Six Circuit: Which 1991 Best Picture Contender Heard ‘Silence’ From The Academy?

Welcome to the twenty-eighth entry in our Six Circuit series.

Horror movies rarely do well at the Oscars. The only other type of movies that possibly do worse are ones that open in February. “The Silence of the Lambs” defied all odds to win all top five prizes (Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, Writing). Jonathan Demme’s classic thriller wasn’t the only unexpected Best Picture nominee this year. Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” became the first animated movie to earn a Best Picture nomination. Let’s take a look at who these groundbreaking films went up against in the 1991 race.



  • “Beauty and the Beast”  — Don Hahn, Producer
  • “Bugsy”  — Mark Johnson, Barry Levinson and Warren Beatty, Producers
  • “JFK”  — A. Kitman Ho and Oliver Stone, Producers
  • “The Prince of Tides”  — Barbra Streisand and Andrew Karsch, Producers
  • “The Silence of the Lambs”  — Edward Saxon, Kenneth Utt and Ron Bozman, Producers (WINNER)




It’s hard to imagine “The Silence of the Lambs” not winning Best Picture. It’s arguably been one of the Academy’s coolest choices. Back in 1991, the film performed well with the guilds, taking home the PGA, DGA and WGA Awards. While it lost the BAFTA Award, it was the only film in the lineup to go on to a Best Picture nomination (save for “Dances with Wolves,” which won Best Picture the prior year). The one film to defeat “The Silence of the Lambs” was “Bugsy,” which won Best Picture at the Golden Globes. Warren Beatty’s Bugsy Malone film earned the most Oscar nominations this year (ten). This passion appears to be mostly for the craft of the film, rather than the film itself. It only won two awards (Art Direction, Costume Design), showing that it might not have been the main competitor for “The Silence of the Lambs.”

In fact, Oscar winner Oliver Stone may have had the better shot this year. His film “JFK,” which details a conspiracy theory of the murder of John F. Kennedy, garnered eight nominations. It also only won two Oscars (Cinematography, Film Editing). However, those below the line categories often have higher crossover with Best Picture winners. The film’s polarizing nature may have hurt it overall. Additionally, Stone already had three Oscar wins (writing for “Midnight Express,” directing for “Platoon” and “Born on the Fourth of July”). There was little need to reward him a fourth time.

“Beauty and the Beast” was a landmark nomination for animated films. The Golden Globe winning musical had captured people’s hearts and there was lots of passion for the film. Other than Best Picture, its only other nominations came in the sound categories (Original Score, three Original Song nominees, Sound). It won two categories (Original Score and Song). Yet, the lack of a writing nomination at least indicated that it wasn’t going to make a play for the win. The final Best Picture nominee, “The Prince of Tides,” did really well on nomination morning. It earned seven nominations, but made headlines for the one it didn’t get. Barbara Streisand was snubbed in both Best Director and Actress. This sparked many to debate whether or not her exclusion was an example of sexism in Hollywood, specifically around female directors. In the end, the film lost all seven of its nominations.


  • “Barton Fink”
    • Precursors – Cannes Film Festival Palm D’or (WINNER)
    • Oscar Nominations – Best Supporting ACtor (Michael Lerner), Art Direction, Costume Design
  • “Boyz N The Hood”
    • Precursors – PGA Awards, WGA Awards
    • Oscar Nominations – Best Director, Original Screenplay
  • “City Slickers”
    • Precursors – Golden Globe Awards
    • Oscar Nominations – Best Supporting Actor (Jack Palance) (WINNER)
  • “The Commitments”
    • Precursors – BAFTA Awards (WINNER), Golden Globe Awards, WGA Awards, PGA Awards
    • Oscar Nominations – Best Film Editing
  • “The Fisher King”
    • Precursors – Golden Globe Awards, WGA Awards, Los Angeles Film Critics Association (Runner-Up), Venice Film Festival Golden Lion (Runner-Up), Toronto Film Festival People’s Choice Award (WINNER)
    • Oscar Nominations – Best Actor (Robin Williams), Supporting Actress (Mercedes Ruehl) (WINNER), Original Screenplay, Art Direction, Original Score
  • “Fried Green Tomatoes”
    • Precursors – Golden Globe Awards, WGA Awards
    • Oscar Nominations – Best Supporting Actress (Jessica Tandy), Adapted Screenplay
  • “Grand Canyon”
    • Precursors – WGA Awards
    • Oscar Nominations – Best Original Screenplay
  • “Life is Sweet”
    • Precursors – National Society of Film Critics (WINNER), Indie Spirit Awards
    • Oscar Nominations – None
  • “My Own Private Idaho”
    • Precursors – Venice Film Festival Golden Lion (WINNER), New York Film Critics Circle (Runner-Up), Indie Spirit Awards
    • Oscar Nominations – None
  • “Rambling Rose”
    • Precursors – Indie Spirit Awards (WINNER)
    • Oscar Nominations – Best Actress (Laura Dern), Supporting Actress (Diane Ladd)
  • “Terminator 2: Judgment Day”
    • Precursors – None
    • Oscar Nominations – Cinematography, Film Editing, Makeup (WINNER), Sound (WINNER), Sound Editing (WINNER), Visual Effects (WINNER)
  • “Thelma & Louise”
    • Precursors – BAFTA Awards, DGA Awards, Golden Globe Awards, WGA Awards (WINNER)
    • Oscar Nominations – Best Director, Actress (Susan Sarandon), Actress (Geena Davis), Original Screenplay (WINNER), Cinematography, Film Editing


