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.

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How Native American culture fought back against the colonisers

The British Museum's new exhibition reveals the resilience of First Nations culture.

In the Great Court of the British Museum stand two enormous cedar totem poles, acquired in the early years of the 20th century from the north-west coast of North America. One was made by the Haida peoples and the other by the Nisga’a, two of the nations that make up the many-layered society stretching through Alaska, British Columbia and Washington State in the lands which, today, are called the United States and Canada. These peoples, whose history dates back at least 9,000 years, have been remarkably resilient in withstanding European and Russian incursion from the 18th century onward. Besides the Haida and Nisga’a, there are the Tlingit and Kwakwaka’wakw, the Tsimshian, the Coast Salish, Nuu-chah-nulth and Makah groups.

Now, for the first time, the British Museum is bringing together objects from these cultures in an exhibition that showcases one of the world’s most recognisable artistic traditions, and demonstrates how cultural identity can endure even in the most terrible circumstances. First Nation rights and identity are still very much under threat, as protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota show.

The exhibition takes its title from the legendary Thunderbird, who uses his strength and power to hunt whales – a skill he is said to have given to some of these communities. His legend persists into the present day. The Thunderbird can be seen here on a club collected by Captain Cook in the 18th century, and on a 1983 print made by the contemporary Kwakwaka’wakw artist Tony Hunt.

The objects on display are set in cases painted with a pale green wash to evoke the colour of fresh cedar bark. Some – such as the totem poles in the Great Court – evoke the power and majesty of these societies, while others are domestic items that combine beauty and usefulness in equal measure. In the first category are two potlatch “coppers”, shield-shaped plaques about a metre in height, made from what was an exotic and valuable metal. The potlatch is a ceremony, often days long, of feasting, dancing and giving of gifts. Such copper plaques, patterned with spruce gum in the sinuous “formline” design, which is as distinctive to the north-west coast as intricate knotting is to the Celtic tradition, were a significant part of the ceremony.

Equally intricately worked is a basket made of cedar twigs and cedar bark, used to catch fish. The bark on the basket is wrapped in an alternating sequence around the twigs: a technique that brings not only beauty but strength to what is, in effect, a delicate net. From these two objects alone, one can begin to grasp the sophistication of life on the Pacific north-west coast. The people of these cultures built highly complex and rich societies, all without the benefit of agriculture – evidence of the bounty of the bays and islands. In this lush geography, artists and craftsmen made works that are a source of wonder today: look for the joins at the corners of the elaborately decorated Haida box on display and you won’t find any. The chests are made from a single plank of red cedar, which is steamed until pliable; the two ends are then pegged together. They can be used for the storage of clothing, also as drums, or for cooking – or even for burial. They are a good symbol for the adaptability of the cultures of the north-west coast.

The new exhibition is laid out over a single room. One side of the room spans the earliest stone tools and historic weapons made in the region, up to objects from the time of Captain James Cook’s arrival in the 1770s; the other features art and regalia from the museum’s collections, including contemporary work and examples from the modern era. The latter addresses what might plainly be called cultural genocide: the often willed destruction of First Nation populations, in both Canada and the United States, by disease; by the residential school system, under which children were taken away from their families to be “educated” out of their culture and beliefs; and by the attempted eradication of languages and religious practices.

One of these banned practices was the potlatch itself, outlawed in Canada from 1880 until 1951 – long enough for a culture to vanish. Yet it survived, the curator Jago Cooper told me, as a result of “people going into museums and studying, or grabbing a grandparent and asking questions. People were incredibly industrious when it came to restoring their culture.” The show opens with a video of a vibrant potlatch.

There is evidence of that restoration and revival in the regalia worn by Chief Alver Tait in 2003 when the Nisga’a totem pole was first raised in the British Museum after decades of storage. He and his wife, Lillian, performed a spirit dance “to bring life back to the ancestors in the totem pole because they had been resting for so long”.

Much of the material here has been seen less frequently than it might be. In Missing Continents at the British Museum, a BBC Radio 4 programme made last year (and still available on iPlayer), the artist Antony Gormley, a former British Museum trustee, argued that the cultures of Africa, Oceania and the Americas are overshadowed there by those of Europe and Mesopotamia, which take the lion’s share of permanent displays at the institution.

Temporary shows such as “Where the Thunderbird Lives” allow a glimpse of the museum’s hidden holdings, some of them simply too fragile to be seen very often, or for very long. At least one of the objects, a gorgeous yellow cedar cloak, collected in the last years of the 18th century on George Vancouver’s North Pacific voyage and painted with an oystercatcher and two skate figure images, is a “once in a lifetime” object – it can’t be exposed to light for long, so now’s your chance to see it. We don’t know who made it. Some of the others, such as the “welcome figure”, carved with open arms, can’t even be attributed to a specific culture. That is, of course, true of many items in the museum’s vast collection: we don’t know who made the Sutton Hoo Helmet, or carved the Rosetta Stone.

The past cannot be changed: it can, however, be acknowledged, as this exhibition gracefully does – for in the work of the contemporary artists here, one sees, in diverse ways, the continuation of their ancestors’ traditions. What looks like a traditional Tlingit spruce root twinned basket is made of glass, by the contemporary Tlingit artist Preston Singletary; a copper pendant echoes the great potlatch coppers but the image printed on its face shows a detail from a US$5 bill (this was made by the Tlingit artist Alison Bremner). Ownership of culture and definitions of culture are questions more hotly debated than ever before. “Where the Thunderbird Lives” is a thoughtful – and beautiful – addition to that debate. 

“Where the Thunderbird Lives: Cultural Resilience on the North-west Coast of North America” opens on 23 February and is at the British Museum, London WC1, until 27 August. Details: britishmuseum.org

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

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