The following is part of an ongoing series about Jodie Foster's vision of U.S. history.
I remember vividly the night I went to see Jonathan Demme’s 1991 film The Silence of the Lambs. All day long, I dreaded it. I’ve always hated horror movies; only a compelling reason like a sense of professional obligation will lead me to do so. But as a lifelong movie buff, I’ve always tried to stay up with what’s current (like the Best Picture contenders in any given year), and the buzz on Lambs was too great to ignore. On that winter night in February, my wife and I threw a dinner party as a prelude to a trip to the movies. I was uneasy the whole time, looking ahead to the movie the way one does a trip visit to the dentist.
The movie begins somberly, and takes a little while to get truly frightening. The first such moment occurs when Foster’s character, an FBI agent in training, walks down a long hallway toward a waiting folding chair to visit the high-security cell of the psychiatrist-turned-cannibal, Dr. Hannibal Lecter, played by the unblinking Anthony Hopkins. It’s one of the great strengths of Lambs that one’s sheer fascination with Lecter almost overcomes one’s fear of him. If nothing else, Lambs is a great movie because it – by which I mean the 1988 novel by Thomas Harris, Ted Tally’s screenplay, but above all Hopkins’s thrilling performance – utterly crushes the shopworn liberal piety that evil arises from mere dysfunction or lack of understanding on the part of those who would otherwise be good. Maybe that’s true of the nominal villain of the piece, a serial murderer by the name of Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine) who skins women so that he can live out his transvestite fantasies. But in his in his alternatingly courteous and dismissive, understated manner, Lecter is far more troubling in his cell than many criminals are outside it, because he represents a cunningly intelligent malignance that simply cannot be destroyed, only contained (temporarily). So it is that in the first scene together, an annoyed Lecter cuts Starling down to size. “You know what you look like to me? In your good bag and cheap shoes? A rube,” he tells her. “You’re not more than one generation removed from poor white trash.” As he continues his deconstruction, you watch Foster’s face begin to crumple from the verbal barrage and yet somehow maintain its shape: she’s already flinched more than once, she’s being toyed with, and yet she refuses to entirely surrender, making a not entirely convincing, but still resilient riposte that Lecter should focus his insight on someone his own size.
Despite the fact that it’s Lecter/Hopkins who in many ways steals the show, in an important sense Lambs is really a Clarice/Foster movie. And that’s because the creation of such a powerfully credible evil character simultaneously opens the possibility of redemptive good. At a couple points in the story, Lecter guesses that Clarice was abused by her policeman father or the rancher who temporarily served her foster parent after she was orphaned following her father’s death in the line of duty. But here he is wrong. Her father, as we see in flashbacks, was a good man; so, we’re told, was the rancher. So why is Starling so hell-bent on catching Buffalo Bill before he kills his next victim – who, it turns out, is the daughter of a powerful female (Republican) U.S. Senator? Ambition? Surely. But Lecter is smart enough to sense there’s more involved, and insists on knowing as the price of his cooperation in capturing Buffalo Bill (whose name, incidentally, is a mordant parody of a mythic American figure). Starling, who has been repeatedly warned about the dangers of self-disclosure with such an exploitative figure, is desperate enough to agree to his demands.
Starling and Lecter have a series of discussions in the course of the story, the most important of which occurs about an hour into the movie. In a rapid series of quid pro quo exchanges, Lecter relinquishes tidbits of analysis in the Buffalo Bill case and then presses her on why she suddenly left the home of the rancher. Starling describes a night when she woke up to the sound of screaming, and went to the barn from which it emanated. “I was scared to look but I had to,” she says, a remark that also encapsulates her behavior in this grisly case. Lecter correctly speculates that what Starling saw was the rancher engaged in the annual slaughter of the spring lambs. “First I tried to free them, but they just stood there,” Starling muses, her vacant stare suggesting she’s reliving that terrible moment. She grabbed one and ran. “I thought if I could just save one,” she says, her hushed voice trailing off, “but he was so heavy. So heavy.” She reports that only made it a few miles (!) before she was caught. What became of the lamb, Lecter asks. “They killed him,” she informs him. Lecter grasps the implications quickly: “And you think if you can save poor Catherine [the Senator’s daughter], you can make them stop, you think if Catherine lives, you won’t wake up in the dark ever again to that awful screaming of the lambs.” Starling replies, “I don’t know. I don’t know.”
