So what exactly was it that Jodie Foster did at the Golden Globes on Sunday night? Did she come out of the closet without actually saying she was coming out of the closet? Did she announce her retirement from acting? Was she making the case for celebrity privacy in the most public forum imaginable?
The answer to all of the above is: maybe, and I think the confusion was intentional, helpless, and nervy on Foster’s part. The six-minute-plus speech the actress gave upon receiving the Cecil B. DeMille Lifetime Achievement Award was as profoundly personal as we’ve gotten from her or likely ever will get. That it was emotional, at points borderline incoherent, is understandable. She was simultaneously addressing a room full of good friends, her ex-partner, their two sons, a nation of busybodies, and a culture that is addicted to both “celebrity” and “reality” without having a firm grip on what either of those constructs means. The speech held multitudes while barely holding itself together.
Yet it also came in the context of a much-discussed “new casualness” about revelations of sexual orientation, where celebrities like Frank Ocean or Anderson Cooper can mention they’re gay and it’s no big deal to anyone except, predictably, the media. The post-game reaction to Foster’s declaration/not-declaration has, predictably, been all over the map. Big whoop, we always assumed you were gay and why didn’t you say so 20 years ago when it would have made a difference? Or: Remind me again why we should feel sympathy for rich, successful Hollywood stars, especially ones who walk through doors others have opened? Or, from those in the entertainment industry or close to it: Thank you for baring your talented, conflicted soul. Foster’s fellow stars wept, applauded, tweeted. (@Ricky_Martin: “On your terms. It’s your time! Not before or after. It’s when it feels right!” @Rosie [O’Donnell]: “A rather amazing speech.” @kathygriffin: “Well done, lady.”)
To really parse this particular pop moment, though, you have to take a step back and understand what makes Foster unique as an actress and, more important, a public persona. If there is a single word that has always defined her, it is “professional.” Foster has never been a sob sister or a diva, a glamourpuss or a fame whore. Our perception of her, correct or not, is that she is all about the work. We label her personal reticence a mark of “class” and, along with fellow artisans like Meryl Streep, assign Foster the status of an anti-Kardashian of modern fame. Yet we still burn to know. The double-edged sword of celebrity culture is that we want to both ennoble our stars and learn their dirty little secrets, especially the ones we think they’re trying to hide.
At the same time, Foster has long been invested in maintaining her privacy, to an extreme unusual for public figures. (And here she might possibly say, well, I’m an actor who gives public performances, but that’s not the same thing as being a public figure. My characters are yours for consumption, but I’m not.) It bears remembering that the star was 18 in 1980 when John Hinckley, a young man obsessed with her performance in the 1976 movie “Taxi Driver,” tried to assassinate President Reagan to prove — actually, it doesn’t matter what he was trying to prove, he was insane. The global media descended on Foster, then a student at Yale, and imprisoned her in a news story she had no choice in joining. Aside from a 1982 article in Esquire, she has rightly refused to discuss the incident. Why should she? Who she really was had nothing to do with the Jodie Foster in Hinckley’s head. And the press made very clear which Jodie Foster it was interested in.
That alone would make a young woman paranoid about attracting attention; now factor in that Foster had been professionally acting since she was 3 and — based on the roles and movies she chose at the time — appeared to be going through a very natural re-evaluation of who she was as both a person and a performer. On top of that, factor in her sexuality, which was nobody’s business to begin with and would have been a radioactive subject in the closeted 1980s.
So Foster has been and remains shy about herself as a public persona while living a reasonably open life as a person within the larger entertainment community. And it has been a mark of the respect we have granted her — because of the trauma of the Hinckley incident, because of her no-nonsense skills as an actor and director — that the culture has allowed her to maintain the duality. On some level, we just don’t care, because the bargain we make with Foster is that her fierce, committed performances are enough, and that if she’s not going to sell herself with sex — which 99 percent of movie stars do as a matter of daily business — we’re not going to insist she do so.
It’s harder to maintain that position as a public figure when the culture’s homophobia is gradually thawing around you, though, and Foster has over the years been called out by activists for not making an overt public proclamation of her assumed sexuality. She did so within the castle walls of the Hollywood creative community, praising her then-partner, Cydney Bernard, at a 2007 industry event. But until the Golden Globes speech, she had no interest in engaging us, the consumers. Maybe she was terrified of being consumed.
Still, when does the need for privacy become an act of hiding? What does a public figure owe to her public, to the culture wars, to people like her? The sphere of persona around Foster has prompted these questions even as she has seemed unsettled, uncertain, or uninterested in addressing them. She is a rarity: a movie star who resists being locked into a public image. That’s a culturally perverse stance, and one with which you can argue all day, but it’s also her right as a human being. Thus the Golden Globes dodge, “I’m . . . single.” Whatever else we hear from Jodie Foster on a podium, you can almost guarantee it won’t be the words, “I’m gay.” That would be to play the game by the media’s rules rather than hers.
The irony is that Foster is articulate as hell in person, with a wicked sense of humor about herself and a mind that never stops clicking. I’ve interviewed her during movie publicity tours; you can’t shut her up. She loves talking about the process of filmmaking and about creative relationships on and off the set. She doesn’t care what you think of Mel Gibson; he’s her friend and that’s that. And when we spoke prior to the release of her most recent acting-directing effort — that brave, foolish movie called “The Beaver” — she allowed that if she were 18 all over again and knew what she knows now, she probably wouldn’t choose to be an actor. That everything you give isn’t, in the end, worth what you have to give away.
So maybe her speech was about coming out of the closet, as far as she thinks we deserve to know. And maybe she is calling it quits. Probably not; backstage after the speech, Foster told the press that she’d never stop acting entirely (“You’d have to drag me behind a team of horses”) and that she intends to focus increasingly on her efforts behind the camera. She’s a professional, after all.
Maybe that speech was just a way for Jodie Foster, the person, to finally fire Jodie Foster, the star.
Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com.