Have the podcast hosts stopped screaming? Not yet! We follow last episode’s discussion of the Best Actress nominees of 1991 — including the groundbreaking, genre-defying tale of female outlaws Thelma & Louise — with a look at the night’s big winner, The Silence Of The Lambs. The serial killer thriller not only won the Best Actress Oscar, but also Best Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Director, and Best Picture — a feat accomplished by only two other films in the Academy’s 93 year history.
Like Thelma & Louise, The Silence Of The Lambs is now known for inserting intelligent, fully realized female characters into a genre typically dominated by men. And like Thelma & Louise, The Silence Of The Lambs generated plenty of controversy upon release, especially around its gender-bending antagonist, Buffalo Bill. Of course, it also birthed one of the most memorable and quotable screen villains of all time, with Anthony Hopkins’ brief but tasty turn as cannibal psychologist Hannibal Lecter.
In this episode, we dissect the film both as a crowd-pleasing, nail-biting thriller and through the lens of its sexual politics. Jodie Foster’s much-lauded performance made FBI trainee Clarice Starling one of the greatest screen heroines of the 90s, but does she still hold her own against the infamous Dr. Lecter 30 years later?
Is The Silence Of The Lambs still a snack? Or should we send this thing back to Baltimore? Grab your best bag and your cheapest shoes, lodge an exotic moth in your throat, and get a nice bottle of Chianti ready, because this podcast is going all the way to the FBI. Bon appétit!
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The Silence Of The Lambs is a no-brainer topic for a podcast like ours. It’s kind of amazing we didn’t get to it until our 90th episode. The only reasoning I can give is that we were saving it for a special treat.
The film is iconic. It contains some of the most quoted movie dialogue of all time. Hannibal Lecter is one of the most legendary villains of all time. It’s a popular movie that people have seen and love.
But it is also respected by critics, and often written about by academics. It could be watched as a case study in how to tell a story visually — the production design and cinematography are very focused on theme and character, far beyond being functional for a crowd-pleasing suspense thriller. The screenwriting is masterful, but also economical.
A lot of times, a film this good might fly under the radar — but not this one! It was also beloved by the Academy, which awarded it the “Big Five” Oscars for Adapted Screenplay, Actor, Actress, Director, and Picture, making it one of three films to ever earn all the top prizes. (Alongside It Happened One Night and One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, it’s in suitably legendary company.)
We’ve covered Oscar winners and crowd-pleasers and cult favorites and critical darlings, but I’m not sure we’ve ever covered a film that was all of these, and more. Oftentimes, a film as popular and celebrated as The Silence Of The Lambs was back in 1991 would be reappraised, and accumulate some detractors. I’m sure there are people out there who think The Silence Of The Lambs is a mediocre or even terrible film, but there aren’t too many. On the whole, it seems like people still collectively enjoy and admire this film. It’s literally one of the only movies it feels like “everyone” can agree on.
Well, almost. If The Silence Of The Lambs is disparaged at all these days, it’s usually because of the Buffalo Bill character. Jonathan Demme’s film is part of a much larger conversation about how homosexuality and especially transgender characters have been depicted in film and literature. It’s fair to say that The Silence Of The Lambs touches on these issues without fully addressing them (largely because the book needed to be pared down for pacing reasons). Thomas Harris’ book makes it clear that Buffalo Bill isn’t transgender — he has a very specific pathology that is unique to him. The movie depicts it the same way, but leaves a lot of the context ambiguous. I understand why some queer viewers felt put off by the film back in 1991, and why the film was protested, though I don’t ultimately think the film is transphobic.
Part of what I love about Buffalo Bill is how hard to define he is — in some ways, very masculine, in others more feminine; he’s an amalgam of several different serial killers, becoming something like a supervillain who defies simple categorization. In a movie that’s all about psychology and gender, I think it’s fascinating to make the antagonist a man who’s constantly becoming something else, adding layer upon layer to our understanding of him (or lack thereof). The fact that he’s so impossible to define ultimately makes him scarier. Seizing on the fact that he, at one point, dons lipstick and tucks his penis away as evidence that he’s supposed to be transgender is ignoring everything else about his character that contradicts that.
Maybe it’s because the “Goodbye Horses” scene is just too good. It sticks with us. Ted Levine’s performance in that moment sticks with us. It makes that one scene feel, perhaps, more important than it really is. Buffalo Bill does seek out gender reassignment surgeries, but he’s rejected because the doctors believe he’s not actually transgender. Again, the film glosses over this, so I can understand arguments about why this reads as problematic, but ultimately I give the film a pass because of how intricate and intelligent it is about gender and psychology everywhere else. I can’t believe that a film that’s so smart about so many other things would be so obtuse about this. I give Demme the benefit of the doubt.
I’m truly in awe of Jonathan Demme’s direction, and the film itself. Both Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins’ performances are some of the best of all time. It’s rare to find a truly perfect film, but The Silence Of The Lambs qualifies. It does so much so right.