A GROUND-BREAKING MOVIE TACKLES SEXUAL ASSAULT -WITH A SCALDING PERFORMANCE BY JODIE FOSTER
Brian D. JohnsonOctober241988
THE REALITY OF RAPE
A GROUND-BREAKING MOVIE TACKLES SEXUAL ASSAULT -WITH A SCALDING PERFORMANCE BY JODIE FOSTER
That kind of pain doesn’t go away. It’s something you never understand, forgive or forget. It is a pain that can never be healed with a kiss from your mother’s lips or a “Sssh, everything’s okay. ” Everything’s not okay! It’s not.
—from Why Me?, actress Jodie Foster’s 1982 essay in Esquire magazine about the trauma of being an unwilling fantasy object for John Hinckley Jr., a fen who tried to get her attention with an attempt to assassinate President Ronald Reagan in 1981.
ƒ was raped by two men in my apartment— strangers. For a long time, I wanted to forget that it happened. Unfortunately I remember every minute of it. It changes your life forever. I will always be afraid to be alone. I will never know what it means to feel safe.
—actress Kelly McGillis, in a Maclean ’s interview, describing her ordeal as a sexual assault victim in 1982.
The studio publicist wanted to make two things clear. First, reporters were not to ask Jodie Foster any questions about John Hinckley
Jr.—Foster walked out on the last journalist who mentioned Hinckley’s name. The second point concerned a traumatic episode in the life of Kelly McGillis, Foster’s costar: McGillis was once raped and she would talk about it. Meeting the press at a hotel in Dallas recently, Foster and McGillis were in the middle of a six-city tour through the United States to promote their new movie, The Accused. Opening in 800 theatres across North America this week, it is a drama about a young waitress—portrayed by Foster—who is brutally gang-raped in a bar.
The Accused contains perhaps the most graphic rape scene ever presented in a mainstream movie. It also breaks new ground for Hollywood by examining in striking depth the legal and emotional issues of rape. And although the movie has dramatic flaws, Foster gives a performance so original and compelling that it cries out for an Academy Award
(review, page 62). Set in Seattle but filmed in Vancouver, The Accused is fiction, yet it was inspired by a 1983 incident at Big Dan’s Tavern in New Bedford, Mass., where a 22-yearold woman was gang-raped on a pool table while bystanders cheered and clapped. Sherry Lansing, who coproduced the movie with Stanley Jaffe—the same Hollywood team responsible for Fatal Attraction—said that her goal was to make a movie about the guilt of the bystander. “We also wanted to change people’s perceptions on rape,” she added, “to show that the victim always has the right to say no.”
Although the story borrows elements from various rape cases, the parallels with the New Bedford incident are most striking. Instead of being raped on a pool table, she is shoved up onto a pinball machine named Slamdunk. In the movie, as in New Bedford, the screaming victim flees half naked from the tavern, flags down a passing pickup truck and returns later that night with police to point out her assailants. And in a highly publicized trial, the rapists’ lawyers tarnish her honor with the standard “she asked for it” defence.
The Accused tackles that issue head on: Foster portrays Sarah, the rape victim, as a working-class girl who is drunk, stoned and extremely flirtatious on the night of her assault. “We could have made her a lily-white debutante who walks into the wrong place at the wrong time,” said Lansing, “but then there is no drama. What you want is a girl
who is, for want of a better word, a slut, a free spirit— whatever—so you can make people realize that no matter how she was dressed or how much she had to drink, or whether she was flirting or dancing, she did not ask or deserve to be raped.”
The movie has been carefully designed to shock, manipulate and educate its audience. Experts from rape crisis centres served as consultants on the script and strongly endorsed the film at early previews. And the statistics etched on the screen before the closing credits are startling: “In the United States a rape is reported every six minutes. One out of every four rape victims is attacked by two or more assailants.” While researching the movie, said Lansing, the producers became “particularly fascinated with gang rapes in fraternity houses, where it’s almost an epidemic.”
