16 January 2013
London

I add my two cents worth to Jodie Foster’s not-quite-a-coming-out speech at the Golden Globes.

Sunday night’s Golden Globe Awards ceremony set a new high – or low, depending on your point of view – for the cult of celebrity. Actress and director Jodie Foster, accepting the Cecil B. DeMille award for lifetime achievement from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, delivered a strange, rambling, earnest, somewhat pretentious and now legendary speech, in which she announced that she was 50, flirted with audience expectations that she would come out as gay, announcing instead, teasingly, that she was single, went on to say that she’d come out years ago, and made an impassioned defence of her right to privacy on her own terms.

That’s right – a speech about privacy at an awards show, televised to billions of viewers worldwide. Even more startlingly, she thanked Mel Gibson – the notoriously anti-Semitic, homophobic, wife beating alcoholic, whose friendship with Foster is one of the enduringly strange legends of Hollywood – for “saving her”, along with her two adorable red-headed sons, her ex-girlfriend Cydney, and a posse of old friends who were sitting at a table way up the back in the nosebleed section at the awards show. She also made some pointedly phrased but ambiguous statements that she may be retiring from acting, though she promised that she might one day “be holding a different talking stick”, though “maybe it won’t be as sparkly.” (For this and many other baffling non sequiturs, click here).

In less than a week, her not-quite-a-coming-out speech become one of the most watched and commented-on video clips in recent history, eclipsing all the usual awards show buzz about who won what at the Golden Globes or which movie will win the Oscar for best film. Pundits and gay activists everywhere have weighed in on Foster’s words, ranging from words of encouragement for her honesty, to enraged polemics criticising her for not coming out years ago and for mincing her words and avoiding an explicit declaration that she was gay.

There are, admittedly, more important issues in the world right now than whether a 50 year-old actress is or isn’t out of the closet – but Foster’s words seem to have ignited something in the zeitgeist. This is, I suspect, mostly to do with timing – there’s been a spate of high-profile coming outs in the last year (most notably, US news anchor Anderson Cooper) and Barack Obama’s televised support for gay marriage has put gay rights into the public consciousness like never before. Suddenly, “gay” is no longer a “special interest” issue for gay people, but something that everyone’s talking about and feeling engaged with – as they should be. In this atmosphere, Foster’s speech was almost guaranteed to go off like the New Years Eve fireworks on Sydney Harbour Bridge.

Foster’s career in Hollywood is itself a remarkable story. An actor since the age of 3, she’s one of the few child stars to make a successful transition into a fully-fledged career as an adult (and latterly as a director). She managed to survive the fallout from John Hinkley shooting Ronald Reagan in an apparent attempt impress her – a scandal that would’ve sent many teenagers into the loony bin or out of the public eye. In the early 1990s, she bagged two Oscars for her ferocious performances as a working class gang-rape victim in The Accused, and the relentlessly driven and insecure FBI agent Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs, ascending to Hollywood royalty in the process. Her acting work since hasn’t had the same lustre, but her choice of film roles has always been interesting. Visibly awkward and unconvincing when she plays the love interest (Anna and the King), the devoted wife (Sommersby) or the comic relief (Maverick), she’s much more believable when she plays the woman alone, usually under siege from a hostile world (Nell, Panic Room, The Brave One, Flight Plan). Her best characters are the ones that seem closer to her “public” Hollywood persona: self controlled, defensively intelligent, sexually muted and ambiguous, and deliberately mysterious about her innermost secrets.

Unsurprisingly, Foster’s trademark self-consciousness and her androgynous looks have made her something of a gay icon, despite her lifelong position (until last weekend) of not commenting on her sexuality or her relationship status. Speculation has raged about her sexuality for the best part of 20 years. In the nasty closety old 1980s, Foster’s face was featured on a series of “Absolutely Queer” posters plastered around New York City, branding her as “Oscar Winner. Yale Graduate. Ex-Disney Moppet. Dyke”. Foster responded by not responding, and stayed that way, even when her Oscar-winning 1991 film The Silence of the Lambs was accused of homophobia for featuring a transsexual serial killer. Offscreen, she had two children via a sperm donor, refusing to comment on his identity or her relationship status.

And so it continued on, with occasional acting jobs interspersed with a respectable (if somewhat underwhelming) body of work as a film director, while other actors of her generation – and those older and younger – slowly found the courage to come out. It was only in 2007, again as she accepted a leadership award at a Women In Hollywood event, that she made any reference to her sexuality, thanking her then partner and co-parent, “my beloved Cydney”. Fast-forward to now, and we have as much of a coming out speech as Foster seems ever likely to make, with an added slap-down to her would-be critics as to why things should have ever been different.

My friend the activist and commentator Michelangelo Signorile, who 20 years ago was advocating loudly and angrily for Foster and her kind to come out, had a mostly positive response to the speech in his Huffington Post blog. “If she’d done it 20 years ago, 10 years ago, even five years ago, it would have had a much greater impact”, he begins, but he eventually applauds Foster for coming out, calling it “another win for busting down the closet door among public figures.” Considering the legacy of Foster’s speech, Signorile concludes that “it was another indication of how it’s becoming harder and harder for anyone in public life to have any real credibility and still be living in the closet.”

By comparison, gay blogger and Log Cabin Republican Andrew Sullivan went for blood, dismissing Foster’s claims that she’d come out “a thousand years ago” as “unadulterated bullshit”, and pillorying her for not coming out earlier.

