If you listened to Jodie Foster accepting the Cecil B. DeMille Award for lifetime achievement at the Golden Globes on Sunday, you may have concluded that she was either retiring or dying, that her mother has dementia, and that she knows that you know she’s gay. You would only be right about the second two; backstage, she refuted any idea she would stop acting, apparently surprised that people might have drawn that conclusion from her reference to perhaps never standing on a stage again. Fellow gay celebrity k.d. lang summarized many people’s reaction when she simply tweeted “?” while actor Mel Gibson, a friend who Foster thanked, sat in the audience looking utterly confused.
After loudly proclaiming she is 50, Foster started with a dramatic build-up to a confession for which she said she would need some support … and then jokingly announced, “I’m single.” (In 2008, she separated from partner Cydney Bernard, who she also thanked. The couple have two sons, both of whom were present.) She then explained she had come out a thousand years ago when you just did that with friends and family, before she went on to mock the celebrity compulsion to mark every confession with a reality TV deal and a fragrance. A long-time prisoner of the so-called glass closet who has sometimes been criticized for not coming out publicly because it might damage her career, Foster was apparently telling us: “Of course I’m gay, but I am not going to be your role model or spokesperson.”
If annoyingly oblique for a public speech, her remarks were surprisingly confessional for a star who has always guarded her privacy. It has to be remembered that Foster has seen the darkest side of celebrity: In 1981, when the former child star was an undergraduate at Yale, she was stalked by John Hinckley Jr., an obsessive fan who made an assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan in a bid to get her attention.
Foster has good reason to be paranoid about her own privacy and dismissive of colleagues who cash in on theirs; she has a right to be quietly gay, so there was a certain irony to her attention-getting remarks Sunday. If you really are just trying to lead a normal life as a regular working thesp of whatever sexual orientation, why not thank your agent, publicist, mother and kids, graciously acknowledge the industry and the organizers, and hand back the microphone? The Golden Globes are notorious for recognizing popular if not always critically acclaimed performances and indulging celebrities who agree to appear. One suspects that had this been Oscar night, the music would have come up long before Foster had finished.
But, apparently, Foster at 50 has things she needs to get off her chest and the Cecil B. DeMille Award provided the opportunity as it recognized a polarizing and often contradictory career. Foster’s few great performances – as a child prostitute in Taxi Driver in 1976, as an FBI agent stalking a psychopath in Silence of the Lambs in 1991 – and her sometime success as a director live alongside many, many forgettable roles in everything from the Disney movies of her youth to the dramas and comedies of her adult career. She is, indeed, a working actor – a highly successful and rather famous working actor.
There was hearty applause when Foster made her pitch for privacy but how many of those stars clapping would give up all the mansions, the holidays, the cars and the clothes in exchange for fewer encounters with paparazzi? And how many lesser lights would kill – or at least agree to a sleazy reality show – in exchange for Foster’s fame not because they want to fend off paparazzi every day but because they want recognition for their professional achievements?
Being a successful movie actor entails a willingness to be a publicly recognizable figure, not simply because that helps sell movie tickets but also because the magic of performance involves letting an audience identify with the person they believe to be you. That belief, especially if the actor is cast in romantic roles, may be overwhelmingly heterosexual, putting the gay actor in an uncomfortable position. Still, the days of studio-mandated public heterosexuality are long gone. Foster has been one of the lucky ones, who recovered from the horror of Hinckley’s attention, built an adult career after Taxi Driver and managed to have a solid private life while maintaining a positive public image. She was negotiating this awkward territory rather well – until Sunday night.