Yet what is most sensational about The Accused is not its movie-of-the-week social relevance, but Foster’s scalding performance.
Oddly enough, she was not the producers’ first choice for Sarah: McGillis was originally offered the part. But to avoid reliving her own experience of being raped, McGillis opted instead to portray the prosecutor.
Meanwhile, the producers were reluctant to cast Foster, even after a spectacular audition. “It was obvious from, the very first frame of the screen test that she was great in the role,” said Accused director Jonathan Kaplan. “But a factor that was in everybody’s mind was the baggage she would bring to the
role. Like the fact that she’d been through the whole Hinckley thing might be distracting for the audience. I didn’t think it would.”
A former child star and now a Yale graduate, the 25-year-old Foster has developed a
knack for playing tough girls in trouble. Breaking into show business by baring her bottom for a Coppertone commercial at the age of 3, she has appeared in 26 movies. At 13, she starred as a teenage prostitute in Taxi Driver, which won her an Oscar nomination for best supporting actress. At 14, she was a young murderer in The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane. Her fun-loving but insecure character is raped in 1984’s The Hotel New Hampshire. This year,
she appeared in 5 Corners as a young clerk who is pursued by a deranged suitor—eerily echoing the Hinckley affair. And she plays a suicide victim in the recent film Stealing Home. Asked about her affinity for victims, Foster offered a smartly feminist response:
“That is what female history is all about.” Sitting in a hotel room in Dallas, Foster bore little resemblance to the blue-jeaned sprite of The Accused. Her blond hair tied back, she looked crisply professional in a dark jacket and skirt. A pair of owlish horn-rims added a scholarly touch, a reminder that she spent four years studying literature at Yale. She confided that Franny and Zooey, J. D. Salinger’s Zen-like novel about two siblings from an eccentric family, “is the book that changed my life the most.”
Yale was Foster’s only break from a lifetime of professional acting, although Hinckley’s cruel intrusion made it impossible for her to forget that she was still a movie star. Two hours before wounding President Rea-
gan and three others with a pistol in Washington, Hinckley, the deluded son of a millionaire, wrote a letter describing his act as an attempt to gain her “love and respect.” The incident also reflected his dark obsession with Taxi Driver, in which Robert De Niro’s character makes an assassination attempt on a presidential candidate while trying to re-
form a teenage prostitute
played by Foster, Organizing her own news conference, Foster handled
the crisis with the same intelligence and poise that she has brought to her career. Now that she is back in Hollywood, where 25-year-old actresses are valued more for looks than brains, she finds that her Ivy League education is not considered an auto-
matic asset. “Can smart girls be pretty?” asked Foster. “I think so, but it’s not a popular belief.” After graduating in 1985, Foster made five movies in rapid-fire succession, switching accents and personalities with the mercurial confidence of a Meryl Streep. But it is The Accused that marks her arrival as a mature actress, completing a cycle that she began more than a decade earlier with Taxi Driver.
As usual, she is playing a strong character. Although Sarah is denigrated by prosecutors
and lawyers throughout the movie, she defies them with punk-like resilience, refusing to apologize for her sexuality. “Sarah is sensual, wilful, uninhibited,” said Foster. “A healthy man should be attracted to a woman like that. But then you see her brutally invaded with a hand over her face. I mean, would anybody deserve that? To look at something that’s beautiful and want to squash it—what is that?”
Foster still seems outraged by her character’s rape. And when she finally saw the completed movie, she found the rape scene hard to watch. “It really upset me,” she said. “Jonathan [Kaplan] had a lot more takes where I fought back harder. When I saw it, I kept saying ‘God damn it, kick him!’ and ‘Why isn’t Sarah doing that?’ ” But by blurring the line between seduction and rape, the director provides a provoca-
tive example of the ambiguity that lawyers exploit in defending rapists. In retrospect, Foster observed, Sarah’s failure to fight back “is a typically female thing.” Added Foster: “You’re so scared of being rejected or hurting some guy’s feelings that you think you can get out of it another way—and then it’s too late.”
