By John H. Foote
For her superb performance as FBI trainee Clarice Starling, Jodie Foster won her second Academy Award for Best Actress, following her win for The Accused (1988) just three years before. It is rather rare for the Academy to honor an actor or actress so soon after they already have won once, which gives some indication of the extraordinary work Foster did for director Jonathan Demme in this modern-day horror film.
For me the key scene in her brilliant performance comes near the beginning of the film. Summoned from her jogging to meet with Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn), the point man on a particularly gruesome case of a new serial killer dubbed Buffalo Bill, Starling is sent into his office to wait for his arrival. It has already been established visually that Starling is very much a tiny figure in a landscape of big muscular men and as she waits for Crawford, she seems so very small, like a child awaiting the principal. But then something catches her eye, and she turns to see the horrible photographs of what this latest killer, Buffalo Bill, has done to the women he has murdered. Butchered, massacred, find your own word. The range of emotions that flicker across her face is astounding, extraordinary really that a single actress could bring so much to a scene. Outrage, horror, pain, sadness, a sense of genuine disgust that one man could do much damage to a woman and her family, it is astonishing what Foster does with one scene. I have few doubts that this could be the scene that got her that Oscar nomination and saw her win her second award.
The same sort of thing happens when they view the first body found in a creek, the first that she is permitted to see. The room is filled with men, curious men, and she shoos them out of the room to take care of her. Gentle, compassionate, kindly she touches the ravaged body with gentle hands, near loving hands as though the girl were living.
She is assigned an interesting errand for Crawford, to go interview the serial killer Hannibal Lector, known as Hannibal the Cannibal, and see if the brilliant psychiatrist can offer any insight into why Buffalo Bill is doing what he is doing. So Starling goes – she’s very bright, Lector’s IQ not measurable by any test created by men – to pick the brain of one of the most insidious killers in the history of the United States.
So much was always made of the performance of Anthony Hopkins as Lector and true enough he turns up in this series later, but for me it was always Foster we connected with strongest. She challenges Lector, though he is playing with her as a cat plays with a mouse before killing it. She intrigues him – she is so much smarter than the others who have come to interview him and nothing fascinates him more than intelligence. Though Lector is dangerous beyond belief, able to do more with his mind than any weapon he might be handed, she spars with him, never matching his intellect, but earning his respect. As he says “it would be quite something to know you” though they both know that will never happen.
Devising a game for them to play “quid pro quo” in which Lector will provide her bits and pieces of information for information, personal information about herself. Crawford has warned her against this, that “you don’t want Hannibal Lector in your head”, yet she will do what she can to save the next girl. A young woman has been taken from outside her apartment complex, and they are now racing against time.
The film cuts back and forth between Starling interviewing Lector and her seeking Buffalo Bill, as she is closer than she realizes. Part of it is because she is intelligent and follows the clues, partly because Lector coaches her, inspires her.
“They’ll say we’re in love” he tells her when she breaks the rules to visit him before he escapes back into society, both knowing they possess a mutual respect for each other despite what he is. Lector knows that if they were to meet in the world, she would do everything in her power to arrest him, just as she knows he would kill her rather than come back to prison.
Watch Foster’s eyes, her body language, watch her do what many actors struggle with doing, she listens, and not just to Lector but to Crawford, to everyone who speaks with her. Her respect for people is exceptional, she treats everyone as someone she can learn from, even the lecherous Dr. Chilton, who she realizes really is the buffoon he seems.
Face to face, finally with Buffalo Bill, she finds him nothing like Lector, instead a primal killer prepared to do anything he can to get what he wants. He skins the young woman to be part of flesh suit he is making to cover his male body and allow himself to fix where nature erred, making him a woman. Calmly she unfastens her weapon but makes no sudden moves before he bolts into the cavernous basement where he has the young girl prisoner. Never losing her cool, it is by listening that she brings him down, though she is as terrified as the spring lambs before their slaughter. I imagine by killing him, she stops the screaming of the lambs and brings welcome silence to her mind.
Foster won the New York Film Critics Award for Best Actress shortly before her second Oscar as Best Actress, one of five The Silence of the Lambs won in a sweep of the major categories. A masterful performance from one of the finest actresses of her generation, never better.
To gain greater perspective to just how good Foster really was, consider the sequel to the film, Hannibal (2001), based on the book. Foster was not available for the film so director Ridley Scott recast the part with Julianne Moore, a formidable actress in her own right, yet the truth be told she did not hold a candle to Foster’s performance. Moore was very good, no question, but Foster achieved a kind of greatness that happens once or twice in a generation.
In every way, Foster gave a performance for the ages.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.