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The private lives of Jodie Foster

(AP photo)

Near the end of her remarkable Golden Globes speech, a monologue overflowing with teasing language and sly pop-culture references, actor-director Jodie Foster mentioned a dog whistle. Although she sometimes seemed to be speaking extemporaneously, while also incorporating pre-crafted phrases designed to say exactly what she intended to say (and, equally important, what she had no intention of saying), I thought the message, addressed primarily to those who have pressured her to publicly acknowledge her lesbianism for so many years, was clear and unambiguous -- except for the parts she deliberately wanted to leave ambiguous. And it's pretty much the same message she's been repeating since she was in college:

I value my privacy. Everything about being a performer makes it difficult to protect and maintain that privacy. I've been pressured to talk about my private life as a woman, formerly in a same-sex relationship with Cydney Bernard, who is raising two sons. And this is as much of a public "coming out" statement as you're going to get from me.

The unequivocal heart of her otherwise semi-coded message was this:

There is no way I could ever stand here without acknowledging one of the deepest loves of my life, my heroic co-parent, my ex-partner in love but righteous soul sister in life, my confessor, ski buddy, consigliere, most beloved BFF of 20 years, Cydney Bernard. Thank you, Cyd. I am so proud of our modern family. Our amazing sons, Charlie and Kit, who are my reason to breathe and to evolve, my blood and soul.

After watching the Globule broadcast (a guilty pleasure that is more guilty than pleasurable for me), I mentioned that I was impressed with Foster's rambling, ambivalent speech -- especially because she did it in a way that was uniquely her own -- and I had never seen anything like it. Especially on a televised awards show. But an exasperated friend said, in effect: "What's the big deal? Why didn't she just come out and say it: 'I'm gay'? Why all the beating around the bush?"

I understand what she (my friend) meant, but from what I know of Jodie Foster the Public Figure, that just wouldn't have been her style. Instead, what she did seemed like a perfect expression of her image/personality: proud, tough, indignant, defensive, conflicted, not so good at humor. It occurred to me that, while the crowd in the Beverly Hilton knew what she was saying (hasn't this been common knowledge for years?), my friend was probably not among the primary target audience for Foster's remarks. And I was surprised at how many people professed to wonder what she was talking about. To me her subject was clear from the opening: "Well, for all of you 'SNL' fans, I'm 50! I'm 50!" -- as if, I thought, she was mocking the tired spectacle of the public confessional, like one of Scott Thompson's characters in "Kids in the Hall: Brain Candy," by saying "I'm 50!" instead of the anticipated, "I'm gay!" The use of the term "modern family," for instance, invoked the title of a hit television sitcom that features a gay couple is raising a child. That's why my ears perked up when I heard "dog whistle." This was an exercise in showbiz LGBT dog-whistling.

For example:

So while I'm here being all confessional, I guess I have a sudden urge to say something that I've never really been able to air in public. So, a declaration that I'm a little nervous about but maybe not quite as nervous as my publicist right now, huh Jennifer? But I'm just going to put it out there, right? Loud and proud, right? So I'm going to need your support on this.

As an actress, she didn't quite pull off the moment (she did appear nervous, as actors often do when having to appear before an audience as themselves), but each sentence played on unspoken expectations of the dog-whistle crowd. I have no idea how it played in Peoria, as they say, but all those Foster Watchers knew exactly where she was going.

Or, rather, where she was feinting to go ("Loud and proud, right?") because she built up to a false punch line:

I am single. Yes I am, I am single. No, I'm kidding -- but I mean I'm not really kidding, but I'm kind of kidding. I mean, thank you for the enthusiasm. Can I get a wolf whistle or something?

There's a big difference between a wolf whistle and a dog whistle, of course. And at that moment the audio cut out -- for seven seconds, according to the L.A. Times. She continued: "Seriously, I hope that you're not disappointed that there won't ..."

[audio returns] ... be a big coming-out speech tonight 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. But now I'm told, apparently that every celebrity is expected to honor the details of their private life with a press conference, a fragrance and a prime-time reality show.

