Acting is an art form, and behind every iconic character is an artist expressing themselves. Welcome to The Great Performances, a bi-weekly column exploring the art behind some of cinema’s best roles. In this entry, we examine Jodie Foster’s Academy Award-winning performance as Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs.
A turning point in Jodie Foster’s career came in 1976. It was the year she smashed audience expectations with her performance in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. Up until that Oscar-nominated supporting role, she had been mainly known as a Disney star and TV actress appearing in everything from Gunsmoke to the small-screen adaptation of Paper Moon.
Her mother, knowing how tumultuous a career a child actor can have when transitioning into adult roles, encouraged Foster to take the Taxi Driver role as a way to force audiences – and casting directors – to take her seriously. That same year saw Foster star in three more films, including Alan Parker’s musical gangster comedy Bugsy Malone and the original Freaky Friday.
What is so impressive about this year-long run of film performances is that it shows the range Foster had at an early age, fueled by her inherent ability to approach a role intellectually. She can get into the headspace of a character as complex as a child prostitute and then turn right around and apply that same intuition and curiosity to a precocious tween that accidentally body-swaps with her mom.
But the movies that followed soon after her success in 1976, such as Carny and Foxes, were less than memorable, leading Foster to take a sabbatical from acting to pursue an English degree at Yale in 1980. It was there that her career, and her life, would take a dramatic turn.
While attending the university, Foster began receiving unwanted phone calls and love letters from John Hinckley Jr. The stalker became infatuated with the actress after her performance in Taxi Driver and wanted nothing more than to be acknowledged by her.
Feeling spurned by Foster’s warranted hostility to his advances, Hinckley concocted a plan to win her attention. He decided to assassinate then-President Ronald Reagan. Hinckley’s 1981 assassination attempt was unsuccessful, but it ignited a media frenzy around Foster that she personally detailed in an Esquire story entitled “Why Me?“. She wrote:
“I didn’t have the time to feel it then. There were things to be done, secrets to keep. I was supposed to be “tough,” like cowboys, like diplomats, like “unaffected actresses” — not because anyone asked me to but because I wanted to show them (God knows who) that I was strong… I can’t say that I didn’t feel exploited by these friendly men and women with Nikons and with mikes clipped to their lapels….when I saw them assembled before me, I knew that these were the faces, the uncomfortable, fascinated eyes, that I would have to meet for the rest of my life. When I saw them waiting silently and solemnly for my statement, I knew I had to play cowboy — once again. If they wanted weakness, I wasn’t about to give it to them.”
Ten years after the Hinckley incident, Foster was cast in what would become her most famous role as Clarice Starling in Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs. The film follows the FBI agent as she encounters two different kinds of obsessive psychopaths in Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine), who flays female victims to wear their skin like fine silks, and Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), who’s obsession with devouring a person’s psyche manifests in a desire to literally devour them.
Foster has never discussed if her performance in The Silence of the Lambs was influenced by her ordeal with Hinckley a decade before, but the experiences she details in Esquire feel so relevant to what Clarice goes through in the film. With her adept understanding of human psychology, Foster was able to pour, however subconsciously, her own fears and anxieties that manifested in her early life into a character defined by her trauma. Foster uses her own experience feeling the prying eyes of men around her to influence the psychology and physicality of her performance.
One of the most immediate representations of how her character’s inner psychology affects her physicality comes early in the film in one of The Silence of the Lambs‘ most lasting images. After an opening montage of Clarice completing rigorous FBI training, she enters an elevator packed with men, their eyes staring surreptitiously as they tower over her short stature.
If the audience is introduced to Foster’s Clarice through her strength, we understand her vulnerability in this moment as she’s surrounded by the voyeuristic eyes of the male FBI trainees in the elevator. Most of the film is shot from Clarice’s perspective so that we feel the suffocating effects of the male gaze, but it’s in Foster’s own eyes that we see glimpses of her inner strength and outward vulnerability. Foster doesn’t let the men in the elevator see her insecurities, but as she clasps her hands together and stares at the ceiling, we instantly recognize her heightened awareness of their gaze.