For my own part, I was interested less by the coming out than by Foster’s need to defend herself, the way her attempts at humour were instead prickly displays of self-defensiveness. An amusing Guardian article analysed the rhetorical devices used in her speech, calling it “clever” and “elegant”. I’d agree that, despite her “off the cuff” delivery style, the speech was carefully crafted and plotted, but unlike the Guardian, I found it grating rather than charming. In one particularly acerbic aside, she said:

Now I’m told, apparently, that every celebrity is expected to honor the details of their private life with a press conference, a fragrance and a prime-time reality show.

Put like that, of course her instincts towards privacy will look logical and preferable. But in reaching for a sideswiped laugh to prove her point, she created a dichotomy that doesn’t exist. Hollywood (and the gay community) isn’t just divided into shameless publicity-digging whores and Garbo-like recluses. As Sullivan points out in his blog, there have been plenty of celebs who’ve come out in a sober and dignified manner – he names Ellen Degeneres as the first among equals – and who didn’t feel the need to hold a press conference or hawk a fragrance. Foster would’ve made her point, and sounded a lot less insecure, had she simply stuck to her guns and said that her privacy was important to her. And perhaps not chosen to make that announcement on television. I also agree with Sullivan that Foster also let herself off the hook somewhat. She may have come out to people she knew years ago, but not to the world at large, and her attempts to sound laissez faire about this seemed naive at best and arrogant at worst.

Sullivan withdraws his fangs just long enough to look at things from Foster’s point of view:

I’m thrilled Foster can now live a fuller life with less fear. I’m saddened she waited until others far less powerful had made the sacrifice to make that possible. And that she waited for the safest moment of all – winning a well-deserved Lifetime Achievement Award – to do so.

Sullivan is mostly right on the money here. By refusing to come out earlier, and by refusing to say the infamous words “I Am Gay” in her speech this weekend, Foster has missed an opportunity to send a message to gay kids that it’s ok to identify yourself as gay.

But the choice to come out or not, and when, is a personal choice – as it is for all of us. The most sensible thing I’ve read on this point is by someone called J. Bryan Lowder in Slate‘s culture blog (quoted in the Sullivan piece):

As far as I’m concerned, as long as a gay person hasn’t been actively pretending to be straight (like a number of people in that hall tonight are probably doing), I don’t think she is required to be an activist or even a “role model” for younger LGBT people if she doesn’t wish to be. It is, of course, wonderful when big names like Zachary Quinto and Anderson Cooper have the courage to give up their hetero-privilege in a public pronouncement, and undoubtedly the increasing recognition that so many of our culture-makers are gay has the power to challenge perceptions. But in the midst of the noisy demand that celebrities be “loud and proud,” as Foster put it, the ostensible endgame of the LGBT equality movement can get drowned out: the ability to live our lives as we wish, freely and gently, in peace.

So how does the right to privacy sit with what’s arguably a moral obligation to come out – for yourself, for your family and community, to support those who come after you – and does it depend on who you are and what you do for a living?

Although Foster is a “public figure”, she’s not required to do anything other than pretend to be other people and give interviews about it. I’d also be prepared to give her an extra dispensation on the basis that she’s an actor. In her post-award interview, Golden Globe winner Jessica Chastain talked about how the work of an actor requires you to transform into other people, something made more difficult and less believable if you know everything about their lives. There’s some truth to this: Foster’s work, like Kevin Spacey’s, is interesting because of the ambiguity and mystery of their personalities, and the lack of publicly available information about their sex lives. Then again, Ian McKellen being openly gay hasn’t affected his ability to be Gandalf, or Magneto, or King Lear, or even MP John Profumo in Scandal, who in McKellen’s words was “a notorious heterosexual.” So maybe actors don’t get let off the hook that easily.

Coming out is a choice for everyone, and I’d never lambast someone for not doing it, especially when they’re in a public position. But I do agree with Sullivan that, in choosing to leave her coming out so long, Foster has missed an opportunity. She can give all the money she likes to LGBT teen call centres, but the way she’d truly make a difference is by coming out. She’d certainly have made a difference to me as a teenager if she’d come out. My mother has always loved Jodie Foster and made a point of watching anything she’s in, even if it’s violent, and has always commented admiringly on her range of “look but don’t touch” Armani outfits. What a different conversation I might have been able to have with my mother had Ms Foster come out in the early 1990s. But she didn’t, and so I – and eventually Jodie – took another road out of the closet.

Foster might have also won a few more supporters to her privacy cause had she not been so defensive. But therein lies the ongoing proof that coming out is still difficult. I suspect that her coming out has been largely for her children – in her speech, she says “this song, like all of this, this song is for you”, possibly so that they won’t have to lie or keep secrets about their mom as they grow up. Singer Ricky Martin has stated that his coming out was largely because of his children: “To keep living as I did up until today would be to indirectly diminish the glow that my kids [were] born with. That in itself represents a major step forward – whereas once a parent would’ve felt the need to stay in the closet to “protect” their children, now they come out, as an expression of honesty and to allow their children to live honestly too.

I’ve held off on writing this blog until I was able to watch Welsh rugby player Gareth Thomas’ TV documentary (which screened on Channel 5 tonight) about his experiences coming out as gay. Though Thomas hasn’t a tenth of Foster’s wit or intelligence, there’s something heartwarming and heartbreaking about the matter-of-fact way in which he told his story, without any of Foster’s defensiveness. To each his or her own, of course – but I’d sooner go mud-wrestling with Thomas any day.

But what’s done is done. Now that Foster is out – without actually being “out” – it can become a boring detail of her life. Now all she has to come clean on is that bizarre friendship with Mel Gibson, and then we can all get back to talking about something more important, like global warming.

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