Inappropriate sharing, incomprehensible ramblings, uncalled-for hostility: yup, it's a blog.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Quid pro quo

Most of Jodie Foster's movies over the past quarter-century have, on one level or another, dealt with identity. She has built her brand by playing strong women fighting for respect and determined to remain true to their own self-determined identities (and then there's 'Maverick,' which is a movie about three people unable to reconcile logic with motivation, and which has more endings than the final 'Lord of the Rings' film).

In Jonathan Demme's Silence of the Lambs, Dr. Hannibal Lecter makes a go of forcing an identity onto Foster's character, FBI trainee Clarice Starling, saying calmly to her, "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's 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? You know 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 FBI."

While incorrect about her father's vocation (which perhaps speaks more to Lecter's own character; he does get her own vocation wrong as well, since she's not yet an agent), the expression on Starling's face as Lecter hisses out this monologue is telling. She fumbles for a response, haltingly at first but finishing confidently, almost sneeringly: "You see a lot, Doctor. But are you strong enough to point that high-powered perception at yourself? What about it? Why don't you - why don't you look at yourself and write down what you see? Or maybe you're afraid to."

Clarice is who delivered the so-called coming-out speech at last night's Golden Globes. At the microphone was not Jodie Foster, world-famous actress of undeniable talent and intellect. It was Clarice Starling, removed from us by a sheet of glass as we stared at her through our television screens. We were implicitly Hannibal Lecter, drawing our only-just-slightly-wrong conclusions about her life based upon the clues she has over the years dropped for us to scrutinize. We got some parts wrong, but she--ever guarded--refused to completely tip her own hand by correcting us. She deflected our probing questions, and invited us to turn our "high-powered perceptions" back on ourselves.

"But 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," Foster-as-Clarice said cooly. "You know, you guys might be surprised, but I am not Honey Boo Boo Child. No, I’m sorry, that’s just not me. It never was and it never will be."

'Is that what we want?' most of us may have wondered. 'Are we suprised to hear that? Do we want our out celebrities to hold press conferences, sell perfumes, become reality stars? Who,' we may have wondered, 'is she talking about?'

No one, of course. While it is true that some stars who emerge from the closet like the sun-struck children from The Temple of Doom, blinking at the klieg lights, most celebrities hardly profit from any of the brief attentions afforded them by the process. Zac Quinto wrote a blog post, then continued to acknowledge that he was, yes, a gay man whenever anyone asked him; so far as I can tell (and I admit I don't much follow these things) he has no reality show, or fragrance. Same with Matthew Bomor (and I'm still not certain who Matthew Bomor is). Ellen DeGeneres had a very public, media-driven outting but it killed her career for a decade.

And no star of Jodie Foster's power has ever come out in his or her lifetime. Well, Rock Hudson, maybe, but he was years past his height and, besides, he was dying of AIDS and had nothing to lose. Most stars of Foster's wattage run from the speculation.

I'll say this for Foster: she's never pretended to be in a relationship with a fellow star of the opposite sex. She's gone to great lengths to be a closeted celebrity, but remain true to herself.

Foster, more than most, is aware of the power of her celebrity. In 1981, Ronald Reagan was shot by a man desperately wanting Foster's attention. Not yet 20 years old, the attempted assassination was devastating to Foster; to this day, she refuses to speak of John Hinckley, jr., and has an understandable habit of walking out on interviewers who ask her about him.

Of course, she does the same to interviewers who pry too much into her sexuality. If any interviewer ever has bothered to try.

Anyway.

Foster-as-Clarice at the Golden Globes, as she delivered her rambling, at times nonsensical speech ("I would have to make out with Marion Cotillard or I’d have to spank Daniel Craig’s bottom just to stay on the air..."), demanded privacy. The Lecters (letches? lecturers?) at home, sitting on their couches and scarfing down nachos, no doubt thought to themselves, 'Right on! Leave the poor woman alone!' But they didn't ask themselves just how intrusive the world had been on the celebrity, the actress and director. The answer is, not that much, unless she's constantly monitoring the idle discussions on message boards and the (extremely rare) blind items in the tabloids. There are rare-to-never high-speed paparazzi chases of her car as she heads to Whole Foods; there are no hacks into her personal computer.

