How Anthony Hopkins’ ‘Silence of the Lambs’ Oscar win turbo-charged his fee

This story is an edited excerpt from the new book ‘Money, art and madness: How the war between bureaucrats & auteurs killed the Australian film industry‘.

There was something about a play called The Sum of Us that had undeniably resonated with audiences in the early-90s.

It was written by Australian David Stevens, directed by American Kevin Dowling, and played more than 300 shows at the Off-Broadway Cherry Lane Theatre in New York.

Producer Hal McElroy had been sent the script, which followed widower Harry and his gay son Jeff’s respective searches for love. “I cried when I read it and I thought, ‘Oh my God, this is a wonderful thing’,” he says today.

But he also knew it would be tough to cast an overseas star in an Australian production and to finance a film about the gay community. The Sum of Us was far from a political film — it veered towards gentle drama — but the LGBTQIA+ community still suffered significant prejudice in the 1990s. It was just a few years after the infamous AIDS-focused grim reaper public health campaign added to the climate of fear and prejudice. Nonetheless — or perhaps because of it — the play had caught Hollywood’s attention.

“Star after star had come to this little show, loved it, and turned up in the dressing room and said, ‘I want to be in the movie’,” McElroy says. “Tom Cruise, Paul Newman, Bob Hoskins, Anthony Hopkins — on and on and on. He [director Kevin Dowling] said I think I can get them to star. I had manna from heaven: a good story, great concept — we can get this made. So, we set off on a journey that took at least a couple of years approaching each one of these stars, one after the other, to see if they’d agree.”

The government’s film funding agency, the Film Finance Corporation (FFC), was asked to invest $2.6 million of the film’s proposed $4.34 million budget, according to documents released by the National Archives. It agreed on the condition that a star was cast as Harry, according to its February 20, 1992 investment funding application.

“This is a small, contained film which in normal circumstances could probably be made for between $2 million and $2.5 million,” FFC investment manager Phaedon Vass wrote in the film’s funding application. “The producers claim that the cost of production is high in order to produce with values consistent with the potential audience reach of a film which is a vehicle for a star such as Anthony Hopkins, Michael Caine, or Bob Hoskins.”

Securing stars of that calibre was far from simple, despite the cavalcade of actors who had said they wanted to be in the film.

“If you were dealing with a star of any magnitude, you had to make what was called a firm offer to even get them to read the script,” McElroy now says. “You had to say, ‘I’m prepared to pay you $2 million if you read the script and agree to do it, and if you agree to do it, I’m immediately obliged to pay you $2 million.’ Of course, I couldn’t do that, so we had to rely on friends and relationships.”

Money still retained the ultimate power. Hopkins had been paid just $US125,000 to appear in the 1991 Australian drama Spotswood but that was before the release of Silence of the Lambs. His soon-to-be iconic performance as serial killer Hannibal Lecter helped spur the film to $US272.7 million at the worldwide box office. Hopkins and co-star Jodie Foster, who starred as FBI agent Clarice Starling, both took home Oscars, but it was Hopkins who dominated the film. Caine had recently won an Oscar in Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters while Hoskins was at the peak of his fame after Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

It was a catch-22: the FFC management backed the film with either Hopkins, Caine or Hoskins starring but didn’t expect any of them to sign on.

“Notwithstanding the producers’ confidence in securing the talents of artists of that calibre, it is difficult to believe that the fee of $US300,000 for Hopkins will be sufficient (even for a five-week engagement) given that his current price is up to $1 million,” wrote Moya Iceton in FFC budget report.

“This logic would also apply in the casting of Michael Caine and Bob Hoskins. Caine has just moved to agent Fred Specktor in LA and his starting price is $US1 million. Hoskins’ is $1 million plus. It is unrealistic to assume that because Hopkins did Spotswood for $US125,000 (prior to the release and extraordinary success of Silence of the Lambs) he will now return to a leading role in this relatively low-budget film for a fee of $US300,000.”

In an unusual move, the FFC rejected The Sum of Us‘ funding application based on its relatively high budget and the lack of a commitment from Bob Hoskins, Michael Caine, or Anthony Hopkins.

The government film agency would eventually come back to the table but with a radically different cast – one which would change the film’s US marketing prospects.

To read the rest of the story see ‘Money, art and madness: How the war between bureaucrats & auteurs killed the Australian film industry which is available now on Amazon.