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 due to the skinning of his victims, 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 a male in his past. Because of this, many assumed the character was gay and/or transgender and denounced the film as homophobic. However, the makers of the film, especially actor Ted Levine who played Gumb, had a far different interpretation.
Levine, in preparation for the role, did a lot of research into serial killers, in particular people like Ed Gein, Ted Bundy, and Jerry Brudos, a process which Levine called ‘not fun.’
They were self indulgent. They were really addicted to this idea of sex and death being close together, and really got off on that.
Also in preparation for the role, Levine did research into the Gay and Transgender community. While researching the role in this way, Levine states he didn’t find a lot of Gumb in the gay and transgender community, stating in the supplemental materials for the film that it had nothing to do with Jame Gumb. Ted Levine elaborated on this in the 2003 documentary ‘Inside the Labyrinth: The Making of Silence of the Lambs.’
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 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, he’s in a sense sort of talking to himself.
Though he’s maintained since the film’s release that his character is not a member of the LGBT community, Levine nonetheless understood why people felt the way he did and offered some amends for the misunderstanding.
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 Film 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? Much of the material dealing with Gumb’s background was cut from the movie, leaving filmgoers with only glimpses of the man’s damaged psyche. Even in the film itself, Gumb’s status as a transsexual is called into question by Clarice.
There’s no correlation in the literature to transsexualism and violence. Transsexuals are very passive.
Hannibal 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.
This quote not only severs Gumb from the LGBT community, but it also calls into question the legitimacy of his past relationship with Lecter’s patient, Benjamin Raspail. Benjamin Raspail was a man whom Gumb had a brief affair before murdering him and severing his head, which Lecter kept as a macabre souvenir. Lecter’s quote, however, explains that Gumb was not a true homosexual, but was trying to be one due to his intense self-hatred, self-hatred which manifests itself in very 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 a lot about Gumb’s psychosis. Nazis, like many racial superiority groups, target insecure individuals, using their discontent to radicalize them. Bill, being an insecure individual himself, may have sought involvement in such groups in order to feel comfortable with his identity. More than that, Nazis were known to skin their victims, which may have served as the inspiration for Gumb’s transformation into Buffalo Bill.
Gumb doesn’t want to be a woman. He wants to change. He tries to build his sense of worth with ideas of racial superiority, and when that fails he superficially believes that changing his gender will change his identity, but it never will.
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. Beneath the surface, Gumb is a far more complex and disturbing 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, and how the talents of someone who actually is gay brought it to life.
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