`Silence' Makes Big Noise At Oscars -- In An Evening Of Firsts, Horror Film Walks Off With All Five Top Honors At Academy Awards

Last night's Academy Awards ceremonies demonstrated what a strange year 1991 was at the movies.

A film that was released more than a year ago, a film that has all but disappeared from theaters, a film that has even vanished from the list of the top 10 rental videos, became the third movie in history to win all five of the key Oscars: best picture, director, script, actor and actress.

And it was a horror film - a genre never before honored with a best-picture award from the conservative academy members, who have turned up their noses at such past horror classics as "Psycho," "Frankenstein," "The Exorcist," "King Kong" and "Invasion of the Body Snatchers."

Was "The Silence of the Lambs" truly deserving of such honors? Does it really measure up to "It Happened One Night" (1934) and "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" (1976), the only other films to win those five awards? Is it as memorable and important a horror movie as "Psycho"?

Certainly it was an effective thriller, extremely well-directed by Jonathan Demme, intelligently adapted by Ted Tally from Thomas Harris' novel, and perfectly acted by its leading actors, Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins, who received the top acting prizes.

But it's something of a shock to find it in such distinguished company, particularly when the also-rans last night included such heavily favored, well-crafted movies as "Bugsy," "JFK," "Thelma & Louise" and "Beauty and the Beast."

Each of these movies did end up with something: "Bugsy" won for best art direction and costume design, "JFK" for cinematography and editing, "Beauty" for best song and score, "Thelma & Louise" for Callie Khouri's original screenplay.

The other big winner of the evening was "Terminator 2," which took four technical awards: makeup, visual effects, sound effects editing, sound recording. Ending up with the supporting-actor Oscars were Jack Palance for his role as the aging cowboy in "City Slickers," and Mercedes Ruehl as Jeff Bridges' long-suffering girlfriend in "The Fisher King."

Much less deserving were the Oscars given to the sappy Italian movie, "Mediterraneo," for best foreign-language film (among the losers was Zhang Yimou's extraordinary Hong Kong entry, "Raise the Red Lantern"), and the laughable, utterly phony half-hour Showtime short, "Session Man," for best live-action short subject. The latter award is, to put it charitably, an insult to student filmmakers everywhere.

The documentary awards went to "In the Shadow of the Stars," a much-praised feature about the San Francisco Opera chorus, and "Deadly Deception," a blistering 30-minute attack on General Electric's handling of nuclear waste. Its producer, Debra Chasnoff, continued the attack at the podium by waving her Oscar and encouraging the world to "boycott General Electric."

In other political statements, Richard Gere suggested that federal funds not being used for defense might be diverted to AIDS research. Bill Lauch, the longtime companion of the late lyricist Howard Ashman - co-winner of the best song Oscar for "Beauty and the Beast" - noted that Ashman was the first AIDS casualty to win an Academy Award.

Red ribbons, worn in sympathy with people with AIDS, were prominently displayed on several presenters. However, a much-heralded protest by gays who objected to their treatment in "Basic Instinct," "JFK" and "The Silence of the Lambs" never materialized on-stage.

The big loser of the evening was "The Prince of Tides," which received no awards although it had seven nominations. Its snubbed director, Barbra Streisand, also received a royal roasting from Billy Crystal, who put new words to a song from "Funny Girl" to mock her ambitions as a filmmaker. Shirley MacLaine and Liza Minnelli made up for it later in the show by saying they'd love to work with Streisand, although MacLaine suggested perhaps that would have to happen in another life.

Emcee of the awards for the third straight year, Crystal suggested just how the evening might go when he made his first appearance in a mask worn in "The Silence of the Lambs" by Hannibal Lecter, the cannibalistic killer played by Hopkins. He then ventured out into the audience to shake hands with Hopkins.

Palance's mock-macho crack about Crystal during his early win for Crystal's comedy, "City Slickers," inspired Crystal to make jokes all evening about his co-star. After an elaborate "Hook" production number populated by kids, Crystal claimed that Palance was "the father of all these children."