Again, she was Doing It Her Way -- refusing to give in or apologize, while acknowledging the reality of what certain people have been clamoring for all these years -- including picketers at the Oscar ceremonies when Foster was nominated (and won) for "The Accused" (1988) and "The Silence of the Lambs" (1991). (Kelly McGillis, Foster's co-star in the former, came out publicly in 2009.)

So, before she got to the part about "one of the deepest loves of my life, my heroic co-parent, my ex-partner in love but righteous soul sister in life," she lamented the death of privacy in a media-saturated world:

But seriously, if you had been a public figure from the time that you were a toddler, if you'd had to fight for a life that felt real and honest and normal against all odds, then maybe you too might value privacy above all else. Privacy. Some day, in the future, people will look back and remember how beautiful it once was.

I have given everything up there from the time that I was 3 years old. That's reality-show enough, don't you think?

Well, yes, I do, and I don't think she owed this to anyone, but awkwardness aside, I like the way she did it. (My friend complained that the speech failed because it "wasn't funny." But, I said, Jodie Foster isn't funny. She has no sense of humor that I know of. So I did not hold her to that standard. The parts of her speech that were ostensibly "funny" were the most awkward.)

A couple days later, I read a column in the New York Times analyzing Foster's "skittish," "rambling, raw, semi-confessional speech":

But even her speech on Sunday was too elliptical for many gay activists and bloggers who reacted in much the same way that several Hollywood liberals have in attacking "Zero Dark Thirty" for not emphatically denouncing torture: they were irked that Ms. Foster didn't more clearly indicate that she was gay.

Ms. Foster has not discussed her love life in interviews or made a political point of being a lesbian. At the Golden Globes, of all places, she changed her mind. Several times.

All true. But what was important was that she said what she wanted to say in the way she wanted to say it. Whether anyone else thinks her remarks could have been made with greater finesse or clarity or directness is largely beside the point. Because what seemed clearest (to me, at least) was that those things didn't interest her as much as striking a balance between public and private that felt right to her. And coming from Jodie Foster, this speech was, as ABCNews.com put it, "surprisingly personal."

Somewhat more ambiguously, she seemed to be saying that she was retiring from acting and/or making mainstream Hollywood movies. Near the beginning, she thanked Robert Downey, Jr., for the introduction and for "continually talk[ing] me off the ledge when I go on and foam at the mouth and say, 'I'm done with acting, I'm done with acting, I'm really done, I'm done, I'm done.'" (The question is where the end-quotes really belong in that passage: after "I'm done with acting" or after the last "I'm done." And were they intended to be in the past-tense or the present-tense?):

This feels like the end of one era and the beginning of something else. Scary and exciting and now what? Well, I may never be up on this stage again, on any stage for that matter. Change, you gotta love it. I will continue to tell stories, to move people by being moved, the greatest job in the world. It's just that from now on, I may be holding a different talking stick. And maybe it won't be as sparkly, maybe it won't open on 3,000 screens, maybe it will be so quiet and delicate that only dogs can hear it whistle. But it will be my writing on the wall. Jodie Foster was here, I still am, and I want to be seen, to be understood deeply and to be not so very lonely.

I hope she doesn't stop acting. We need more opportunities for terrific actresses over 50, and Foster might be someone who could realize some of them. She's a creative person and wants to express herself (to write "Jodie Foster was here"). I happen to think she's a far more accomplished actor than writer or director. But whatever she does, I wish her well.

ADDENDUM: And now for something completely different: "The False Equivalencies of Jodie Foster by Alonso Duralde:

And don't give me that "everyone comes out when they're ready" excuse; Foster, by her own admission, has been out to the people in her life for years. She has very intentionally remained publicly enigmatic, well past the point when being more forthcoming would have had the slightest impact on her private or her professional life. There was a time when having someone of her stature speak out could have made a huge difference, and she chose to spend that time being silent.

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