An important character detail in the film The Silence of the Lambs (1991) is the journey of Clarice Starling, played by Jodie Foster, from a rural working-class background to sophisticated city life as an FBI agent.
Take for example this monologue by Dr Hannibal Lecter, played by Anthony Hopkins, during his first encounter with Starling (from 4:15 in the clip; transcript below):
LECTER: You’re so ambitious, aren’t you? You know what you look like to me, with your good bag and your cheap shoes? You look like a rube. A well-scrubbed, hustling rube, with a little taste. Good nutrition has given you some length of bone, but you’re not more than one generation from poor white trash, are you, Agent Starling? And that accent you’ve tried so desperately to shed – pure West Virginia. What is your father, dear? Is he a coal miner? Does he stink of the lamp? And oh, how quickly the boys found you! All those tedious, sticky fumblings in the back seats of cars, while you could only dream of getting out, getting anywhere, getting all the way to the F.B.I.
Starling acknowledges its general truth (‘You see a lot, Doctor’), and, though hostile to analysis, agrees to tell Lecter about herself in exchange for insights into the killer she’s hunting. Lecter, like director Jonathan Demme, is most interested in the person who wants to save others. Foster and Hopkins’s few scenes together form the heart of the film.
In Lecter’s monologue we hear him tease Starling about her accent by mimicking it (‘What is your father, dear? Is he a coal miner?’), and he does it again, here and there, throughout the film. This was a strategy, in character, to rattle Starling – but it rattled Foster a bit too. In a featurette on the special edition DVD, she recounts its effect:
Foster: There’s a moment in the movie where Hannibal says, ‘You know what you look like to me, with your good bag and your cheap shoes? . . .’ I can’t think of anything more hurtful than somebody standing there, saying, ‘I really feel sorry for you. You’re really pathetic.’ He started imitating my accent. He would say, ‘Your problem, Clarice, is you need to get a little more fuhn out of life.’ And suddenly, I just— It upset me so much! It like struck a really bad chord in me. Anthony is the nicest man I’ve worked with in a long time, and the difference between that, of course, and the fury and passion of Hannibal Lecter is very interesting.
The line she mentions as an example must have been a different take from the one in the final cut. It occurs later in the film, and Hopkins delivers the word in question without any particular inflection or dialectal modification:
Lecter’s teasing of Starling’s accent is both playful and cruel, and as a professional ploy it had an edge designed to play on her nerves and add a frisson to their scenes. Foster’s interview suggests that it worked as intended. (Both actors won Oscars, as did Demme.)
On the Graham Norton Show decades later, Foster said she and Hopkins ‘never really had a conversation’ while filming, that she avoided him because she was scared of him, but when filming wrapped they met over a sandwich and each confessed to being scared of the other: