The Continuing Power and Complicated Legacy of The Silence of the Lambs

There were a lot of good gigs in the Hollywood of the 1990s, but playing a woman in a high-profile thriller was not one of them. You were probably acting opposite Michael Douglas, playing some sort of scorned lover or murderous bisexual or sexually harassing boss. There was some juiciness to those roles, and Sharon Stone certainly made an impression, but not much depth. Maybe you were alongside Morgan Freeman or Denzel Washington, but you were probably a murder victim, or someone who barely escaped being murdered, and your story arc fundamentally served theirs. There was a way this genre worked, and women were not the primary heroes of it. 

Not until Clarice Starling, with her tenacity and resourcefulness, her West Virginia twang, and her good bag and cheap shoes. Not until Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs swept the big five at the Oscars in 1992, securing wins for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay for Ted Tally’s adaptation of Thomas Harris’s novel, Best Actor for Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter, and Best Actress for Jodie Foster as Starling. And not until the film became such a cultural phenomenon that for years to come, female protagonists in Clarice’s vein, like The X-Files’s Dana Scully and Mindhunter’s Wendy Carr, could trace the basis of their analytical, methodical selves back to Foster’s FBI trainee with the pleasant smile and the fierce desire to prove herself. “It matters,” Clarice had said to her boss when he diminished her work inside of a room full of male cops, when he used her youth and gender to make himself look better to a crew of good ol’ boys. “It matters.”

Perhaps years of reruns on cable, with the scariest bits of the film edited out, have dulled your memory of The Silence of the Lambs. Maybe you remember the parodies better than the movie itself: Billy Crystal coming out as Hannibal Lecter, in full straitjacket and modified hockey goalie mask, to host the 1992 Oscars; or Jay and Silent Bob’s parody of the “Goodbye Horses” dance in Kevin Smith’s Clerks II; or the mockeries in various comedies from The Office to South Park to The Simpsons to Family Guy. Demme’s film so firmly latched onto our general pop cultural landscape that you might take The Silence of the Lambs, its cold efficiency and its resolute heroine, for granted. But upon its release, The Silence of the Lambs was singular—for Hopkins’s deeply charismatic villain, Foster’s deft balance between trauma and ambition, and the film’s dominance at the box office and at the Oscars, the latter a particularly striking achievement for a film that tiptoed between thriller and horror.  

What stands out now, as it did then, is Demme’s sense of moderation, and the deliberate choices regarding what we see and what we don’t. Clarice examines crime-scene photographs that show the bodies of Buffalo Bill’s victims, their remaining skin pruney from the rivers in which he dumps them. We only briefly glimpse those images, viewing them alongside Clarice as she stands in FBI Behavioral Sciences unit head Jack Crawford’s (Scott Glenn) office. When accompanying Crawford to examine a body recently recovered in West Virginia, Clarice records her thoughts on what happened to the young woman—including a bullet wound and flayed skin—but Demme sobers us by showing us only her ripped-off fingernails, torn away while she tried to escape. And in the film’s final confrontation between Clarice and Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine) in his basement dungeon, Demme roams through the space to capture its labyrinthine quality, but doesn’t linger upon any particular room. The impact is in their existence at all: the autopsy table and medical tools, the decaying woman in the bathtub, the chopped-off limbs in the aquarium, the Nazi paraphernalia, the half-finished skin suit on a mannequin, with one breast and pubic hair exposed. “There’s not a flash of blood that wasn’t debated for hours,” Tally told Janet Maslin in a February 1991 New York Times profile, and that preciseness is what helps build such an unshakably nightmarish world.

The Silence of the Lambs is Clarice Starling’s movie, and the film begins and ends with her. Our introduction to Clarice is an early indication of her determination and her ambition: Before dawn breaks, she’s on the FBI Academy training course, sweating through her turtleneck and sweatshirt as she climbs up a hill, somersaults herself over a cargo net, and runs steadily through the woods to the next obstacle. Her first words in the film are “Yes, sir,” and she is the picture of hierarchical deference—to a point. Respect is not the same thing as obedience, and Clarice’s very presence at the academy is a cause for raised eyebrows. When Demme captures her as the lone woman in an elevator full of men, their red polo shirts a uniformly impenetrable wall as they loom over her petite frame, he is making a deliberate point that links back to the opening climb on that training course: Clarice is facing an uphill battle, and the only person she can rely on is herself.

