Silence of the Lambs: Revisiting the Controversial Oscar Winning Film

Did you “enjoy” watching The Silence of the Lambs?  What exactly did you like/dislike about the film?

Richly dense in text and subtext, in words and images, in types and stereotypes, the 1991 Oscar-winner still evokes strong, often ambiguous, responses.  It’s a measure of the film’s high artistic quality, containment of diverse cultural meanings, and openness to various (and sometimes contradictory) interpretations, that we still care to talk about it.


Based on Thomas Harris’s best-seller, this suspenseful and gruesome thriller horror film centers on the battle of nerves between an FBI trainee named Clarice (Jodie Foster) and a diabolical psychiatrist turned cannibal, who becomes Clarice’s sparring partner in her efforts to hunt down a serial killer.

A highlight of Jonathan Demme’s career, “Silence of the Lambs” is his most commercially successful film but it’s also his most probelmatic one.  At the time, the film evoked strong responses, both positive and negative, from various groups, the most vocal of which were feminists and gay men.

The controversy escalated when several gay activists decide to ‘out” Jodie Foster as a lesbian (years before she chose to come out), claiming it was hypocritical for a celeb like her to keep her personal life under wraps.

Revisiting the film, I am struck by the heavy reliance of the narrative structure on a series of oppositions.  Various critics have commented on the fact that the film has two villains who represent different social classes and different lifestyles.

 If Hannibal (“The Cannibal”) Lecter, is rich, educated suave, funny and resourceful, the serial killer, Jame (“Buffalo Bill”) Gumb is of the working class, not very bright, and one-dimensional.  Moreover, whereas Lecter is straight (a womanizer), inventive, and ultimately helpful, Gumb is effeminate gay (remember the white poodle?), weird, and appalling, lacking any interesting or redeeming traits.

I side with critics who complained that the irony of giving an effeminate homosexual the nickname of Buffalo Bill, from the rough and masculine American West tradition, is never really explored in the text.

In addition to the duality of villains, who represent different kinds of evil, there is also duality of father-figures, whose goal is to instruct and to protect Clarice.  On the one hand, there is Crawford, the smart, rational FBI agent, and on the other, there is Lecter, who, among other things, functions as a charismatic suitor.

Both men exert power over Clarice, even when they are not physically present.  And both reward her at the end, when she tests her mettle and proves her strength and independence by killing Gumb, a figure (and a symbol) of seriously perverse and deviant sexual behavior. Crawford admits her into the ranks of the FBI, whereas Lecter promises to stop threatening her.

 Despite the controversy over the film’s theme and representation, most critics and viewers held that the acting of the two stars is superb.

 Anthony Hopkins succeeds in making a likable, strangely sympathetic hero out of Hannibal Lecter’s sadistic, unruly demonic villain.

 As Clarice Starling, Jodie Foster embodies the gentleness of an initially naive county girl who becomes susceptible to the advances of Lecter because he knows her better than she knows herself.

It’s a matter of opinion to what extent Foster’s character (and the film’s whole text) is genuinely feminist.  Clarice is certainly a strong, gutsy woman, operating in a largely man’s world, and doing the kind of job that is usually assigned to men.

For some viewers, however, the movie was too creepy and disconcerting in its hints of romantic attraction between Hannibal Lecter and Clarice.

And the more conservative moviegoers were simply outraged by the picture’s horror and politics.  Reportedly, First Lady Barbara Bush stormed out of the theater, protesting, “I didn’t come to a movie to see people’s skin being taken off.”

Gay activists threatened to disrupt the Oscar show as a protest against Hollywood’s representations of homosexuals in “The Silence of the Lambs,” as well as in Oliver Stone’s “JFK” (also Best Picture nominee that year) and the Sharon Stone psycho-thriller, “Basic Instinct,” which was released during the 1992 nomination period.

The first of 1991’s five nominees to be distributed theatrically, Silence of the Lambs opened at an unusual time, in February. By Oscar time, the picture has grossed $130.7 million, which made it the last successful release by the then-recently bankrupt Orion Pictures, the company responsible for “Dances With Wolves,” the Oscar-winner of the previous year.

This bizarre financial situation was not lost on director Demme, who remarked, “I know everyone feels the incredible irony of what’s happened to Orion.”

Silence of the Lambs swept all five major Oscars: Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, and Adapted Screenplay. Only two other films in the Academy’s history have been recognized in all top five categories: “It Happened One Night,” in 1934, and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” in 1975.

Oscar Nominations: 7

Picture, produced by Edward Saxon, Kenneth Utt and Ron Bozman
Director: Jonathan Demme
Screenplay (Adapted): Ted Tally
Actor: Anthony Hopkins
Actress: Jodie Foster
Sound: Tom Fleischman and Christopher Newman
Film Editing: Craig McKay

Oscar Awards: 5


Oscar Context

At Oscar time, Silence of the Lambs swept all the major awards: Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, and Adapted Screenplay.

In 1991, “Silence of the Lambs” competed for the Best Picture Oscar with Disney animated feature “Beauty and the Beast”; Warren Beatty’ star vehicle, the crime-gangster bio “Bugsy”; Oliver Stone’s paranoid bio-thriller “JFK”; and Barbra Streisand’s romantic melodrama “”The Prince of Tides.”

The Sound Oscar went to “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” and the editing to “JFK,” to Joe Hutshing and Pietro Scala.

 With the exception of Jonathan Demme, no filmmaker has ever won a directorial Oscar for a horror or thriller, including Hitchcock, the genre’s acknowledged master. Hitchcock was nominated for the Best Director Oscar five times:  “Rebecca” (1940), “Lifeboat” (1944), “Spellbound” (1945), “Rear Window” (1954), and “Psycho” (1960).

 Collector’s Edition DVD

 The 2007 Collector’s Edition is actually the third “special” DVD of the 1991 Oscar-winning picture. Hence, some of the previous features, such as deleted scenes and Hannibal Lecter’s phone greetings, are also included in this edition.

 Two new docus discuss Thomas Harris’ inspirations for the central role (Ed Gein, Ted Bundy) and also how and why the actors who were Demme’s first choice, Sean Connery and Michelle Pfeiffer, turned the project down. As a result, Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster grabbed the opportunity to work with Demme and were rewarded with Oscar Awards.

 One of the most revelatory comments made in the docu is by screenwriter Ted Tally, who now has second thoughts about his depiction of the serial killer “Buffalo Bill,” which upset many gay viewers at the time. Says Tally: “We certainly wished we had crafted that character in some different way. At least, God forbid, not give him a white poodle that he names ‘Precious.'”

A positive, unexpevted  effect that came out of this “collective guilt” is that Demme chose as his next film project Philadelphia, the first major Hollywood movie about AIDS with Tom Hanks (in an Oscar-wining turn) as a gay man with AIDS.

There’s no doubt that “Silence of the Lambs” is the best of the five films in the franchise, if you include “Manhunter” and the latest installment “Hannibal Rising,” which is both an artistic and commercial flop.

 End Note

 For those interested in a detailed (Freudian) academic analysis of the picture, I highly recommend Janet Staiger’s article, “Taboos and Totems: Cultural Meanings of The Silence of the Lambs.”