That night in 1991, and ever since, I’ve always found Lecter’s final remark breathtaking: “Thank you, Clarice. Thank you.” Lecter understands and appreciates Starling’s honesty, which has characterized their relationship from the very beginning. But you get the sense that what he also appreciates is a sense of mystery. It’s possible to reduce Starling’s actions to a form of neurosis, an irrational belief that following by her father’s professional footsteps and apprehending a serial killer, she will somehow repair the psychic wounds of her childhood. But this only begs the question as to why her behavior takes this form and not some other, far more destructive course, which after all is the more typical response to psychic trauma. Lecter, it’s clear, is fascinated by Starling – he draws a gorgeous pencil drawing of her holding a lamb – and we sense he’s right to be. She enlarges the world with a sense of moral possibility. In the process, she enlarges Jodie Foster’s career by giving us a character who’s not simply forced to respond to the malice of the wide world, but who can take proactive steps in giving herself and other people a real reason to live.
Which brings me to one of the most exciting moments in my cinematic life, which occurs when Starling unexpectedly finds herself in Buffalo Bill’s house, and decides to she must descend the stairs into his dark basement alone and try to apprehend him. Foster literally shakes with fear, in one of the most authentic representations of terror ever committed to the screen. It has long since become a horror movie joke that characters defy all psychic logic by entering situations that will prove catastrophic, because if they don’t there won’t be a scary movie. This is the opposite of that: Starling knows full well she shouldn’t go down those stairs, and she does so anyway so that she can save Catherine, a woman she’s never met. Soldiers at the front have to muster courage, but in part that’s because wars create situations where scared men have little effective chance for survival but going forward and hoping for the best. This, too, is the opposite of that: courage as the decision to experience fear. Starling’s descent is just the beginning; she finds herself plunged into pitch darkness while Buffalo Bill gazes upon her in night goggles. (In an eerie move, director Demme shows us Starling from his point of view, implicating us in his gaze.) But she will prevail.
There, anyway. For Hannibal Lecter has his own agenda, and while Starling and her colleagues are in hot pursuit of Buffalo Bill, he ruthlessly engineers his escape from prison. The movie will ends, as its moral logic dictates, with Lecter abroad, as evil eternally is. But he can’t resist a call to Starling at her moment of triumph. “I have no plans to call on you Clarice,” he tells her in what is not quite an entirely reassuring locution. “The world’s more interesting with you in it. You take care now to extend me the same courtesy.” Starling responds by saying, “You know I can’t make that promise,” which of course is the essence of her character. Lecter responds with one of the movie’s memorable jokes: “I do wish we could chat longer, but I’m having an old friend for dinner.”
The Silence of the Lambs pulled off a rare coup, becoming one of only one of only three movies to sweep the five major Oscars for Best Picture, Actor, Actress, Director, and Screenplay (the others were It Happened One Night in 1934 and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in 1975). Never again would Foster have to re-credential herself in the industry. Indeed, she consolidated her position by founding a production company, Egg Pictures, and moving into directing and producing. But while both would remain facets of her career, and while she would repeatedly claim that both were where her future lay, Foster would continue to work primarily as an actor. Fortunately, as she did so, her vision widened, and became more psychologically generous in ways that extended to her depiction of historical subjects.
Next: Foster heads toward Reconstruction, by way of the Reformation.
Next: Foster heads toward Reconstruction, by way of the Reformation.