The Silence of the Lambs (1991) Review

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Poor Ted Levine 

The Silence of the Lambs (1991): 10 out of 10: An FBI trainee Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) is assigned by her boss (Scott Glenn) to interview Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), a serial killer, whose insight might prove useful in pursuing another serial killer nicknamed “Buffalo Bill” (Ted Levine).

In the history of the Oscars, Silence of the Lambs is one of the most exceptional outliers. It went into wide release on Valentine’s Day 1991 and yet swept all five major Academy Awards fourteen months later. (Best Picture, Best Actor in a Leading Role Anthony Hopkins, Best Actress in a Leading Role Jodie Foster, Best Director Jonathan Demme, Best adapted Screenplay Ted Tally).

Only two other films had accomplished this before; It Happened One Night (1934) One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), and no film has achieved this since. The Silence of the Lambs was a film that kind of opened slowly and gathered steam by word of mouth far away from the Oscar bait crowd. Also, The Silence of the Lambs was an R-rated horror film, a genre severely under-represented by the Oscars. There is not anything else like it in Oscar history.

The Good

The Good: Let us start with the acting. Anthony Hopkins runs away with the movie despite powerful performances from the other three leads. He avoids the undeniable urge to overact and chew scenery. After all, he is playing a cannibal serial killer, and a lesser actor’s inclination would be more Heath Ledger’s Joker than Masterpiece Theater. By not making any sudden movements and using only his voice and eyes in the opening scenes, it sets the character up to be effective when he is tied to a hand truck with a Jason hockey mask covering everything but his eyes.

When Hopkins finally lets loose, he has lulled us into such a state of admiration that it truly is shocking. They told us he was a vicious killer and a cannibal. They tell us of what Hopkins did to that nurse just a little while ago biting out her tongue (Director Demme lets the characters see the photo of the incident but wisely hides it from the audience) Hopkins himself told us about eating the census taker’s liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti. He is still a live wire so to speak, but we are so charmed we let our guard down as an audience which makes it that more believable when the characters on screen make the same error.

Jodie Foster’s Oscar win was also well deserved. The script and director do her a dozen favors. The way Demme shoots his scenes reminds us just how small and vulnerable Jodie Foster is. The script has every character in the movie subtly (or not so subtly) hit on Jodie Foster’s character. Even (or especially) her mentor Scott Glenn. Foster’s relationship with Glenn has an undercurrent of tension whether he will risk approaching her outside of the professional bounds and honestly whether she, with her father issues, would be receptive to the same. This vulnerability makes the character work on a level rarely since in this genre. Foster’s mastery of both the accent and the physical space add an incredible dimension to an already fascinating character.

The Ted Tally’s script based on a book by Thomas Harris cheats a bit in at least one memorable scene, and it is a testament to the strength of the story that instead of being annoyed by it I applaud it. They complicate the story enough to be interesting but told in a straightforward manner that avoids talking killers (Well except for Hannibal but that is after all his thing) and those last minute reveals. The entire production has that subtle, realistic midwestern sheen and color palate that reminded me of The Fugitive movie. The movie feels almost a documentary, as its sense of time and place is so well grounded.

The Bad

The Bad: Poor Ted Levine. He is the big bad in the best horror movie of the year, and no one remembers him. He was overlooked for an Oscar nomination in a year that wasn’t exactly very strong (The best supporting actor category had two nominees from Warren Beatty’s Bugsy and the winner was Jack Palance from City Slickers.). His flamboyant wild take on Buffalo Bill would have been the talk of the town in any other movie, but Anthony Hopkins took all the serial killer oxygen out of the room, and bluntly people forget there was another serial killer in the film.

The Ugly

The ugly. To make matters worse, for Ted Levine, his character was the target of some serious protests. To quote Screenhub “Gumb has a white poodle named precious, dances around wearing women’s clothes and a scalp, and has had a homosexual relationship with at least one male in his past. On the surface, it seems pretty obvious that the character is a negative stereotype of the LGBT community.” As the Los Angeles Times reported in their Oscar coverage “Threats by gay groups to disrupt the proceedings to protest the treatment of homosexuals in such films as “The Silence of the Lambs” did not materialize. But outside the Music Center, at least ten people were arrested during a noisy protest by hundreds of demonstrators.”

Hollywood has a rich history of the gay or transvestite killer in movies from Psycho, to (1983 spoiler alert) Sleepaway Camp, to my personal favorite Gene Simmons in Never Too Young to Die. It turns out that Silence of the Lambs seemed to be a breaking point for the LGBT community. There is even a story that Jonathan Demme purposely made Philadelphia after Silence of the Lambs as an apology to the LGBT community, as if he was D. W. Griffith making Intolerance as an apology for Birth of a Nation.

There is only one person from the original production of Silence of the Lambs who still gets asked about such things in these enlightened times. Poor Ted Levine. Here he is playing a character that everyone forgot except those that were protesting it. That Screenhub quote above isn’t contemporaneous. It’s from a 2018 interview with Ted, and they treat him a bit as if he was Hanoi Jane or something. (Ted’s attempt to explain how his character wasn’t gay digs the hole a little deeper in all fairness but seriously leave poor Ted Levine alone.)

In Conclusion: The Silence of the Lambs is one of the best out-and-out horror films made. I know since it won a bunch of Oscars people like to call it a thriller, but one character eats people, and another skins them alive and wears their skin as an outfit. I am going to go with a horror film for this one.

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