Throughout the film, Foster’s eyes are piercing and controlled as Clarice asserts herself into the patriarchal hierarchy of law enforcement. At the same time, Foster projects Clarice’s uncomfortableness at the unwanted male attention by intentionally avoiding eye contact with other characters, whether it’s Hannibal or her mentor, Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn).
Foster said in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, “Lots of people ask, “How do you play strong and moving at the same time?” My head doesn’t stop working just because I’m acting. I have a specific approach that is just different from other people, more of an intellectual approach, and yet I am able to turn that into something emotional.”
Foster’s intellectual approach of juggling her character’s nuanced psychology with the given circumstances of a scene is best seen in her visits to Hannibal’s dungeon-like jail cell. Of the men she encounters, Hannibal seems to be the most aware of the psychological damage that the male gaze can wreak.
With his acid dipped tongue and metallic stare, he intentionally tries to burrow into Clarice’s mind, getting under her skin so that he can use her as much as she needs to use him. We watch as her anxieties manifest in a tight coil of physical tension, her brow furrowing as she tries to overcome Hannibal’s uncomfortable gaze.
Even though she’s face to face with a notorious serial killer, she’s playing the same discomfort she expressed when surrounded by the ogling eyes in the elevator. Foster’s Clarice, however, seems to be aware of what Hannibal is doing, and she uses her lived experience to her advantage in their tête-à-têtes.
As Hannibal attempts to pigeon hole Clarice by prying into her past, she rebuffs him in a way that will be familiar to any woman who’s dealt with a creepy man’s uninvited advances. She rolls her eyes and scoffs at him, attempting to deflate his self-confidence with her own personal strength. In these moments it’s as if Foster is pulling from her own personal experiences dealing with man’s obsession and objectification of women as a tool for her character to combat Hopkins’ imposing Hannibal.
It’s easy for Hopkins’ iconic turn as Hannibal to overshadow the work that Foster puts in as Clarice, but her performance is the meat of the film’s emotional core. What makes The Silence of the Lambs so special is that it is more than just a film about a determined young FBI trainee hunting down a serial killer with the help of a cannibal psychiatrist. It’s more than just the complicated relationship that grows between Hannibal and Clarice.
The film is at its strongest when placing the viewer into the uncomfortable position of a woman navigating a misogynistic world, forcing the audience to reckon with how those judgmental eyes can rip a person’s identity to shreds. But much like how Foster refused to let the media attention that sprung from the Hinckley incident alter her true self, Clarice refuses to let patriarchal perception stand in the way of who she really is.
In a recent interview with the New York Times, Foster said about her acting process, “As a young actor I was operating instinctually, but I think I was preternaturally psychologically deep about who people are…psychological understanding was just something I was born with. I was also naturally able to compartmentalize, to make decisions about when to feel and when not to feel. Some people call that a damaged spirit. Like, I’m so compartmentalized that I can decide when I give and when I hold back. But that was helpful in order to design performances; to be in the moment and outside the moment.”
Being both in and outside of the moment is a balancing act all actors must accomplish, and it is one of Foster’s greatest strengths as a performer. She can remain focused on the psychological work she’s doing in-character while also informing her performance by staying aware of what’s happening outside of a scene’s given circumstances.
Creating a performance as real as Clarice required Foster to not only stay fiercely committed but also be affected by a swirling mix of experiences. Not just from her character, but from her own life. This level of self-awareness is one of the greatest examples of why acting truly is an art form.
A decade before Clarice met Hannibal, Foster’s life was impacted by the obsessions of a different kind of psychopath. She used those experiences, as well as a keen understanding of human psychology, to craft an Oscar-winning performance that has lost none of its enrapturing qualities thirty years later.