Monday, January 14, 2013

Public Praise of a Private Person

The fire you like so much in me
Is the mark of someone adamantly free
But you can't stop yourself from wanting worse
'Cause nothing feeds a hunger like a thirst

- Liz Phair, "Strange Loop"

I know nothing about Jodie Foster.

Oh, I've been a fan for 40 years, from Tom Sawyer and the original Freaky Friday, with the far too adult for me at the time Taxi Driver in between. We've soared to the stars and dived into the depths of the human soul together. I've watched Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lecter's iconic psychological duels dozens of times, finding a new nuance each reviewing. The rape of Sarah Tobias I found more disturbing than Buffalo Bill's crimes, and I've endured it exactly once. That once was indelible.

On my first date with my wife we watched Flight Plan, and I was immediately forgiven for my celebrity crush.

But I know absolutely nothing about Jodie Foster.

From a distance she appears to be an extraordinary human being, gifted with a rare intelligence and sensitivity in addition to her incredible talent. And at age 50, a year and a month older than myself, she remains stunningly beautiful. "Can I get a wolf whistle"? Jodie, you didn't need to ask.

But she did ask last night, in a remarkable speech accepting a lifetime achievement award at the Golden Globes. The initial reactions were a mixture of "weird" and "wow," before the consensus came to label it the "coming out speech."

"No," Hannibal Lecter would say, "that is incidental." It was so much more.

Sure, some of it was about who we choose to love. But that doesn't just mean our intimate partners.

While the rest of Hollywood shunned Mel Gibson, a flawed human being with genuine talent, Foster stood by her Maverick co-star and friend and worked with him on the quirky The Beaver. The fact that Foster and Gibson can look past the vast gulf of their religious and political differences and love one another speaks to how remarkable they both are. "You know you save me too,” she said of him.

Another longtime friend, Robert Downey Jr., handed Foster the trophy. Long before Downey rehabilitated his career and got his big payday as Iron Man, he had hit the rock bottom of drug addiction. Her star was on the rise in the 90s as his was on the wane, yet Foster stood by Downey as well.

In your darkest hours you find your truest friends. I have friends like that. But I can only imagine what kind of friend Jodie Foster is. Because I know nothing about her.

For fundamentally this speech was about freedom, freedom from expectations and prejudices and assumptions and the fantasy that we truly "know" the character of our celebrities. It was about sharing ourselves on our own terms. And it would have surprised no one who's read Foster's spirited defense of Panic Room co-star Kristen Stewart, who topped tabloid headlines for little more than an It's Complicated love life that's not unusual for a twentysomething.

There may be a teacher or a doctor or a lawyer or an obscure artist in an obscure field as talented and brilliant as Foster, yet we will never know.  The difference is, we can't pretend to know.

No, I don't know Jodie Foster. I only know Sarah and Clarice and Nell and Iris and Ellie Arroway. And they only live, and some of them will live for as long as people watch movies,  because Jodie Foster gave them life. Because she chose to share that part of her spirit with the world. Having given that much, Foster demands the right to keep the rest for herself and the people she truly loves.

"If you had been a public figure from the time that you were a toddler," Foster said last night, "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."

Foster's cri de couer last night was an indictment of an entire culture, an entire age, of instant and complete knowledge, of leaks and satellite photos and 24/7/365 "news" cycles and the politics of celebrity. No, not a Luddite retreat to the rigid past that never really was, but rather a plea for our own humanity in the midst of the madness. Foster has lived with that far more than most of us, with far worse consequences, but the lessons resonate for all of us.

And if you don't get that, well, then, you know nothing about Jodie Foster.

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