Jodie Foster won her first Oscar, a Golden Globe and a BAFTA Award for her performance as rape victim Sarah Tobias in The Accused. It’s easy to see why.
Considered brutal and shocking in its day, it was a triumph for ex-Fox president turned independent producer Sherry Lansing, who had been told repeatedly that no-one would pay to see a film about rape.
While hardly box-office gold (it did $US32 Million), it was well-received critically and, to this day, remains the definitive cinematic discussion of rape.
It’s 1987. Sarah Tobias – a young woman who is not a model citizen – has a fight one night with her live-in boyfriend (who is a drug dealer) and goes to a sleazy bar to drink.
Sarah has too much to drink, does a provocative dance to the jukebox, and begins to flirt with a man in the bar’s backroom.
And then things get out of hand. The man – also drunk – picks her up and lays her down on top of a pinball machine and begins to assault her. Two other men hold her down, helpless. The music pounds. The other guys in the backroom begin to cheer and chant and egg him on. And when he is finished they push another guy forward, and then another.
Finally, she escapes and runs weeping out onto the highway, crying for help.
Sarah is moved through the emergency care and legal systems, where she meets professionals who are courteous and efficient but not overly sympathetic. Then she meets Kathryn Murphy (Kelly McGillis), the Assistant District Attorney who will handle her case.
Given Sarah’s lowly status as a feisty tart with a salty tongue, Kathryn plea bargains for the rapists to be jailed for ‘reckless endangerment’ – a crime that carries the same prison sentence but not the stigma of rape. It also means that the criminals can be released early, rather than serving the full term.
Sarah feels betrayed. She was raped, brutally, repeatedly, and in front of many witnesses – some of whom Kathryn decides to bring to trial (with no support from the Chief District Attorney and with many of her colleagues convinced she’s lost her mind).
It is the second trial – of the men who witnessed the rape and cheered on the participants rather than coming to Sarah’s aid – that becomes the crux of the film’s action.
Jodie Foster’s performance is astonishing, with her running the gamut from sleazy trailer trash to shattered victim, tortured wastrel, defiant fighter and bruised and battered heroine.
McGillis is also excellent as the cool professional who unleashes pure rage at the injustice of a legal system and a world in which a woman can “ask for it” and has to prove why she didn’t deserve to be physically and mentally destroyed by rape.
A tremendous film but incredibly uncomfortable to watch.
The Accused was inspired by a real-life 1983 rape case in New Bedford, Massachusetts.
Attorney Ted Paulson
Peter Van Norden
Terry David Mulligan