I doubt anyone expected her to say anything at all about her sexuality last night. Robert Downey, jr., who introduced her, did not finish his speech by demanding to know if she liked women or men or both or neither.

But Foster-as-Clarice, ever desperate to prove self-possession, launched into a very long monologue about how we invaded her privacy all the same. And she did so while standing before a television camera beaming her speech to billions of people around the world (or millions of people--do people outside Hollywood and NYC watch the Golden Globes? I realize it is the foreign press's big to-do, but do foreigners even give a damn? Pia Zadora!).

People in the public eye do, indeed, have a right to privacy. But they have no right to expect it. Quid pro quo, Clarice. Also, quo vadis?

What bothered me, personally, about Foster-as-Clarice's speech was that it was bitter and mean-spirited. She made a joke about coming out. "So while I’m here being all confessional, I guess I have a sudden urge to say something that I’ve never really been able to air in public. So, a declaration that I’m a little nervous about but maybe not quite as nervous as my publicist right now, huh Jennifer? But I’m just going to put it out there, right? Loud and proud, right? So I’m going to need your support on this. I am single. Yes I am, I am single. No, I’m kidding — but I mean I’m not really kidding, but I’m kind of kidding."

(How many of us, when wrestling with the reality of coming out as a same-sex-loving human being, consult our publicist for approval?)

Again, Foster knows the the power of celebrity perhaps more than any other celebrity currently walking the planet. In her long career, she has personally seen the effects of her celebrity at least twice. In 1981, she was cited by a lunatic as one of the major reasons that lunatic tried to murder a president, and then in 1988, she made the film The Accused, a film that went a long way (a long, long way) to help change society's perception of rape victims. She won an Oscar, and her performance helped women (and men!) across the world find the shred of dignity needed to stand up to accusers, rather than feeling they themselves were somehow to blame.

Coming out is a dicey thing. People do it in their own ways, at their own paces. "I'm fifty!" Foster-as-Clarice declared proudly at the beginning of her speech to accept the Cecile B. DeMille award. "But I'm not proudly gay," she might've continued. "I'm not yet ready for my too-close-up, Mr. DeMille."

Coming out is a dicey thing, yes, but it's also a necessary thing if one wants to preserve any sort of actual self. And time and again in Foster's own movies, that theme appears. From Sommersby to Nell, from Lambs to The Accused. What is self, what is identity, who defines me, how do I define myself. For Foster, she defines herself as private, and does so while standing before countless eyes and by scorning questions most Lecters long ago gave up expecting to be answered. And then by scorning others who've chosen to answer those same questions by implying they all hold pressers and launch fragrance lines rather than actually merely owning up to who they truly are. And then by belittling an 8 year old girl named Honey Boo Boo, a child who in her 8 years has expressed more self-comfort than Foster has in 50 years.


It is a shame Foster remains uncomfortable in her own skin, and a bit deluded--through her own words--about the nature of a public private life. I've seen her speech described as 'powerful' and 'ground-breaking' and a 'triumph.' It is of course none of those things. It was, perhaps, Clarice at last learning to be Dr. Hannibal Lecter, happy to play the 'quid pro quo' game but reluctant to answer directly, while expecting direct answers in return.

And, of course, her date to the Globes was Mel Gibson. One wonders just how private Ms. Foster considers her life to truly be, and why she'd rather publicly support a misogynist anti-Semitic woman-beating madman rather than extend even a slight bit of support to the gay and lesbian community. Fine. There's a privacy there, and it's none of my business to question her devotion to Gibson. But I have every right to question why she'd rather be seen with a man who made the terms 'Sugar Tits' and 'Glum Cunt' famous, and who blamed all the world's ills on Jews, than to just be publicly gay.

Is she trying to tell us that being gay is worse?

Certainly it's hard to come out--firmly, unambiguously. If you’d had to fight for a life that felt real and honest and normal against all odds, you too might value celebrity. To paraphrase Jodie Foster-as-Clarice Starling.

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