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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"By now, there was no way back for me": the strange story of Bogdan Stashinsky

Serhii Plokhy’s The Man with the Poison Gun is a gripping, remarkable Cold War spy story.

On the morning of 12 August 1961, a few hours before the supreme leader of East Germany, Walter Ulbricht, announced the sealing of the border between East and West Berlin, a funeral took place for a four-month-old boy at the Rohrbeck Evangelical Cemetery in Dallgow. Numerous KGB agents and officers of the East German ministry of security were in attendance, but the boy’s parents were missing. Instead, Bogdan Stashinsky and Inge Pohl were preparing their imminent escape from Soviet-occupied territory and into the West. They had intended to flee the following day, but the funeral provided a moment of opportunity when their surveillance was relaxed. If they wanted to go, they had to go now.

“The KGB operatives present at the child’s funeral were puzzled by the parents’ absence,” a Soviet intelligence officer later wrote. “By the end of the day on 13 August 1961, it was clear that the Stashinskys had gone to the West. Everyone who knew what tasks the agent had carried out in Munich in 1957 and 1959, and what could happen if Stashinsky were to talk, was in shock.”

Those “tasks” were the state-sponsored assassinations of Lev Rebet and Stepan Bandera, two exiled leaders of the Ukrainian anti-communist movement who had been living in Munich. Stashinsky, one of the KGB’s top hitmen, and the focus of Serhii Plokhy’s gripping book, had been given the task of tracking and killing them with a custom-built gun that sprayed a lethal, yet undetectable poison. It was only after Stashinsky’s defection to the Central Intelligence Agency, and then to the West German security services, that the cause of Rebet and Bandera’s deaths was finally known.

For decades, the KGB denied any involvement in the assassinations, and the CIA has never been entirely sure about Stashinsky’s motives. Was he telling the truth when he confessed to being the assassin, or was he, as some still claim, a loyal agent, sent to spread disinformation and protect the true killer? Plokhy has now put to rest the many theories and speculations. With great clarity and compassion, and drawing from a trove of recently declassified files from CIA, KGB and Polish security archives, as well as interviews conducted with former heads of the South African police force, he chronicles one of the most curious espionage stories of the Cold War.

Stashinsky’s tale is worthy of John le Carré or Ian Fleming. Plokhy even reminds us that The Man With the Golden Gun, in which James Bond tries to assassinate his boss with a cyanide pistol after being brainwashed by the Soviets, was inspired by the Stashinsky story. But if spy novels zero in on a secret world – tradecraft, double agents, defections, and the moral fallout that comes from working in the shadows – Plokhy places this tale in the wider context of the Cold War and the relentless ideological battle between East and West.

The story of Stashinsky’s career as a triggerman for the KGB plays out against the backdrop of the fight for Ukrainian independence after the Second World War. He was a member of the underground resistance against the Soviet occupation, but was forced to become an informer for the secret police after his family was threatened. After he betrayed a resistance cell led by Ivan Laba, which had assassinated the communist author Yaroslav Halan, Stashinsky was ostracised by his family and was offered the choice of continuing his higher education, which he could no longer afford, or joining the secret police.

“It was [only] a proposal,” he said later, “but I had no alternative to accepting it and continuing to work for the NKVD. By now, there was no way back for me.” He received advanced training in Kyiv and Moscow for clandestine work in the West and became one of Moscow’s most prized assets. In 1957, after assassinating Rebet, he was awarded the
Order of the Red Banner, one of the oldest military decorations in the Soviet Union.

Plokhy’s book is about more than the dramas of undercover work; it is also an imaginative approach to the history of Cold War international relations. It is above all an affective tale about the relationship between individual autonomy and state power, and the crushing impact the police state had on populations living behind the Iron Curtain. Stashinsky isn’t someone of whom we should necessarily approve: he betrayed his comrades in the Ukrainian resistance, lied to his family about who he was and killed for a living. Yet we sympathise with him the more he, like so many others, turns into a defenceless pawn of the Communist Party high command, especially after he falls in love with his future wife, Inge.

One of the most insightful sections of Plokhy’s book converges on Stashinsky’s trial in West Germany in 1962 over the killings of Rebet and Bandera, and how he was given a reduced sentence because it was deemed that he had been an instrument of the Soviet state. The decision was influenced by German memories of collective brainwashing under the Third Reich. As one of the judges put it: “The accused was at the time in question a poor devil who acted automatically under pressure of commands and was misled and confused ideologically.”

What makes Plokhy’s book so alarmingly resonant today is how Russia still uses extrajudicial murder as a tool of foreign policy. In 2004 Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Western future president of Ukraine, was poisoned with dioxin; two years later Aleksandr Litvinenko, the Russian secret service defector, unknowingly drank radioactive polonium at a hotel in London. The Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya survived a poisoning in 2004 after drinking tea given to her by an Aeroflot flight attendant (she was murdered two years later). The collapse of the Soviet Union did not bring the end of the Russian threat (Putin, remember, is ex-KGB). As le Carré noted in a speech in the summer of 1990, “The Russian Bear is sick, the Bear is bankrupt, the Bear is frightened of his past, his present and his future. But the Bear is still armed to the teeth and very, very proud.”

The Man with the Poison Gun: a Cold War Spy Story by Serhii Plokhy is published by Oneworld (365pp, £18.99)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge