Why Jodie Foster wasn't brave

The actress has been lauded for her coming out speech, but why?

George Clooney, Tom Cruise, Brendan Fraser, Richard Gere, Hugh Jackman, Will Smith, Kevin Spacey, John Travolta. What do all those names have in common? Off the top of my head, and without typing the words “Hollywood A-list gay” (honest) into a search engine, these are the movie stars who spring most readily to mind when thinking about celebrities who have been rumoured in recent years to be gay. Clooney gave a sane and proportionate response to the persistent tittle-tattle during an interview last year with the gay magazine The Advocate. “I think it’s funny,” he said, “but the last thing you’ll ever see me do is jump up and down, saying, ‘These are lies!’ That would be unfair and unkind to my good friends in the gay community. I’m not going to let anyone make it seem like being gay is a bad thing. My private life is private, and I’m very happy in it. Who does it hurt if someone thinks I’m gay? I’ll be long dead and there will still be people who say I was gay. I don’t give a shit.”

I can’t think of a better way of handling the subject than to deliver this answer in public, and to visibly support gay equality, as Clooney has done tirelessly. (The interview coincided with his participation in a reading of Dustin Lance Black’s play 8, about the Proposition 8 bill against gay marriage.) As far as I know, the other actors on my entirely extemporaneous roll-call have not been as forthright in addressing the subject, though it’s impossible to know without typing the words “Hollywood A-list gay—denials” into a search engine. Hugh Jackman is an exception. He expressed much the same sentiments as Clooney back in 2009: “I’d be happy to go and deny it, because I’m not. But by denying it, I’m saying there is something shameful about it, and there isn’t anything shameful.” He also said in 2011 that he had suffered homophobic taunts when he showed as a child an enthusiasm for dance. So when he played Peter Allen, the late, gay singer-songwriter and former Mr Liza Minnelli, in the Broadway show The Boy from Oz, it was an act of defiance as well as a spectacular performance in its own right.

This week, Jodie Foster acknowledged her sexuality in a much-praised and wittily-written speech at the Golden Globes ceremony, where she was being presented with a lifetime achievement award. Jackman was once quizzed over his similarities to Peter Allen, and said something along the lines of: “It’s true. Like him, I’m… Australian.” Foster used the same comic device in her speech: “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.”

Foster is a charged, emotionally taut performer whose nerves always seem to be jangling audibly on screen: reviewing Anna and the King, the critic Charlotte O’Sullivan made the unimprovable observation that Foster seems to be constantly under attack “from a flock of invisible birds". I admire particularly her work in Taxi Driver and The Silence of the Lambs and Panic Room, and for daring to make a film as berserk as The Beaver (if not for the actual film itself). I know nothing of her as a person, but I am happy for her that she has reached a place psychologically where she can deliver such a speech. “Seriously, I hope you're not disappointed that there won't be a big coming-out speech tonight,” she went on to say, “because I already did my coming out about a thousand years ago back in the Stone Age, in those very quaint days when a fragile young girl would open up to trusted friends and family and co-workers and then gradually, proudly to everyone who knew her, to everyone she actually met.” It was a coming-out speech that wasn’t. But also was. Well, sort of.

I wish she had felt strong enough to make such pronouncements earlier in her career, or that the support structure had been there for her to do so, or that the climate had been receptive to honesty — but then the point surely is to be brave when such elements are not positioned in your favour. It makes it even harder when there are examples like Anne Heche, who was revealed to be in a relationship with Ellen DeGeneres around the time that Heche’s romantic comedy Six Days, Seven Nights was released, and whose sexuality was said by some to be the reason no one went to see the film. Of course, the problem was not that audiences wouldn’t buy her on-screen romance with Harrison Ford because her off-screen one with DeGeneres kept getting in the way—the problem was that the movie was diabolically bad. I don’t think cinemagoers reacted adversely to Forrest Gump or Rust and Bone because actors who are able-bodied in reality played amputees on screen. Is our knowledge of an actor’s private life the one obstacle no CGI can overcome? It doesn’t help when Bret Easton Ellis tweets his objections to an openly gay actor being considered for the straight lead in the film version of Fifty Shades of Grey. But then we might just as well amend that sentence to “It doesn’t help when Bret Easton Ellis tweets.”

The problem some of us had with what Foster said was not only what she said, but the showbiz marshmallow-world from within which she said it. We all have our own relative hardships and obstacles, but she wasn’t speaking from a place of commercial or physical risk or danger. She was collecting an award. Her visibility is important, but we should perhaps be slow to laud her fearlessness. (Please do read Patrick Strudwick’s outstanding and eloquent blog on this subject: “Without visibility we would have nothing,” he writes. “Without millions of ordinary people, kids in British state schools, activists in Uganda, married Christians in the Bible belt, saying, ‘Actually, I'm gay,’ Jodie Foster would not be able to stand up, resplendent, creaking open the closet door free of consequences. She surfed the wave of others’ courage and gave back only when she felt like it.”)

