Silence of the Lambs is no stranger to controversy. Though met with critical acclaim upon its release, the film was accused of perpetuating negative stereotypes of gay and transgender people due to the characterization of Jame Gumb, the serial killer being hunted by FBI agent Clarice Starling. This culminated in a massive protest at the Oscars on the night that Silence took home all five major awards for the evening. According to Ted Levine, the actor who played Gumb, these are superficial readings of his character.
In order to understand the controversy, one need merely look at the Jame Gumb character. In the film, Gumb is a serial killer who kidnaps overweight women in order to skin them, thereby fashioning himself a ‘woman-suit’ so he can change his identity. After each killing, Gumb, known to the media as ‘Buffalo Bill,’ places a month in the throat of his victims in order to sign his work, and symbolize his desire to change. On his trail is Clarice Starling, a budding FBI agent who must enlist the help of serial killer Hannibal Lecter in order to track down the psycho.
Gumb has a white poodle named precious, dances around wearing women’s clothes and a scalp, and has had a homosexual relationship with at least one male in his past. On the surface, it seems pretty obvious that the character is a negative stereotype of the LGBT community. However, the makers of Lambs dismiss these claims. Actor Ted Levine who played Gumb, had a far different interpretation of the character when making the film.
Ted Levine has had numerous successes throughout his career, such as his regular role on the hit series Monk, but many still call Silence of the Lambs his most notable achievement. Levine talked extensively about his preparation for the role in the 2003 documentary ‘Inside the Labyrinth: The Making of Silence of the Lambs, where he clarified that he never played the character as gay.
There’s a lot of flack about him being gay. I never played him as being gay.
Levine did a lot of research in preparation for his role, reading up in several of the serial killers that inspired Buffalo Bill in the novel. In particular, he took an interest in Ed Gein and Jerry Brudos, both of whom skinned their victims. This weighed heavily on Levine, who is still shaken by these things years later.
I had a good deal of time to work on the part before we started shooting. I read a great deal of material about serial killers. Not a fun process at all. I’ve lived with a lot of images that I still remember.
Also in preparation for the role, Levine did research into the gay and transgender community, and this is where his role really began to take shape. Levine began his work by going to bars frequented by crossdressers and people going through transition. While there, he said he was struck by an epiphany. Jame Gumb wasn’t there.
I met with female impersonators. I went to some very interesting bars looking and talking to people about a side of life that I’m not familiar with. And I came to the conclusion that none of that had anything really to do with this. If the guy was gay, he’d be killing and maiming boys and men and he was killing women.
Realizing that the LGBT community had nothing to do with his character, Levine set out to search for a new angle by which to play him, insisting on not playing the character as gay. Rather, he tried to play the character as someone who despised homosexuals and transgender people in an effort to mask his own insecurities.
The stance I took was more of an acutely homophobic heterosexual man doing that mocking thing. I kind of took it that he was sort of imitating the way his mother might have talked to the poodle. By hearing that voice, in a sense he’s sort of talking to himself. His inner poodle as it were. The other thing he’s not is he’s not a transvestite either or a transexual. He was playing with these ideas and he’s tried on a whole lot of personas, and just got hooked on this idea of dressing in a women’s skin.
Still, concerns were high on the set, in particularly from director Jonathan Demme, that many would misinterpret the character as an attack on LGBT people. He spoke with Ted Levine at length about these fears, which Levine recalls in his interview.
He was scared about the gay thing too, and I said ‘Don’t worry. This is not a gay character.’ You don’t want to beat that movie cliche over the head of the mincing homosexual.
Levine has maintained that was the stance he took with Gumb, but still has said he understands how his characterization was misinterpreted. He has reached out in the past to members of the community to offer amends.
People really took it to heart and were offended by it. I’ve talked to people whose feelings were hurt about the characterization I did, and I apologize for that.
THE STORY ITSELF
There is Ted Levine’s stance, and perhaps nobody knows the character better than him and writer Thomas Harris. But what of the film itself? More elaboration on Gumb’s background was in the book which clarified that he wasn’t in fact gay or transgender, but posing as one. In both the novel and several scenes cut from the film, Crawford speaks with a doctor, Dr. Danielson, at a reassignment clinic while following a lead. In the novel, Dr. Danielson refers to transexuals as decent people. Crawford agrees, and replies as follows.
The whole idea is, the man we want is not your patient. It would be someone you refused because you recognized that he was not a transexual.
These scenes were condensed in the original screenplay, making Jack Crawford more confrontational during the meeting. Ultimately, they were cut from the final film to make more room for Clarice’s story. Screenwriter Ted Tally stated it was to try and keep the film as much from Clarice’s perspective as possible. As such, these and serveral other subplots were cut, including Crawford dealing with his wife’s impending death from a terminal illness.
We ended up having to lose references to his (Gumb’s) childhood and how he became this twisted creature that he is, which was unfortunate. He becomes something of a cipher in the movie. Not as rich as he is in the book. But it’s a 375 page book. You can’t save everything.
This left filmgoers with only glimpses of the man’s damaged psyche. Still, some significant moments clarifying this are left in the movie, mostly during the sequences between Lecter and Starling. Starling herself offered this thought while speaking with Lecter.
There’s no correlation in the literature to transsexualism and violence. Transsexuals are very passive.
Perhaps the best quote to illustrate this comes from Hannibal himself. The cannibalistic doctor responds by outright dismissing the idea of Buffalo Bill, whom he refers to as Billy, as a transsexual.
Billy is not a real transexual. But he thinks he is. He tries to be. He’s tried to be a lot of things, I expect.
The purpose of the scenes with Lecter and Starling are to help the audience, and Starling herself, better understand the villain. Very early on, him being transgender is dismissed entirely, which is the reason the film never addresses it again. This also reveals a lot about Gumb’s affair with Benjamin Raspail. Hannibal states that Gumb has tried to be a lot of things. With Raspail, he tried to be gay. When that didn’t transform him as he hoped, he murdered Raspail in retaliation. Gumb was not a true homosexual, but was trying to be one due to his intense self-hatred, a self hatred that eventually manifests itself in deeply sinister ways.
Watching the film, one finds Gumb’s home is filled with examples of Nazi paraphernalia. This bit of set direction, easily missed upon a first viewing, reveals more of Gumb’s psychosis. Nazis, like many racial superiority groups, radicalize people by gatgeting insecure individuals. Messages of empowerment would have appealed to someone like Gumb, and this would have been another chapter in his life where he tried to change his identity. Nazis were known to skin their victims, which may have served as the inspiration for Gumb’s transformation into Buffalo Bill. When he can’t empower himself with such methods, he resorts to possessing his victims. Turning them into a suit is the ultimate way he dehumanizes them. Ted Levine again clarifies that this is how he played the role.
He wanted the power that he perceives a woman possesses. ‘I want you, so I’m gonna have you. I’m gonna have you completely in that I’m gonna skin you and crawl inside you.’
LEGACY OF THE LAMBS
Though acclaimed, the misinterpretation of the Jame Gumb character has been something of a blight on the legacy of Silence of the Lambs. Jodie Foster, herself a lesbian, had this to say.
Our film sort of got lumped in with Basic Instinct where some of the more activist groups really felt that it portrayed a gay character as being psychopathic, and that audiences would be confused into believing that if you were gay or transgender then that must mean you’re a serial killer. I think it has vanished from the legacy of the film because on further inspection, I think people really realize that was kind of a superficial reading of the movie.
Foster is of course, correct. On the surface, Jame Gumb may appear to be one of the most monstrous attacks on homosexuality and transgenderism ever put to film, but only at a glance. Look a little deeper and Gumb is revealed as a dangerously disturbed individual who superficially views sexual and gender identity as ways he can transform himself. Gumb is a complex character played superbly by actor Ted Levine to create one of cinema’s most frightening villains. Focusing on Gumb also misses the moral tale at the center of the film, one of a woman punishing a wicked man who turns women into objects he can keep.
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