The Silence of Jonathan Demme

Director Jonathan Demme died this week. His long career is speckled with unique films across a wide spectrum of genres. But I loved him for two films: The Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia.

While some critics may want to label The Silence of the Lambs a drama or thriller, it's really more than that. Yes, it's presented with the familiar trappings of a police procedural. But it is a horror film! With not one monster, but two. And if that's not enough to convince you that it should be on your shelf next to The Shining, then pay close attention to the violence and gore in the third act. Hannibal Lecter isn't just a slithering scarecrow. He’s a brutal killer that would give any slasher a run for their money.

And yet Silence isn't a slasher flick. It’s a different kind of horror. It’s a drama. And a thriller. And a character study of two star-crossed humans who end up needing each other. It’s a wondrous work of art that shows what can be done within the genre.

The horror genre gets a bad rap. It's dismissed as exploitative and gratuitous. And sometimes it is. Some of my favorite horror films are both of those things. When award season rolls around, you won't see many horror films among the nominees. There have been exceptions, most noticeably The Exorcist, which won two Oscars and a Best Picture nomination in 1973. It wasn’t until the 64th Academy Awards in 1991 that Silence of the Lambs became the first horror film to win Best Picture. In fact, it won all of the top five categories: Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay.

Demme was that director, and deservedly so. What he did with Silence was nothing short of amazing. He took a smart, terrifying book and turned it into a cinematic horror masterpiece. In the process, he brought to life two iconic characters: Hannibal Lecter and Clarice Starling. I’d argue serial killer Buffalo Bill is a third, given his resurrection by South Park and meme manufacturers across the internet. His scenes are certainly among the most quoted.

One of the film’s most prominent themes is the immoral way in which men treat women. Starling is repeatedly portrayed under the gaze of the men that surround her: her co-workers, her supervisors, and ultimately, Buffalo Bill. All of these men have advantages over her in head-to-head competition. In the most extreme example of this, Bill hunts Starling in the dark with the aid of night vision.

Law enforcement has long been a boys’ club. And yet Starling is a smart, driven disruptor, frequently outshining her fellows. Dr. Chilton, who heads the hospital where Lecter is incarcerated, is one of her creepiest admirers. He makes a pass at her that she declines. Yet, even though Chilton has 24/7 access to Lecter, it is Starling who truly connects with Lecter in only a few sessions. Starling is my favorite kind of feminist. She’s not trying to keep up with the boys; she beats them by just being herself.

The feminist themes of the film were well discussed upon its release, and in the quarter century since. There have also been accusations that Silence is homophobic, transphobic or both. Many of these accusations were targeted where almost all film criticism is targeted: the director’s chair.

And there Demme sat.

I think these accusations are demonstrably baseless. The film itself makes very clear Buffalo Bill is not actually transsexual. “There’s no correlation in the literature between transexualism and violence. Transsexuals are very passive,” Starling tells a caged Lecter, Bill’s former psychotherapist. 

“Billy is not a real transsexual,” Lecter replies. “But he thinks he is. He tries to be.”

Further into the film, from beneath his now iconic mask, Lecter mentions to Senator Martin that Buffalo Bill was referred to him by another patient, Benjamin Raspail. “They were lovers, you see,” Lecter says, indicating that Bill might be gay. But later, when Starling enters Buffalo Bill’s lair, there are Polaroids of Bill with female strippers on his lap, offering more proof that he is not a simple, sexual caricature. Buffalo Bill may be a proper villain, but Demme did not craft him to ridicule gay men or transsexuals.

Rather, Buffalo Bill is more easily explained within the film’s more obvious feminist themes. Bill’s heinous acts are really an indictment of heterosexual men. Those men who cast their glares at little Clarice, the beautiful and small woman before them. Their glares are possessive: they seek to own her in some way, to exert authority or control over her. Buffalo Bill is the fullest, most horrible manifestation of this desire. “He covets,” as Dr. Lecter says. Bill wants to so thoroughly dominate women that he has to destroy their lives - the source of their will - to do it. It’s a trait Bill shares with real life killer Ted Bundy.

Remember all those male law enforcement officers that stare at Starling? They are the ones who created the nickname, “Buffalo Bill.” One of them explains the nickname by saying the killer “skins his humps.” They aren’t just calling it like it is. The nickname is an expression of their own misogyny. It’s based on their own thin misunderstanding of who the killer is. It’s also the reason they don’t solve the case. They’re too blind to see deeper into Jame Gumb’s psyche, accepting a knee-jerk, surface-level judgement about the killer as correct.

In author Thomas Harris’ book, there is evidence that corroborates Lecter’s statement about Buffalo Bill not being a transsexual, but thinking he’s one. A surgeon at Johns Hopkins is consulted about applicants for sexual reassignment surgery, and refuses to share the list with the FBI. We find out Jame Gumb did indeed apply for surgery, but was rejected because he hid violence in his past. It was determined that in the judgement of medical professionals, he wasn’t really a transsexual. Interestingly, there was a scene shot to this effect but it was ultimately not present in the final cut. (Which may have been for pacing reasons, rather than storytelling reasons…there’s no way to know).

In his Oscar acceptance speech, Demme remarked how fortunate he was to work with a story from Thomas Harris’s “extraordinarily moral and amazing book.” He thought he was making a picture with a clear moral viewpoint. And that view hasn’t changed.

In a 2014 interview with the Huffington Post, Demme is asked about the film and he speaks at length. “I regret that [in the movie], we weren’t clear enough. I know the information’s in there, but there’s a lot of information in there. Buffalo Bill wasn’t interested in…he didn’t wish to be another gender. He didn’t really have a sexual preference. He loathed himself….he wanted to transform himself so that there was no part of ‘him’ in the ‘new him.’ And becoming a woman…that was his method of doing it.”

Buffalo Bill (Jame Gumb) hated himself, and wanted to become something completely different.

In the aftermath of Silence of the Lambs release, Demme’s profile as a director grew. He could have made any film he wanted. He chose to make Philadelphia, the first major release to deal with AIDS and the injustices that surround it. Most of which affected the LGBT community.

It’s a film filled with tenderness and wit.

By all accounts, so was Demme.