Ladies of Horror May-hem: Clarice Starling


I’m not gonna lie, denizens. I may have squeed a little bit when I drew this name this morning. Even though I have been determined to abide by my rule of sticking with the random draw, she’s one of the ones I might have been willing to break the rules for had she not made the cut by chance. What can I say? Sometimes, rules are meant to be broken.

Of course, break too many rules and you might find yourself under investigation by today’s Lady of Horror May-hem, FBI Agent-in-Training Clarice Starling, played by Jodie Foster in director Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs.

Among all the other wonderful feelings I have for this character and this movie, this is not only the first time I can remember reading the book on which a particular movie is based but also one of the rare instances in which I believe the movie surpasses the book in quality. For full disclosure, I haven’t read the book since the movie came out, so I might feel differently now that I’m years older. Still, screenwriter Ted Tally did a beautiful job of translating Thomas Harris’s tale into cinematic form, and I don’t give a damn who else was considered for the role of Clarice before (or after) Foster, there is no other Clarice for me.

The truly spectacular thing about this character is the fact that there is an almost universal acceptance of her awesomeness. Not only did Foster win an Oscar for her performance (becoming only the second actress to win this award for a horror movie, following in the footsteps of the equally amazing Kathy Bates as Annie Wilkes), but the American Film Institute named Clarice Starling sixth on its 100 Years…100 Heroes & Villains list, making her the top-ranking heroine on the list. She even beat out the similarly universally accepted greatness of Ellen Ripley (only by two notches).

But what is it about Clarice Starling that so many people find so amazing? For me, it comes down to several key factors, including the fact that Hannibal Lecter finds her worthy. This is a man of unhinged brilliance, refined insanity. Were he not imprisoned for feeding his cannibalistic tendencies (heh), he would be sought the world over for his psychological insight, his incomprehensible grasp of the intricacies of the complicated human mind. He is quick to dismiss the dismal, the inept, the ingratiating…fame seekers and intellectual dilettantes.

But Clarice. From their very first meeting, he sees in her something that he has not seen for many a moon. He sees possibility. He sees, perhaps not an equal right away…but someone with the potential to rival him, to challenge him. And when he attempts to dissect her (with a soliloquy that I love so much, I have committed it completely to memory…in my best attempt at a Lecter accent)? She reins in every ounce of reaction, represses every emotion that his accurate verbal evisceration invokes within her, never falters in meeting his gaze. She will not be thrown by him. She will not be deterred in her mission. She will prevail, even if it means disobeying orders not to engage Lecter in the type of psychological sparring that he craves. She willingly lays herself bare emotionally for Lecter (something she very obviously has worked most of her life not to do for anyone), and the give-and-take relationship they cultivate is one of the most glorious ever committed to film.

Clarice Starling embodies the essence of determination and perseverance. She may stumble, and she may have much further to go in her personal and professional refinement, but she has never given up in her life. She has always tried to live by the dictates of an internal ethic sensibility that sometimes supersedes “accepted” sensibilities…whatever it takes to silence the screaming of self-perceived failings she carries within her.