The Silence of the Lambs at 30

The Silence of the Lambs, Jonathan Demme’s gothic masterpiece of horror and suspense, was released thirty years ago today. A Valentine’s Day release seems an odd choice for a horror movie, but it was perfect for me, a chronically single college student, and I went to see the film on opening night with friends. It remains my favorite horror movie.

Based on the Thomas Harris novel of the same name, the film was made for a tidy sum of $19 million. It was a critical and commercial smash, earning $272 million worldwide and becoming the 5th highest grossing film of 1991 (behind Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Beauty and the Beast and Hook). It would also dominate the awards season, a rare feat for a movie released in February.

The film was not without controversy (more on that in a bit) but it was nonetheless a master class in filmmaking, from the taut script by Ted Tally, to the terrific performances, to the confident direction by Demme, to the haunting score by Howard Shore. Silence begins as more of a procedural crime drama, but ratchets up the tension before evolving into full blown psychological horror.

One of the more interesting aspects of the film is how Demme uses point of view to place the viewer into the action. The actors perform much of their dialogue facing directly into the camera; this fourth wall break is an unusual technique for a horror movie, and it makes the performances even more impressive (actors often rely on their co-stars’ reactions to hone their performances; obviously this can’t be done if you’re talking right to the camera).

Speaking of the cast, had Demme gotten his way, it would have looked A LOT different. Having worked with her on Married to the Mob, Demme wanted Michelle Pfeiffer to play Clarice Starling, but she turned the role down due to the subject matter. Meg Ryan did the same. Jodie Foster, who wanted the role from the beginning, was ultimately cast. For Hannibal Lecter, Demme originally approached Sean Connery; thankfully, Connery passed (“Good evening, Clarishe”), paving the way for Anthony Hopkins’ iconic performance. Gene Hackman, who was initially going to direct the film as well, ultimately passed on playing FBI Agent Jack Crawford, and the role went to Scott Glenn.

The chemistry between Foster and Hopkins is so incredible, it’s easy to forget they share less than twenty minutes of screen time. And while the two got the lion’s share of the credit, and all the awards, the supporting cast was excellent as well, most notably the magnetic Ted Levine as Jame Gumb, AKA Buffalo Bill. Levine’s performance was so superbly menacing, to this day I have difficulty watching him in anything else. Just the sound of his voice sends shivers down my spine.

The Buffalo Bill character is the source of the film’s controversy. Although Lecter goes out of his way to say that Bill is not a transexual, he just THINKS he is, it’s obvious that Bill has some pretty severe gender dysmorphia, and the film seems to suggest that the dysmorphia is the reason Bill kills. And while the film doesn’t overtly mention it, it’s been widely assumed that Starling is a lesbian. I’m not sure how much of that was driven by the speculation over Foster’s real-life sexual orientation; at that time, Foster had not come out publicly. But Foster has been criticized individually, as though as a member of the LGBTQ+ community, she is required to personally answer for the film’s transmisogyny. No doubt about it, the film pathologizes non-conforming gender identity, and it certainly missed an opportunity for a positive LGBT character. But that is the responsibility of all the filmmakers, not just the is-she-or-isn’t-she lesbian lead actress.

At the time of the film’s release, the AIDS crisis loomed large over our culture. The failure of the Reagan administration to properly respond to the crisis left AIDS research underfunded. Treatments were slow to be developed, and too expensive for most to afford. And AIDS was still very much seen as a “gay male” problem. The gay community was righteously angry, and understandably so. And the gay community continued to be underrepresented – and pathologized – in Hollywood. When Silence was released into this environment, and became such a success, tempers flared and violence ensued at a protest planned to coincide with the 64th annual Oscar ceremony. Apparently police in riot gear showed up to quell the protest, and though the ceremony itself was not disrupted, ten people were arrested but not before protestors slapped “f@g” stickers on 24-foot-tall Oscar statues.

UNITED STATES – AUGUST 27: Gay Protesters; 1992 Academy Awards in Los Angeles, CA (Photo by Vinnie Zuffante/Getty Images)

Later that evening, Silence took home the top five Oscar prizes (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Adapted Screenplay) – one of only three films to ever do so. It was also nominated for Best Sound and Best Editing, but lost, respectively, to Terminator 2: Judgment Day and JFK (another film with problematic treatment of gay characters). Silence is not the sort of movie the Oscars typically reward – the Academy loves lavish musicals, historical dramas and sweeping epics, and generally steers clear of genre films. But the film’s quality couldn’t be denied, not even by the stodgy Academy members.

As I was researching this post, I came across some absolutely amazing behind-the-scenes photos. When the film in question is as tense and terrifying as this one is, pictures like this are even more jarring. Demme and Hopkins, in particular, seem to be having entirely too much fun. Anyway, I hope you enjoy these as much as I did.

Happy Anniversary, Silence, and Happy Valentine’s Day to you all!!

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