The year 1991 featured many small independent films that found passionate fans. Over the past few years, indies like “sex, lies and videotape,” “The Grifters,” “Stand and Deliver” and “Blue Velvet” all earned key Oscar nominations, but not Best Picture. “Platoon” was the first Independent Spirit Award winner to also get nominated and win Best Picture. This year’s Independent Spirit Award winner, “Rambling Rose,” did go on to multiple Oscar nominations. The period drama earned acting nominations for Laura Dern in Lead and Diane Ladd in Supporting. Unfortunately, its passion was not wide reaching enough to earn nominations in Picture, Director or Writing.

Other Independent Spirit Award nominees had more critical prizes than “Rambling Rose,” but went on to zero Oscar nominations. “My Own Private Idaho” won the Golden Lion prize at the Venice Film Festival and was the runner-up at the New York Film Critics Circle Awards. Meanwhile, “Life is Sweet” also won the top prize from the National Society of Film Critics.

While the Coen Brothers are Oscar powerhouses today, they didn’t quite have that awards magnetism pre-Fargo. Still, Cannes Film Festival Palm d’or winner “Barton Fink” wound up with a surprise Best Supporting Actor nomination for Michael Lerner, despite little precursor support. The film was never going to be a real Best Picture contender, but it likely paved the way for “Fargo” to be a real Oscar threat in 1996.


The Guild awards threw their support behind many different films this year. At this point, the SAG Awards had not been created, so it was up to the PGA, DGA and WGA to spread the wealth. Since the WGA had both Adapted and Original Screenplay categories, they were able to nominate the most films at this time. Both “Grand Canyon,” “Fried Green Tomatoes” and “The Fisher King” earned their sole guild nominations at the WGA Awards. All three went on to earn writing nominations at the Oscars. “Fried Green Tomatoes” (also a Golden Globe nominee) received an additional Supporting Actress nomination for Jessica Tandy

She ended up losing to Mercedes Ruehl from “The Fisher King,” a movie that came closest to Best Picture of this bunch. In addition to the WGA Awards, the film earned a Golden Globe nomination, won the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival and was the Best Picture Runner-Up at the Venice Film Festival and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. Though the film did not earn a Best Picture nomination at the Oscars, it showed up with five nominations, including a win for Ruehl.


Three films dominated the guild awards, only to get snubbed at the last minute from Oscar. “Boyz N The Hood” and “The Commitments” both received PGA and WGA Awards. While “Boyz N The Hood” was less prevalent throughout the entire Oscar season, John Singleton’s groundbreaking film was very much a part of the cultural conversation. It received Oscar nominations for Best Director (making Singleton the first black director and youngest director nominated for the prize) and Original Screenplay. Even without a DGA nomination, this shows the director’s branch threw support behind the film. With this much support in the Academy, one figures “Boyz N The Hood” was definitely close to a Best Picture nomination.

Meanwhile, “The Commitments” also had a bit of a twist on the type of movies usually honored by the Oscars. Alan Parker’s musical comedy follows a young music lover in Dublin who puts together a band comprised of his working class friends. The film was praised for its humor and fresh energy. In addition to the PGA and WGA nominations, it also won the top prize at BAFTA and competed in the Golden Globes lineup. Though all these groups loved the film, there must have been some Oscar disconnect. The film only wound up with a lone Film Editing nomination.

The one film that had everything going for it during the Oscar season was “Thelma & Louise.” Ridley Scott’s classic had earned a place in the public consciousness that makes it still relevant today. Even in 1991, awards bodies were quick to shower the film with prizes. It won both the WGA Award and (eventually) the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. Nominations came from the DGA Awards, Golden Globes and BAFTA Awards as well. Even on Oscar nomination morning, “Thelma & Louise” did very well with Oscar nominations. It earned six Oscar nominations, including writing, directing and two acting nominations. The only thing missing was a Best Picture nomination.


Every once in a while the Oscars love a populist choice. In some ways, one can look at the Best Picture nominations for “The Silence of the Lambs” and “Beauty and the Beast” as the Academy’s attempt at broad appeal. Looking back, there were other blockbuster and popcorn flicks that could’ve surprised in more categories. The second biggest winner of the night was “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” which won four Oscars out of six nominations. While all of these awards were technical, the Cinematography and Film Editing nominations speak to the wide appeal for the James Cameron directed sequel. Plus, it was only a few years prior that Cameron’s “Aliens” brought Sigourney Weaver her first Oscar nomination. 

One of the more off-kilter acting wins in the modern era has been “City Slickers” star Jack Palance’s win. Clearly the win was more for Palance’s career than his work in the Billy Crystal broad comedy. Still, could that love for Palance have bled over into a surprise Best Picture nomination? Had 1991 been a year of ten nominees, that would be possible (see Sandra Bullock helping “The Blind Side” to a Best Picture nomination). 



Who do you think came in 6th place in the 1991 Best Picture race? Share with us in the comments below.