SILENCE OF THE LAMBS at 30: Giving Clarice a Voice – Valerie Kalfrin comments

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Silence of the Lambs is a curious film. The first horror film to win an Academy Award for Best Picture and the rare one to sweep four of the Oscars’ top categories, it has suspense and atmosphere that still enthrall even after 30 years. It also has rich characters, like FBI trainee Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster), who finds her courage tested yet navigates a world that seems stacked against her. The problem is, the movie is stacked against her, too.

As we know, Clarice tangles with convicted serial killer Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) to help catch another, Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine). But just as Bill literally sizes up women for his use, FBI behavioral scientist Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn) and Lecter constantly size up Clarice, each using her to their own ends.

I’ve written about this frustrating dynamic before, comparing it to a similar one in Sicario. But as Silence of the Lambs turned 30 this year, it irked me more. Several appreciations of the film focused on Lecter, author Thomas Harris’s most famous creation. He’s “the bogeyman we love to hate and hate ourselves for loving,” as Esquire put it, an evil being as seductive as he is unnerving. True enough – but as a crime reporter for 10 years, I tend not to romanticize killers. And even though Clarice, the new series on CBS All Access, centers her in the story, I’ve long wanted better for her.

I first saw Silence of the Lambs on video soon after its release, sitting on the couch at a friend’s place and peeking out from behind my knees (my typical posture for horror films). I’d quit reading the book after one descriptive part during an autopsy turned my stomach, but once the film won its Oscars, the film fan in me won out. Afterward, I felt a little like Clarice surviving that climactic dark basement, rattled but braver.

To this day, I admire her for that strength, which Foster doesn’t show all at once, as if Clarice unearths it along the way. Clarice wants to save just one innocent, one lamb. That’s why she chooses her career. But the film does a lot to shortchange her, much like pop culture has, since Silence of the Lambs‘s 1991 debut.

Decades ahead of #MeToo, director Jonathan Demme and screenwriter Ted Tally put viewers in Clarice’s shoes, heightening the male gaze on her from the film’s first moments on a Quantico obstacle course. Male trainees tower over her in the elevator. Men stare and talk around her when they’re not hitting on her, like Baltimore mental hospital administrator Dr. Frederick Chilton (Anthony Heald). More than one woman recognizes herself in Clarice once Chilton turns snappish and curt, and she finagles a diplomatic exit with a remark about “the pleasure of your company.”

Crawford plucks Clarice from training to send her to meet with Lecter, a convicted killer, psychiatrist, and cannibal. Only after the meeting does Crawford share that he wanted Clarice to intrigue Lecter, enough that the convict might offer insights into how to catch Buffalo Bill, who kidnaps and skins women.

Crawford’s excuse for not preparing Clarice is that Lecter would have picked up on an agenda and sent Clarice packing. But just like Crawford baits Lecter with the bright Clarice, Lecter tests her with sexist comments about “sticky fumblings in the backseats of cars,” her modest upbringing, and her shoes. Meanwhile, Lecter manipulates Crawford through Clarice to set up his escape.

Foster’s intelligent, determined performance saves Clarice from being sidelined completely, and her trial by fire lands Clarice at number 6 on AFI’s list of 100 Greatest Heroes” and at number 7 on AWFJ’s Wonder Women Countdown of Best Fictional Female Characters. She stands up to Crawford about how his behavior toward her as a woman in law enforcement matters, and she parries with Lecter well enough that he grows to admire her.

But even though Clarice captures Buffalo Bill and saves a senator’s daughter, Lecter’s freedom and final phone call effectively leave her speechless. Lecter ranks at number one on AFI’s list of 100 Greatest Villains, eclipsing Clarice there as well as in book and movie sequels and even an earlier TV series, all focused on him.

I know evil exists. I also know that, as a woman who loves film, I have to separate the characters I love from their stories sometimes, giving them better adventures and endings in my head. “The thing I love about Clarice Starling is that this may be one of the first times I’ve ever seen a female hero that’s not a female-steroid version of Arnold Schwarzenegger,” Foster has said, explaining why she pursued the part. “Clarice is very competent, and she is very human.”

I know there are more Clarices out there. I just wish they weren’t silenced.

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Valerie Kalfrin

Valerie Kalfrin

Valerie Kalfrin is an award-winning crime journalist turned freelance film writer whose work appears at RogerEbert.com, In Their Own League, Script, The Hollywood Reporter, and other outlets. Also a screenwriter and script consultant, she’s passionate about challenging stereotypes about gender and disability. Let’s tell better stories and tell stories better.