Shooting the rape scene took five days and was an ordeal for everyone involved. “It was hard on the men,” recalled Foster, “because they knew me and liked me. It was hard on the crew—they were like witnesses who stood by and did nothing. And the difficult thing for me is that I found everyone sympathetic in some way: the rapists, the people clapping and cheering, the friend who walked away.” Added Foster: “It was the most intense experience you can have with 75 people. From then on, we were bonded in a way I can never be with friends and fàmily.”
The key witness at the rape was played by Canadian Bemie Coulson, the top-billed member of the supporting cast. But the 22year-old actor from Vancouver stresses that he is unlike the shy, wholesome character he portrays. In fact, when he auditioned for the role, he says, he was “pretty inebriated” be-
cause he had spent the afternoon drinking and watching strippers with his friends at a bar. When it came time to shoot the rape scene, Coulson recalled, “We all thought, ‘Oh great, Jodie Foster is going to be naked.’ But that wears off pretty fast. Then, after four days of seeing these guys with flesh-colored G-strings pumping her, at one point I just turned around and threw up.”
Meanwhile, McGillis stayed away from the set during the filming of the rape scene to avoid her personal trauma. Six years ago, when she was still a student in Los Angeles, two men broke into her apartment and found her alone in a bathrobe. They raped her at knife point. The police, who were called by a neighbor, arrived 25 minutes later. Although the men were convicted of rape, “my case was very much like Sarah’s,” said McGillis. “I had to pursue justice on my own in many ways, and it was out of sheer anger that I did it, that I had the strength to do it.”
At the end of a long day of interviews in Dallas, McGillis seemed testy. A tall, bigboned woman, she has boldly voluptuous features, and with her hair now cropped short and dyed blond, she looked radically different from the actress who appeared in Witness and Top Gun. While helping to promote The Accused, McGillis had been talking publicly about her rape for the first time, and the strain of being grilled by the media was beginning to show. She said that the reporter who had just left spent his time telling her that she was too big to have played an Amish woman in Witness.
Still bristling with rage, McGillis grabbed a
warm Coke from a tray and lit a cigarette. The “sole reason” she starred in The Accused, she explained, was to address the issue of rape. She said that she does not regard it as a “quote-unquote feminist film—I don’t really view the world in terms of masculine and feminine. To me, we’re all just people.” Similarly, her own rape has not changed her view of men, as much as her feelings about the world: “You realize that people really can be ugly, that human life is cheap.” But McGillis said she felt it would have been self-indulgent to have played the victim in The Accused. “It's easy. I’ve done
it. I know the experience.” Portraying the emotionally repressed prosecutor, she added, “was a far greater challenge because she is the absolute opposite of what I believe in.” Foster and McGillis became close friends and collaborators during the filming. But on screen, McGillis ends up being vastly overshadowed by her costar—unfortunate, considering that she has suffered what Foster has only simulated. “This film is something for me that it will never be for Sherry [Lansing] or Jodie,” said McGillis, her voice trembling with emotion, “and that is life.” With The Accused, McGillis has seen art
imitate life. And with Hinckley’s insane re-enactment of Taxi Driver, Foster has seen life imitate art, forcing her to adopt a prudent philosophy. “I try not to compare my life with movies,” she said. “I think it’s dangerous.” In her 1982 Esquire essay, Why Me?, she wrote about two Jodie Fosters. “There was one as large as the screen, a Technicolor vision with flowing blond hair and a self-assured smile. But the second was a vision only I knew. She was shrouded in bravado and wit and was, underneath, a creature crippled, without self-esteem, a frail and alienated being.” In The Accused, Foster has succeeded in expressing both sides in the raw psychology of a woman who refuses to remain a victim.
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