Not all of the show was that smooth. Crystal introduced John Lithgow as a two-time Oscar winner (he's never won). Jack Valenti messed up his introduction of Audrey Hepburn. A tribute to Hal Roach left Roach without a microphone (Crystal ad-libbed that Roach had made his reputation in silent films anyway). A hilariously campy film clip from "For the Boys" demonstrated exactly why Bette Midler's movie bombed.

Perhaps the most memorable acceptance speech came from Demme, who took the opportunity to salute several first-time directors, including Foster ("Little Man Tate"), Matty Rich ("Straight Out of Brooklyn") and John Singleton ("Boyz N the Hood"), then went on to thank his mother, co-workers and two deceased directors, Hal Ashby and Martin Ritt. The speech was long, nervous and obviously quite heartfelt.

George Lucas, the "Star Wars" creator who accepted the Irving Thalberg award, thanked projectionists everywhere and was congratulated by the crew of the space shuttle Atlantis - adding two more firsts to the evening.

Here is a list of the winners:

Picture: "The Silence of the Lambs".

Actor: Anthony Hopkins, "The Silence of the Lambs".

Actress: Jodie Foster, "The Silence of the Lambs".

Supporting actor: Jack Palance, "City Slickers".

Supporting actress: Mercedes Ruehl, "The Fisher King".

Director: Jonathan Demme, "The Silence of the Lambs".

Original screenplay: Callie Khouri, "Thelma & Louise".

Adapted screenplay: Ted Tally, "The Silence of the Lambs".

Foreign film: Italy, "Mediterraneo".

Art direction: Dennis Gassner and Nancy Haigh, "Bugsy".

Cinematography: Robert Richardson, "JFK".

Costume design: Albert Wolsky, "Bugsy".

Documentary feature: Allie Light and Irving Saraf, "In the Shadow of the Stars".

Documentary short subject: Debra Chasnoff, "Deadly Deception: General Electric, Nuclear Weapons and Our Environment".

Film editing: Joe Hutshing and Pietro Scalia, "JFK".

Makeup: Stan Winston and Jeff Dawn, "Terminator 2: Judgment Day".

Original score: Alan Menken, "Beauty and the Beast".

Original song: Alan Menken and the late Howard Ashman, "Beauty and the Beast" from "Beauty and the Beast".

Animated short film: Daniel Greaves, "Manipulation".

Live-action short film: Seth Winston and Rob Fried, "Session Man".

Sound: Tom Johnson, Gary Rydstrom, Gary Summers and Lee Orloff, "Terminator 2: Judgment Day".

Sound-effects editing: Gary Rydstrom and Gloria S. Borders, "Terminator 2: Judgment Day".

Visual effects: Dennis Muren, Stan Winston, Gene Warren Jr. and Robert Skotak, "Terminator 2: Judgment Day".

Honorary Oscars announced in advance:

Irving G. Thalberg Award: George Lucas.

Lifetime Achievement Award: Satyajit Ray.

Gordon E. Sawyer Award: Ray Harryhausen.

---------------------------- HOW DID JOHN HARTL STACK UP? ----------------------------

Hartl's picks Oscar winners --------------------------------------------------------------. Best picture

"Bugsy" "The Silence of the Lambs" --------------------------------------------------------------. Best actor

Nick Nolte, Anthony Hopkins,

"The Prince of Tides" "The Silence of the Lambs" --------------------------------------------------------------. Best actress

Jodie Foster, Jodie Foster,

"Silence of the Lambs" "The Silence of the Lambs" --------------------------------------------------------------. Supporting actor

Jack Palance, Jack Palance,

"City Slickers" "City Slickers" --------------------------------------------------------------. Supporting actress

Diane Ladd, Mercedes Ruehl,

"Rambling Rose" "The Fisher King" --------------------------------------------------------------. Best director

Barry Levinson, Jonathan Demme,

"Bugsy" "The Silence of the Lambs" --------------------------------------------------------------.