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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Why I finally got my first tattoo

For years, I was worried I'd regret it. But there's something to be said for giving up on being pristine.

Last Tuesday, I scarred myself for life. Aside from the pain of multiple steel needles scoring indelible ink into the lowest layer of my skin, it didn’t even hurt. I got my first tattoo. From this day forward, there will be a new way for loved ones to identify my body at the morgue, along with the diamond-shaped birthmark on my leg and my impressive dental records.

It’s a picture of a drum, sketched in thin, black lines and dots, above the elbow on the back of my left arm. It cost £90 and is meant to represent my love of music, or something like that, but more immediately it represents a decade or so of indecision. I’ve always admired tattoos, or pretty much any extravagant mode of self-expression – shaved or dyed hair; ear, nipple or septum piercings; fancy hats – just not on me. I didn’t get a swallow behind my ear when I was a teenage punk and I didn’t get a line of Whitman’s poetry on my bicep when I was a hopelessly lofty literature student, so why the hell am I doing it now?

You may have noticed already but tattoos are currently in vogue. Not only are they in Vogue, they’re in Esquire, Elle and, for all I know, Good Housekeeping, too. They’re on your postman, your doctor, your departing Prime Minister’s wife (Sam Cam has a dolphin on her ankle) and the arms and legs of the thousands of barmen and baristas who make London such a vibrant place to sit about and waste your time.

According to the data firm Experian, the number of high-street tattoo parlours in the UK increased by 173 per cent in a decade. It’s a service with no digital counterpart: you can’t download a tattoo from the internet, after all. A recent YouGov survey claimed that one in five Brits has a tattoo (seen or unseen) somewhere on his or her body, a figure that rises to one in three among 18-to-44-year-olds. Half of that group had been inked by the age of 21 but the number waiting until later in life is growing.

One of those who waited was my dad, Gary, a frustrated hippie who has spent the past 45 years confined within the largely vibe-free factories of northern England (vibe-free, perhaps, but far from tattoo-free: Blackpool has the most tattoo parlours per capita in the country).

It has long been observed that most children rebel against their parents but in 2016 I am convinced more than ever that this narrative is utterly defunct. Two years ago, on a rare visit to the unneighbourly and costly south, Gary burst through the door of my London flat with a grin on his face.

“Guess what?” he said. He responded to my silence by lifting up his shirt, revealing a large tree or “Gaia”, that he had drawn himself, tattooed across his back. “And do you know what the best part is?” he said, waving what appeared to be a tube of nappy rash cream. “I need your help to reach it.”

For a long time, I cited a “There is nothing I like enough to have it branded on me for ever” get-out clause when asked about tattoos. This excuse is closely related to “I always change my mind” and “I just don’t think it would look good on me”. I found it difficult to shake the cynic’s assumption that people only come to accept their mistakes – 86 per cent of those surveyed by YouGov in 2015 said they did not regret their tattoos – because they have no choice.

Writing in the Telegraph last year, the gallerist Alex Proud warned of sagging skin, clichéd designs, hurt career prospects and even mental breakdowns among the inked. Most upsetting of all, he accused us of groupthink. “[Tattoos are] the ‘snowflake’ individuality of hipster culture,” he wrote. “Yes, you’re different, just like everyone else.”

In some ways he’s right, but his rightness misses the point. It is hardly original to point out that being told, “You’ll regret it when you’re older,” is precisely what lends smoking, doing drugs or dicking around at school a vaguely dangerous allure. But there is something particular about tattoos. In terms of behavioural psychology, they help you develop a “personal myth”. They reflect “a need for stability, predictability [and] permanence”, especially among young people, according to Jeff Murray, who teaches sociology and consumer behaviour at the University of Arkansas.

Where once we might have drawn our identity from religious affiliation, family ties, geographical and professional allegiances, today we inhabit a world of undefined spirituality, loose family structures, unreliable employment and temporary accommodation. Alex Proud is wrong to see body modification as an attempt to express an innate individuality; rather, it is an attempt to pin one down. We need new rituals and a trip to the tattoo parlour, like the one I made, might just fit the bill.

Kathryn Schulz, the Pulitzer Prizewinner who wrote an entire book about making mistakes, Being Wrong, says that we should learn to embrace regret – something she began to think about after getting a compass tattooed on her shoulder and having “a massive emotional meltdown”. “The point isn’t to live without any regrets,” she says. “The point is to not hate ourselves for having them.”

Frankly, I wouldn’t want to be the sort of dim perfectionist who is afraid of being anything less than pristine. I used to be a bit like that and it felt like the opposite of living. Fortunately, at least for the near future, I don’t need to worry. I like my tattoo. I think it looks good. That it will be with me wherever I go – on holiday, to job interviews, at parties or funerals – feels reassuring somehow. It is a sort of time capsule, a conversation between my past and future selves. And what could be more optimistic than that?

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain