Fava beans and chianti: ‘The Silence of the Lambs’


Yesterday evening I fell down a YouTube rabbit hole and ended up watching the horror film ‘The Silence of the Lambs’ from 1991. The film was directed by Jonathan Demme and was based on the book of the same name by Thomas Harris. Had I been actively seeking the film then I would never have found it. Being a classic, the copyright holders are quite stringent in who can access the work – people who pay for the privilege essentially – and constantly remove clips that breach their copyright.

There are ways and means around this. With a bit of planning, coupled with a dull cunning you can still usually locate any film you desire on Youtube.

I was a teenager when the film was first released and I went to see it in the Savoy Cinema on Bedford Row in Limerick. Despite the fact that I wasn’t legally old enough to watch the movie as it had an over-18s’ certificate, there was no issue in gaining admittance to the picture house.

The film is sensational – a terrifying tale of an FBI trainee Clarice Starling who is recruited to assist in finding serial killer Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine) who skins a series of female victims after murdering them. Her duties involve interviewing noted psychiatrist Dr Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) – a serial killer imprisoned in an asylum for the criminally insane for a series of cannibalistic murders. Lecter may be able to assist in identifying Buffalo Bill and provide information as to his motives.

It was a critical and commercial smash hit, with excellent performances by the entire cast (Hannibal Lecter is one the greatest all time villains in cinema history) and a tense creepy atmosphere throughout. Not a single scene is wasted. It swept the board at the 1992 Oscars.

I am aware that I am meant to dislike the film because I am gay. The film was hugely controversial at the time facing accusations of homophobia and transphobia in its depiction of the Buffalo Bill character.

At the time of the film’s release there was a New York magazine called ‘Outweek’ which was published weekly. This radical gay and lesbian magazine was regarded as the voice of AIDS activism, at a time when gay men were dying in their thousands from the disease. This was before treatment therapies had been created, and when the political will to resolve the health crisis was virtually non-existent. In the face of the health catastrophe direct action groups like ACT UP (AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power) created this magazine to promote their cause.

The magazine was controversial for its tactic of ‘outing’ – the revelation of someone’s sexual orientation without their consent. The tactic was seen as permissible in the cases of closeted politicians who campaigned against LGBT rights, or celebrities who engaged in homophobic behaviour. There was also the argument that seeing as there was nothing morally wrong with being gay, then revealing that someone was gay was merely reporting facts. Tabloids had been using this tactic for years to destroy people’s careers. OutWeek did so to call out hypocrisy. It outed Malcolm Forbes; David Geffen; columnist Liz Smith for contributing to the culture of silence around AIDS and homophobia.

After ‘Silence of the Lambs’ was released Jodie Foster became target for outing. Posters declaring Foster ‘Absolutely queer’ appeared on billboards (along with similar posters for Whitney Houston and John Travolta). OutWeek lambasted Foster for being a closeted lesbian and appearing in such a problematic film. (Foster finally came out in 2013; Houston died without ever coming out – although it is now known that she had same sex relationships; John Travolta remains as attractive, manly and heterosexual as ever – just don’t ask any male masseurs about him.) In Britain ‘The Face’ magazine ran an article about the outing scandal, using a picture of teen pop sensation Jason Donovan in a mock-up of one of the ‘Absolutely Queer’ posters. Donovan sued for libel, almost drove the magazine out of business and virtually destroyed his own career in the process. Kylie never made this mistake – if you are an act popular with the LGBT community it is probably unwise for sue for libel if someone says that you are gay.

Jonathan Demme denied the film was homophobic. Well he would of course. He tried to make amends by directing the worthy ‘Philadelphia’ some years later – the film where Tom Hanks played a noble, gay lawyer dying from AIDS.

Was ‘Silence of the Lambs’ homophobic? Well yes. Not intentionally perhaps, but a film like this would not get made today.

Frankly I don’t care about the homophobia in the film. Not that I want to belittle bigotry but you have to watch the film with an awareness of the cultural climate in which it was made, and appreciate the artistry involved. Art isn’t created for an audience’s approval.

It is a towering piece of cinema – riveting, chilling and wildly entertaining. I am contemplating liver and chianti for this evening’s supper.

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