The Slaughter of the 'Lambs' : Analysis: Thriller sweeps the top Oscar categories and provides the only surprises at the end of a long, predictable evening.

TIMES FILM CRITIC

Like any good Hollywood movie, the Oscars kept their satisfying secrets until nearly the very end. But once Anthony Hopkins' lip-smacking Hannibal Lecter upset Nick Nolte for best actor at the nearly three-hour mark, it was clear that this particular evening was going to belong with a vengeance to "The Silence of the Lambs."

And, just like clockwork, Jodie Foster won for best actress, Jonathan Demme for best director and "Lambs" itself for best picture. As the film's screenwriter, Ted Tally, an Oscar winner in the best adaptation category, noted, "All good things come to those who wait," and this seemed to apply especially to director Demme, never even an Oscar nominee despite a highly regarded body of work that includes "Handle With Care" (originally released as "Citizens Band"), "Melvin and Howard," "Stop Making Sense," "Something Wild" and "Married to the Mob."

Though the industry consensus was late forming this year, once it did, it centered with remarkable solidity around "Lambs," which took five of the seven Oscars it was up for. And no award was greeted with more explosive enthusiasm by the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion audience than the one given to Hopkins.

The Welshman, who seemed as surprised as the audience, won by being a cerebral actor in an extravagantly showy role, a combination that the academy ended up liking better than Nolte's sensitive, career-summation performance in "The Prince of Tides." Host Billy Crystal's onstage entrance in a Lecter-protector ensemble was more of a portent than anyone knew at the time.

If the extent of "Silence of the Lambs' " win was not surprising by the time the last Oscar was handed out, giving a best picture award to as bloody and non-inspirational film as this has to be some kind of first in the academy's long and curious history.

Other than Nolte's loss, which caused Warren Beatty (another best actor nominee, for "Bugsy") to get out of his seat and walk over to offer condolences, the rest of the evening turned out predictably, with "Beauty and the Beast" winning both musical Oscars and "Terminator 2: Judgment Day" winning four in the technical categories.

If there was a surprise, it came in the non-awards area, as no public protests by the activist group Queer Nation were in evidence, and, as if to balance that absence, several presenters and winners made moving reference to the need for increased research to fight AIDS.

Two main trends characterized the academy's voting pattern. One was to spread the Oscars around judiciously, rewarding a wide variety of films.

"Thelma & Louise" was given an Oscar for Callie Khouri's screenplay, its strongest point. "JFK" got two Oscars out of a possible eight for the two areas it shone in, cinematography and editing. And "Bugsy," although nominated 10 times, had to settle for two awards (art direction and costume design), both in the visual categories it was strongest in.

Even "Prince of Tides," totally shut out despite seven nominations, got the satisfaction of having director Barbra Streisand singled out from the podium by two groups of presenters as having more than enough talent to deserve the nomination she didn't get.

The second trend, symbolized by the awarding of the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award to producer-director George Lucas of "Star Wars" and "Indiana Jones" fame, was to reward films that were large popular successes.

Aside from the awards won by the enormously successful "Silence of the Lambs," Jack Palance of the equally successful "City Slickers" won for best supporting actor. And, if that weren't enough, "Terminator 2" won four of six Oscars for which it was nominated and even beat "Lambs" in a head-to-head battle in best achievement in sound. "When is (director) Jim Cameron going to win one of these things?" asked one of "T2's" Oscar winners, and it seemed quite a good question, indeed.

Also underlining the academy's desire, in a time of declining box office, to be audience-friendly was heavy reliance on crowd-pleasing gimmicks. Making cameo appearances during the ceremony were the hand from "The Addams Family," Chip the teacup from "Beauty and the Beast," the entire crew of the space shuttle Atlantis and 100-year-old comedy veteran Hal Roach, who got one of the evening's few standing ovations.

Given the academy's usual abhorrence of controversy, perhaps the most startling Oscar of the night went to "Deadly Deception: General Electric, Nuclear Weapons and Our Environment," a very tough, very political film that makes a very strong case against General Electric's continuing manufacture of nuclear weapons. When producer Debra Chasnoff closed her speech by saying, "Thank you very much and boycott GE!" many academy members probably had trouble believing their ears.

The saddest note of the evening was the fact that Orion Pictures, the studio that produced "Lambs" as well as last year's big winner, "Dances With Wolves," and has a reputation for being kind to creative filmmakers, is battling the terminal stages of bankruptcy. Sometimes, even in Hollywood, you can't win for losing.

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