As chance would have it, I read the ecstatic reports of Foster’s speech the morning after the ceremony while I was on my way to court to support a friend who was the victim last year of a violent homophobic assault. He had been attacked after answering in the affirmative when asked if he was gay. Bravery comes in different forms, different strengths, but I’ll take his version over the one delivered by an adored performer who need not fear very much beyond bad reviews or inadequate opening-weekend box-office.

Jodie Foster at the Golden Globes

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

DREW KELLY/NEW YORK TIMES/REDUX/EYEVINE
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Yiyun Li: Can reading help you conquer depression?

In her memoir of depression and reading, Yiyun Li speaks to all those with unquiet minds.

Most sufferers of severe depression will tell you that the condition is incommunicable: it cannot be expressed, except through metaphors, and then those, too, are pitifully inadequate. How does one talk about a great, centrifugal force that spins the self away to fragments, or towards annihilation, leaving no stable, immutable self to write about?

Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life (the title is a quotation from a letter by Katherine Mansfield) is a memoir of depression and reading, and the first work of non-fiction by the acclaimed Chinese-American writer Yiyun Li, whose books include the prize-winning debut collection A Thousand Years of Good Prayers and The Vagrants, her astonishing and bleak first novel. In Dear Friend, she grapples with the question that lies at the heart of books as diverse as William Styron’s Darkness Visible and Andrew Solomon’s Noonday Demon, but from the outset Li swerves away: she never once mentions depression by name, talking instead about “a difficult time”, or her mind being in “poor shape”, and about “this emptiness in me”.

A severe reluctance to talk about herself has led her to devise a way of writing about emotions in a forensically intellectual manner, subjecting each feeling to the rigours of close reading and an investigation-by-argument not a million miles from the practice of philosophers. In fact, the first chapter of the book is divided into 24 short subsections, of anything between four lines and just over a page: a collection of thoughts, observations, memories, aphoristic distillations, even propositions.

This sets the formal template for what follows: the titles of the subsequent chapters lead one to expect thematic unity, but the greater coherence comes from Li’s overarching project in Dear Friend of thinking about time. She starts out with the notion that the book “would be a way to test – to assay – thoughts about time. There was even a vision of an after, when my confusions would be sorted out.” To talk of a “before” and “after” is to acknowledge an intervening present; all posit an experience unfolding in time. But right from the start she is acutely conscious of a self-defeating task: “To assay one’s ideas about time while time remains unsettled and elusive feels futile.”

This compulsive argumentation and dissection of feelings into ever finer strands can produce the occasionally cloudy culmination, usually aphoristic or epigrammatic in style, almost always paradoxical. Even context fails to illuminate fully, for example, these sentences on Elizabeth Bowen: “‘The moment one is sad one is ordinary,’ she [Bowen] wrote. But that is not enough. The moment one feels anything one feels fatal.” Or: “To say nothing matters is to admit that everything matters.” Li’s emotions are thoughts, a pre-emptive mechanism to salvage a frangible self; perhaps this is the only way one can talk about an illness that eats the very faculty that produces thought. “As a body suffers from an auto-immune disease,” she writes, “my mind targets every feeling and thought it creates.”

Slowly, a bare-bones biographical narrative emerges: an immature, unstable monster of a mother; a quiet, fatalistic and long-suffering father; episodes from a childhood in China; a career in science cast aside for writing; two stays in hospital for serious depressive episodes (we find out their exact nature only in the afterword).

But, other than the self-consuming mind, the one constant running through this ­deliberately fractured memoir, like a flowing stream whose noise is always present, sometimes near, sometimes far, is the theme of reading. Here, too, Li is original in her approach, in describing how writers speak to her unquiet mind or to the darkness at her core. Take her love of biography or writers’ correspondence. She tells us that it springs from “the need – the neediness – to find shelter from one’s uncertain self in other lives”. It is heart-rending to read that she finds her “real context” in books: “. . . all that could not be solved in my life was merely a trifle as long as I kept it at a distance. Between that suspended life and myself were these dead people and imagined characters. One could spend one’s days among them as a child arranges a circle of stuffed animals when the darkness of night closes in.”

Li is a writer who has made her name in the lyrical-realist school, producing pellucidly moving works that enrich our understanding of psychological interiority and affect, so it is not surprising to note her admiration and love for Turgenev and Chekhov, Mansfield, John McGahern, William Trevor, Stefan Zweig, Bowen. More unpredictable, at least when these first occur, are the names of Marianne Moore, Graham Greene and Philip Larkin; the Moore and Larkin connections with her life are particularly unexpected when they unfurl.

There is a beautiful and profound chapter on renouncing her mother tongue – even though Li never wrote in Chinese – and the decision to adopt English. She gives the ­penultimate chapter of her book, fittingly, to the writer who has mattered to her most: Trevor, a writer she “aspired to be”, “to see as he does”. At the end of her assay there is a sense of endurance; this book is “an experiment in establishing a truce with what cannot be changed”, a terribly beautiful gift to the reader, who will always remain locked in her own life as the author is in hers.

Neel Mukherjee’s most recent novel is “The Lives of Others” (Vintage)

Neel Mukherjee is an Indian writer writing in English. His book The Lives of Others was shortlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize and he reviews fiction for the New Statesman. 

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit