The day Jodie came out (and became the accused)

It seemed Hollywood was coming to terms with homosexuality. The reaction to Jodie Foster's tribute to her partner suggests otherwise
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The Independent Culture

It's hardly a secret in Hollywood that Jodie Foster is gay. Everybody with an interest in her private life whether prurient or more personal has known it for at least as long as she has been an Oscar-winning actress, which is pushing 20 years by now. (She won an Academy Award for her role as a rape victim in 1988's The Accused, and again three years later for her indelible performance as Clarice Starling in Silence of the Lambs.)

An equally open secret is that she is one of the Hollywood few who is actually in a stable long-term relationship. Scour the internet and it doesn't take long to find out that her partner's name is Cydney Bernard, that they have been together since 1993, and that they are bringing up two children conceived and delivered by Foster Charles, who is nine, and Kit, six.

Foster herself, though, has always been hugely reluctant to talk about any of this. More than most, she is fiercely protective of her privacy not entirely surprising, given the facts of her early life, when she entered the goldfish-bowl world of a child star and became prey to one stalker after another, including John Hinckley, the man who shot Ronald Reagan.

Occasionally she has alluded in interviews to one titbit or another about her children, but she has until now made absolutely no public reference to her partner or to her sexual orientation. That changed, in the tiniest of ways, earlier this week when Foster, now 45 and as much of a film producer and director as she is an actress, received a special award at a breakfast thrown by a group called Women In Entertainment.

Towards the end of her remarks, according to the lone reporter in the room (an entertainment beat reporter for the Los Angeles Daily News), she thanked her nearest and dearest, including "my beautiful Cydney who sticks with me through all the rotten [sic] and the bliss". What was striking was not the acknowledgement itself. (Websites that breathlessly proclaimed Foster had "come out" were surely overstating their case.) Rather, it was the sadness of everything that had gone before and the peculiar agony of being anything other than a straight up-and-down heterosexual in a town as supposedly progressive and forward-thinking as Los Angeles.

Here was one of the world's most successful women, with an enviable and growing body of work to brag about, and she couldn't except in the most roundabout way and after 14 years feel comfortable acknowledging her life partner in public. Imagine Gordon Brown never being able to acknowledge Sarah, or the Queen being unable to talk about "my husband and I". In her speech, Foster talked about her insecurities more generally. "I feel fragile ... unsure, struggling to figure it all out, trying to get there even though I'm not sure where there is," she said. "I've been working in this business for 42 years and there's no way you can do that and not be as nutty as a fruitcake." Hollywood is not a place for anyone to feel secure about anything people are, famously, only as big as their last film, and the knives are perpetually out to have the mighty fall and the talented go astray but it is doubly, triply, quadruply difficult for a woman over 40 whose sexuality is, at least surreptitiously, seen as a strike against her and whose best work is often seen as being quite some distance in the past.

Given the media reaction to Foster's single, innocuous acknowledgement of her partner, it's not hard to understand why she has been so reticent up to now. It's been the grist of gossip columns and news articles across the globe, a clear invasion of the very privacy she works so hard to maintain. Gay advocates have encouraged her to be more open still and come all the way out of the closet; more homophobic writers have taken a more sneering tone, using the mini-episode as an excuse to pour more of their favourite invective on the den of iniquity that they believe Hollywood to be. Foster is lucky, in the sense that her sexual orientation is already well-known and is unlikely to dent her chances of landing a big part or sewing up a movie deal. But her experience certainly highlights the more general perils of being gay in Hollywood something that most actors don't even dare talk about. "It's a death sentence for your career," Eve Gordon, a (heterosexual) film and television actress told me last year. "All my friends who are gay keep it secret. They don't even know where to draw the line socially ... It's like being a communist in the McCarthy era. It's a gigantic terror." Inch by inch, that terror may be receding. At least, its limits are being tested as never before, in the wake of two highly unusual public declarations of homosexuality by reasonably prominent actors. One, T R Knight, works on the hit hospital drama Grey's Anatomy (which just got suspended because of the Hollywood writers' strike, but that's another story). The other, Neil Patrick Harris, is a former child performer like Foster, and came out after he was accused on an internet gossip site of using his connections to find a job for his boyfriend. He denied the nepotism, but decided that he'd rather be honest about the boyfriend than compound the oppressive environment in Hollywood with one more lie.

The implications for the future careers of Knight and Harris remain to be seen. One thing, though, seems sure and has been true of Foster for years: that while it's considered OK for unambiguously straight performers to play gay parts (think of Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain or, going much further back, Tom Hanks in Philadelphia), it's almost unheard of for gay or suspected gay actors to do the same thing. Likewise, the biggest fear gay actors have is that, once their sexuality becomes public knowledge, they won't get the straight parts any more either; certainly not the romantic lead-type roles, because the studios will be afraid they will no longer convince audiences that they can possibly be attracted to their co-stars of the opposite sex.

