Does it matter if an actor or actress is gay? Beyond all the hypocritical moralizing and dogmatic religious stances, should a film fan really care if a homosexual performer is playing a heterosexual part? We praise the non-handicapped for taking on the role of the regressed, and give out awards to thespians who literally change their bodies to become totally different ‘characters’, so why should it matter if a lesbian plays a leading man’s love interest, or visa versa? It’s not a new discussion in Hollywood, but when you consider the profile of the most recent ‘outed’ superstar, the issue gets raised all over again.
In accepting the Sherry Lansing Award at a Women in Entertainment Power 100 breakfast on 13 December, Jodie Foster offered an emotional speech which included her stating “I would like to thank my beautiful Cydney who sticks with me through all the rotten and the bliss.” She was referring to Cydney Bernard, a one time production manager and coordinator who has been the actress’s significant other since 1993. There’s no questioning their commitment, and recent rumors about the father of Foster’s two sons and the motives for this unusual break in her public facade are specious at best. Besides, Tinsel Town’s been ‘hip’ to the two time Oscar winner’s lifestyle for years, and it hasn’t hurt her box office clout or her standing in the industry.
Yet the question now becomes, will all that change? Nothing affects a star’s status quicker than a scandal, but there’s no chance of that happening here. So the only other factor that could come into play is financial—and in our current cultural state where intelligent design battles science for a place in the classroom and Presidential candidates wear their faith on their constantly self-aggrandizing sleeves, the ethos of Foster’s ‘choice’ will take many aback—one kneejerk reaction at a time. Remember, this debate will have nothing to do with talent, personal principles, or the need for greater tolerance and understanding in a post-millennial world. Your average mainstream moviegoer hears ‘gay’, and an entire universe of propaganda and proselytizing comes crashing down around their already narrow view.
You could call it prejudice, but the proper word is perspective. Sure, some will automatically turn their bigotry switch over to seethe upon hearing this news, but for the most part, audiences will do something akin to backseat driving (or Monday morning quarterbacking) and begin a ridiculous reevaluation process. Since most salient individuals acknowledge homosexuality as a fact, not an option, the idea of pinpointing her ‘change’ won’t be bantered about. But the idea that a lesbian can now play a romantic, passionate heterosexual heroine will definitely be part of the discussion.
Take this year’s excellent The Brave One, for example. Dismissing the vigilante aspect for a moment, the entire movie is based on a simple premise—how the loss of someone you love can lead an otherwise smart individual to the darkest depths of their soul. After the death of her doctor fiancé at the hands of a ruthless gang, Foster must face down the urge to kill as she slowly sinks into a kind of emotional malaise. It’s clear the couple connected—their first act love scene is tender and telling. Yet with this recent revelation, it’s not a stretch to hear audiences asking if Foster is truly capable of sincerely playing this role.
It’s not the first time that such a clouded concern has been forwarded. Right before production on the romantic comedy Six Days and Seven Nights, Anne Heche announced her relationship with comedian/sitcom star Ellen DeGeneres. The massive press coverage that accompanied the disclosure trickled into a less than cogent conversation over whether the actress, currently co-starring with macho megahunk Harrison Ford, could convincingly play someone interested in men. It seems silly now (just like the previous take on Foster), but the quasi-controversy produced pundit after pundit dismissing a gay woman’s ability to be believable as straight.
In general, such a sentiment is ignorant at best, a hate crime at worst. Dozens of homosexual men have successfully mastered the art of pretend known as acting, and while a few have stayed within their own orientation as a matter of pride or principle, others have experimented with all manner of roles, from action to comedy, horror to heroism. It seems downright silly to say this now, but any discussion about Heche should have focused on her limited screen presence and poor overall chemistry with Ford, not who she chooses to sleep with. It’s a standard that someone of Foster’s caliber will never have to address. But there will be those who find their broadmindedness broached, and revising history apparently helps relieve the unease.
Take the two Academy Awards she owns. Silence of the Lambs is such an asexual picture, and the acting in it so flawless, that no one could question any of the stars’ believability. Foster is Clarice Starling, flirtatious inferences with the entomologist and Dr. Lecter in equal uneasy amounts. There is nothing about the turn that speaks to stereotypes. But Foster’s first Oscar, for The Accused, may flummox some uninformed heads. In said film, she plays a white trash slut who fails to get the ‘no means no’ benefit of the doubt from a gang of barroom rapists. While many praised the actress for such daring and boldness, the ‘gay’ angle will keep the already tacky up at night.
Again, it all becomes a meandering matter of acuity. Does her ice queen bitchiness now come off differently in Spike Lee’s Inside Man? Was playing a 14-year-old prostitute for Martin Scorsese in Taxi Driver more difficult for a young woman just growing into her sexual identity? Will there be some who from this point forward never believe her opposite a leading man, and are there others who will demand she take up a cause and outward agenda that she chose to embrace privately for decades? Insane as it sounds, does someone’s sexual orientation, a subconscious, private position, manifest itself in ways only outsiders can see? And will future flops—and all superstars have them—be blamed on issues other than creative bankruptcy?
In truth, these are the career concerns that arise whenever a performer is finally ‘outed’. It’s not really a question of hiring and firing—it’s a question of cash. The biggest heterosexual lothario can spread squalor and STDs all over the industry, and if his movies make money, he’ll be first in line for the next high profile project. Yet, as we’ve seen with Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears, bad judgment and lifestyle lunacy can lead to a never ending barrage of bad press and—even worse—audience backlash. All the limited access minds of moviemaking need is a single hint that an actor or actress is box office poison and their prospects almost instantaneously dry up. And in our ridiculously fundamental social order, being gay could signal the start of such a downward trend.
As one of the best actresses of her or any generation, Jodie Foster has earned the right to be left alone. She’s been nothing but professional, and even centered in a swirling media firestorm over her link to the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan (she was relentlessly stalked by shooter John Hinkley), she remained a calm, considered antidote. Luckily, most of her growing pains occurred outside of the media morass that tends to permanently taint everything it touches—but this latest hackle raising headline will take a while to significantly blow over.
Until then, Foster will have to walk the mandatory tabloid tightrope. Every decision she’s made in the last 20 years will be front and center for speculation and aspersion. The next moves in her otherwise flawless occupational arc will be fodder for further dissection and disparagement. If her next film fails, will it be perceived as some form of audience message? And if it succeeds, does it stand for anything besides a superstar’s continued well-traveled track record? Someone’s sexual orientation should never be part of any aesthetic evaluation. It’s the work that should stand, not issues outside of it. Sadly, our society hasn’t learned that lesson just yet. Maybe Foster will change that. Odds are, she won’t.