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.Continued...