This is neanderthal thinking, of course (don't actors make a living pretending to be something they are not all the time?), but defended, when the subject comes up, as a response to the American marketplace. Foster herself has made a brilliant career of delving into the darker recesses of her characters' (unvaryingly straight) sexuality, never more so than in The Accused when her Sarah Tobias had to fend off the suspicions of the legal system that she had "asked" to be gang-raped by dressing provocatively and flirting with her attackers. In the past few years, Foster hasn't been called upon to play those sorts of parts, a function of another Hollywood prejudice, this time against women too old to play romantic leads and too young to play grandmothers. In her past few performances (Flight Plan, The Brave One, Inside Man) she's essentially been a cog in the wheel of thriller-type plots that didn't require unusual amounts of soul-baring. Her producing and directing interests have tended to explore other topics, too. Her first film as director, Little Man Tate, looked at the issue of precociously brilliant children (something she was herself, at least to some degree). Her latest project is a biopic of Leni Riefenstahl, the technically brilliant film propagandist for the Nazis.

In Hollywood, it is of course next to impossible to do good work without being in the limelight. Equally, it's hard to be in the limelight and still give your best. That's the tightrope Foster's been walking since her earliest years. She landed her first job when she was three (a Coppertone suncream commercial) and never looked back. Her father had walked out on the family a few months before she was born, leaving her mother, a film producer, to fend for herself. Jodie went on to become the most successful child star of her generation, appearing in 50 films before she finished school everything from Disney family fare to her most notorious early role as a child prostitute in Martin Scorsese's classic Taxi Driver. This was the film that obsessed Reagan's would-be assassin John Hinckley, who told the world he had shot the president out of love for Foster. The shooting in 1981 shattered whatever was left of Foster's privacy. She was followed everywhere on the campus of Yale University, where she was studying at the time, by a media pack she later likened to a "cavalry invasion". Much to her displeasure, she was called to testify at Hinckley's trial. When she told the court she had no relationship with the accused, Hinckley threw a pen at her and yelled: "I'll get you, Foster!" That prompted another stalker, Edward Richardson, to follow her around Yale. Richardson later disclosed that he planned to shoot Foster, but decided not to in the end because she was "too pretty".

These were not events designed to make Foster feel remotely comfortable about going public with anything. "It was very clear to me at a young age that I had to fight for my life," Foster once said, "and that if I didn't, my life would get gobbled up and taken away from me".To her credit, she has a life, and has made it a brilliant success. If she tells the rest of us to back off, she certainly has her reasons.

The stars who came out

Bryan Singer

Bryan Singer is the out director of 'The Usual Suspects', 'Superman Returns' and the first two 'X-Men' movies. He persuaded Sir Ian McKellen (himself a high-profile gay rights activist) to star in 'X-Men' by telling him that the film, a tale of mutant superheroes, reflected what it was like to be gay.

Ellen DeGeneres

Now the host of her own talk show, comedian and actor Ellen DeGeneres came out very publicly in 1997, when she announced she was a lesbian on the 'Oprah Winfrey Show'. Soon afterwards the character she played in her own sitcom, also called Ellen, came out as well. DeGeneres is currently in a long-term relationship with actor Portia de Rossi.

David Geffen

The openly gay Geffen made his name as a music mogul in the 1970s as manager of Crosby, Stills and Nash and The Eagles. His gay credentials include a performing credit on a Barbra Streisand record. During the 1990s, when he founded Dreamworks with Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg, Geffen was the subject of a persistent (but false) rumour that he had married actor Keanu Reeves.

Rosie O'Donnell

Rosie O'Donnell prepared the way for her coming out with an appearance as a lesbian in 'Will & Grace' in January 2002. A month later she announced that she was a lesbian during a stand-up gig at an Ovarian Cancer Research fundraiser. O'Donnell is an active campaigner for gay adoption in the US, and lives with her wife Kelli Carpenter and their children.

Lance Bass

A former N*SYNC bandmate of Justin Timberlake's, Lance Bass came out after the Hollywood gossip blogger Perez Hilton persistently reported on his sexuality. He made the announcement in an interview for 'People' magazine in July 2006, in which he characterised himself as an SAG or 'straight-acting gay'. After splitting from long-term boyfriend Reichen Lehmkuhl in January, Bass is now in a relationship with Ben Thigpen, a New York hairdresser.

Tim Walker

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