deadline Hollywood in 2016. "It was a no-brainer. She had just won an Academy Award for The Accused. She was the right age. She had the right intelligence to play somebody like that. I thought she was just a fabulous, fabulous actress, and she actually even called me while I was writing the first draft. We had never met, and she called me to campaign for the part. That was before Jonathan was on board. Jonathan initially wanted Michelle Pfeiffer… I thought she was a few years too old and just too beautiful. It’s too distracting. Would you believe that she would have the right toughness?"

Hannibal Lecter .  Demme followed Michael Mann's lead - he chose Brian Cox for the role in Manhunter, 1986 - and went British first. Kenneth Branagh,JohnHurt, Jeremy Irons did not gell. Thinking American, he considered both sides of the age equation: Robert Duvall and Mickey Rourke. Plus John Lithgow - who had been on Mann’s list for Lecter... then, Lektor.  The studio wanted Robert De Niro or Dustim Hoffman.


Demme  decided on Oscar-winner Louis Gossett Jr.

“It got very close,” recalled Lou. “Then they had 

… about a  black man as a cannibal!”


Demme's next notion  - naturally! -  was Jack Nicholson.   Then back to m ore Brits: Anthony Hopkins, Derek Jacobi and Daniel Day-Lewis. "They were determined to have a Brit for their villain - I'm not sure what this says about us," related Jacobi in his autobiography, As Luck Would Have It.   "Goodness knows how it would have turned out if I had played the part, but I would have been malevolent in a very different way. Tony has harder eyes than I have. He was wonderful."

"But everybody wanted to play that part, gosh, from Dustin Hoffman to Morgan Freeman," Demme told Deadline Hollywoood in 2016. "There was tremendous interest. Sean Connery was the only other person I thought could be amazing for this. Connery has that fierce intelligence and also that serious physicality. I love Tony Hopkins, but Sean Connery could be amazing. So to take the most commercial path, because Connery was flying very high at the time, we sent the script to Sean Connery first. Word came back shortly that he thought it was disgusting and wouldn’t dream of playing that part. So, great, now we can go to Tony Hopkins."

And why? Because he projected "extreme intelligence, great humanity and compassion." He also came up with an eerie voice a mix of Katharine Hepburn, Truman Capote and 2001’s HAL. Tony was on-screen for, maybe, 17 minutes - shortest ever performance winning a Best Actor Oscar?

Jack Crawford . Ed Harris felt Jodie’s FBI boss was not interesting enough. Michael Keaton was suggested - and sure enough, he did join the FBI (as Agent Ray Nicolette) inJackie Brown, 1997, and Out of Sight. Scott Glenn inherited Crawford. Harris later played aFBI man in The Firm,1993."More interesting." Well, more bald.

During the 1989 Oscarnight when Hackman made his fateful decision, he did not win anything - but Jodie Foster did. In 1992, shewon her second Oscar for the film Hackman let go.  In all, Lambs won five Academy Awards (Actor, Actress, Adapted Script, Director, Picture) from seven nominations.There werea lot of wringing of hands that March 30 night in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

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