This month marks 25 years: 25 years since the release of one of our culture’s most influential films: The Silence of the Lambs. 25 years since we were first blessed with Clarice Starling; her quiet Southern drawl, her diminished stature, her strength.
The Silence of the Lambs shunned the horror genre in an attempt to win an Oscar and it was perhaps right to, as its rejection of female mutilation and violence on-screen despite its subject matter set it apart. Its new heading of “Drama” worked, ensuring its place in the cultural canon and as the third film in history to win Hollywood’s “Big Five”. Former child star Jodie Foster scooped Best Actress for her lowkey, affecting portrayal of FBI trainee Clarice Starling. But what made her so special?
Two years before we were lucky enough to meet Dana Scully (Because The Silence of the Lambs hadn’t influenced her inception or trademark read hair yet) the crime and horror genres were rife with damsels in distress. Horror, that The Silence of the Lambs had worked so hard to distance itself from, was littered with the bodies of dead naked prom queens. With a heroine left standing at the end, saving the girl with her intuition and strength, The Silence of the Lambs made a stand against generic horror.
We meet Clarice: slight, fresh-faced. She’s training hard, sweating freely and truthfully. We hear her small, eloquent drawl. I fell in love, as did audiences everywhere. From the second Clarice is on screen she is attacked from all sides by men; prisoners, nerds, colleagues. All bigger than her, all intruding on her space. It’s an unfortunate reality of life as a woman, and The Silence of the Lambs does not shy away from it. When a prisoner says “I can smell your cunt” to Clarice, Hannibal jumps to her defence; murdering the man in question and emphasizing the difference between man and woman.
From there Clarice takes charge, but she’s never pushy. While women like Sarah Connor are heroines in their own right, they never quite use their smallness and emotion as a strength in the way that Clarice does. Clarice befriends Hannibal, even empathises with him in an attempt to understand the mind of a murderer. She is kind to him despite his crimes. Her empathy sets her apart from other heroes and heroines of the genre. When she learns that Buffalo Bill’s latest abductee is still alive, but only for a short while, she goes on a one woman mission to track her down. Despite her lack of official FBI status or training, she storms ahead to find Buffalo Bill and save the girl. While the other, male agents bumble, bound by red tape; Clarice willfully puts herself in danger.
Clarice’s unlikely friendship with Lecter is an uncomfortable necessity to save the girl, and she navigates those waters with finesse and ease. She is not without her faults; she finds herself uncomfortable, upset or phased at times, but is never put off her mission. Her feelings propel her further towards her goal.
Clarice’s strength can be attributed to the actress who brought her alive so fully. Jodie Foster was so nervous she never spoke to Anthony Hopkins once on set, a nervousness that she brought on screen to make Clarice so believable. Foster, as well as being an actress since childhood, has dealt with issues as diverse as political assassination in her name, stalking, and public outing. LGBT advocates were so hurt by the film’s villain’s apparent portrayal of trans people that they outed Jodie as a lesbian. She was hurt and wouldn’t confront the rumours for twenty-two years, when she came out at the 2013 Golden Globes.
Clarice was one of the first women on screen that I wanted to be, and she is still second only to another red-headed FBI agent. Foster’s portrayal is timeless, unmatched, and her influence is seen throughout cinema and TV. Twenty-five years, though, and I am still mad that Clarice didn’t receive a special medal for her services to the FBI and the world.
By Marianne Eloise
Marianne Eloise is a 23 year old writer, journalist, and film academic based in Brighton. She is a shameless consumer of most pop culture, and can usually be found at the beach or in front of a screen. Her three favourite films are The Silence of the Lambs, Drive, and A Series of Unfortunate Events. You can find her Twitter@marianne_eloise, her blog at www.februarystationery.com and her portfolio atwww.marianneeloise.com