That steadfastness comes through consistently, nearly every time Clarice finds herself opposite a person of greater authority or power. Against Crawford, who is coaching her in her career, but who still essentially uses her for the “errand” of meeting with Lecter. Against Dr. Frederick Chilton (Anthony Heald), Lecter’s leering, egomaniacal warden, who considers Clarice an enemy as soon as she turns down his sexual advances. Against Senator Ruth Martin (Diane Baker), who bristles at Clarice’s closeness to Lecter. And, of course, against Lecter himself, who through his combination of precise politeness, smug self-confidence, cruel taunting, and acute intelligence goads, and then guides, Clarice into opening up about herself and cracking the Buffalo Bill case. Their “quid pro quo” scene is styled by Demme as a sort of confession-cum-duel, with his preference for extreme close-ups communicating Lecter’s dominance of the situation, his face entirely filling up the frame. Although Foster’s Starling warily holds back, Demme’s composition of her slightly looser than Hopkins’s visual omnipresence, she doesn’t crumble under his questioning. Her admission regarding her formative childhood experience hearing the screaming of slaughtered lambs, and her decision to save one life, no matter how difficult that task might be, is a moment of fragility surrounded by a cage of steeliness. Starling is the kind of believably nuanced, thrillingly capable, deeply human female protagonist who didn’t star in their own movies very often 30 years ago, and still doesn’t now.

But no discussion of The Silence of the Lambs would be complete without an acknowledgment of the controversy that it sparked immediately upon release regarding the characterization of Buffalo Bill, and his desire to “transform”—manifested as his kidnapping and murder of women for their skin. Both Harris’s novel and Demme’s film adaptation are very deliberate in their insistence that Buffalo Bill, inspired only by the abuse he suffered in his childhood, is not a “real” transsexual: think of how Lecter nods along to Clarice’s “There’s no correlation between transsexualism and violence.” Take the film’s recurring symbol of the death’s head moth, which is rooted in macabre creepiness, not the glamor of transformation, and think too of Harris’s novel Red Dragon, in which another serial killer believes he can transform into the image from William Blake’s paintings. The theme of reinvention through violence is one that Harris explored over and over again, and The Silence of the Lambs clearly tries to make the claim that Buffalo Bill’s coveting of female skin is not tied to a legitimate questioning of his own gender identity. 

Sometimes, though, what a film intends to do is not exactly what it does, and it’s inarguable that our common cultural understanding of The Silence of the Lambs ignores some of the nuance Demme attempted to build into his film. Buffalo Bill lines his vanity with snapshots of himself and female strippers, but that detail is given less attention in the narrative than his relationship with his first murder victim, Benjamin Raspail, whose decapitated head is one of the film’s first scary reveals. The “Goodbye Horses” dance is a grotesque mimicry of what Buffalo Bill believes being a woman will be like, but you can understand why countless imitators have honed in on his his guttural delivery of the lines, “Would you fuck me? I’d fuck me”—the moment is so disturbing that it becomes ripe for parody. The Silence of the Lambs relies on these grand moments of depravity and violence to prove Buffalo Bill’s danger and menace, but then attempts to balance them with details that aren’t imbued with as much importance; there is a fundamental disparity there. To be fair, as a film produced during a time when our conversations about gender identity and sexual preference were less nuanced than they are now, The Silence of the Lambs is certainly a more even-keeled effort than, say, 1994’s Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, in which a transsexual character is used as a staggeringly offensive narrative gag. But perhaps it’s worth remembering that for as much as the film gave us a feminist icon in Clarice Starling, it also spawned a flattened understanding of the transsexual experience that the film’s legacy has found impossible to shake. 

Demme first pushed back against but then eventually spoke to the legitimacy of that criticism: In a 2014 interview with The Daily Beast, he acknowledged, “When the film was accused of continuing a history of stereotypical negative portrayals of gay characters, that was a wake-up call for me as a filmmaker, and as a person.” A couple years after The Silence of the Lambs, Demme would direct Philadelphia, starring Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington, which tackled mainstream American homophobia, the HIV/AIDS crisis, and their impact on labor laws and health care. Demme has long insisted that the two films had nothing to do with each other, but it seems impossible to believe that The Silence of the Lambs and the backlash it sparked were never on Demme’s mind as he created Philadelphia. Couple that with how years later, Demme admitted that the condemnations of the portrayal of Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs were a result of his “directorial failing.” That shift in tone doesn’t excuse Demme for some of the vaguery around the character, but it still feels revelatory in an industry when so many of the most established creators tend to dig in their heels rather than open their ears. 

“You will let me know when those lambs stop screaming, won’t you?” Lecter had asked Clarice at their final in-person meeting in The Silence of the Lambs, his finger reaching out to surreptitiously caress her own. Only hours or so later, he would gut one man, cut off another man’s face, cover his own with it, and then escape from police custody to pursue and eat former tormenter Dr. Chilton. The ability to jump between fragility and brutality is what Demme did so well with The Silence of the Lambs, and his willingness to reconsider that approach afterward made him as singular as the characters he brought to such vibrant, unsettling life.

Roxana Hadadi writes about film, television, and culture with sides of judgment and thirst. She is a Tomatometer-approved critic on Rotten Tomatoes and a member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association, the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, and the Online Film Critics Society. She holds an MA in literature and lives outside Baltimore, Maryland.

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