The Accused (1988)

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Directed by Jonathan Kaplan
Screenplay by Tom Topor

Rated R

Jodie Foster as Sarah Tobias
Kelly McGillis as Deputy District Attorney Kathryn Murphy
Bernie Coulson as Kenneth Joyce
Leo Rossi as Cliff Albrect
Ann Hearn as Sally Fraser
Steve Antin as Bob Joiner
Woody Brown as Danny
Kim Kondrashoff as Kurt
Tom O’Brien as Larry
Carmen Argenziano as District Attorney Paul Rudolph
Scott Paulin as Attorney Ben Wainwright

In 1974, NBC aired a made-for-television movie called A Case of Rape.  Ratings were huge, critics raved, and audiences were shocked to see beloved Bewitched actress Elizabeth Montgomery portray a young wife and mother who is viciously raped – twice – by the same man. What’s more, audiences were educated that rape victims are typically violated not once, but twice, by the criminal justice system.  The network reportedly balked at showing the second rape attack, where Montgomery is assaulted and savagely beaten in a parking garage – but the actress threatened to walk if the network censored the scene.  Montgomery won and the scene remained, and she earned a well-deserved Emmy nomination.

Jonathan Kaplan’s The Accused explores similar territory, where the victim is again victimized after the initial sexual assault.  Sarah Tobias (Jodie Foster) is a working-class young woman, abrasive and crass.  She lives with her musician/drug dealer boyfriend Larry (Tom O’Brien), and after an argument one night she goes to meet up with girlfriend Sally (Ann Hearn), who waits tables at a local bar called The Mill.

Sarah proceeds to get drunk and stoned on marijuana, flirts with a few of the patrons, and does a sexy dance to a song she loves when it begins playing on the jukebox.  But Sarah resists the advances of Danny (Woody Brown), yet he won’t take no for an answer.  Goaded by onlookers, Danny and two other men brutally gang rape Sarah on top of a pinball machine, until she finally breaks free, running out into the street, half-naked, crying for help.

There is little sympathy for Sarah, aside from a rape center counselor.  The DA is Kathryn Murphy, a smart, educated woman, and she sees Sarah as low-class, especially given the amount of alcohol and pot consumed on the night in question.  As if the rape itself wasn’t traumatic enough, we are reminded again of the further indignities suffered by rape victims as they are questioned about their past, their sexual proclivities, and so on.

One of the attackers is a college student named Bob (Steve Antin, who went on to direct 2010’s Burlesque), and his parents hire a well-regarded and high-priced attorney.  Bob’s lawyer refuses to accept a charge with any reference to a sex crime.  Kathryn, not confident she has a winning case, pleads down the case, and the rapists are charged with reckless endangerment.

Sarah is furious to learn Kathryn sold her out, and the rapists will not be held accountable for their unspeakable crime.  The film’s turning point occurs when Sarah is accosted by one of the men in the bar (the man, in fact) who cheered on the rape, and kept the rape going.  Kathryn realizes her error in judgment, and she resolves to prosecute the men who encouraged the rape, by cheering, clapping, yelling, goading.  She charges them with criminal solicitation.

We do not see much of Kathryn’s background, but one can assume she has had more advantages than Sarah.  She is under 30, but clearly successful and accomplished.  Sarah, in contrast, is in her early 20s, earns a living as a waitress, and has probably had few, if any, of the opportunities afforded to Kathryn.  Kelly McGillis is powerful in the less flashy role, underplaying the part of Kathryn to great effect.  When she finally sees Sarah as a person, as a woman … she goes for broke to correct her error and give Sarah her day in court.

The case hinges on the testimony of the one and only witness who came forward, Kenneth Joyce (Bernie Coulson).  He left the bar shortly before Sarah escaped, and he called the authorities.  He is ambivalent to testify, because if the jury believes his story, his buddy Bob and the other rapists will receive extended sentences, and the rape will go on record.

Foster gives the performance of a lifetime here.  She brings Sarah to life, vividly and honestly.  The scenes on the witness stand are some of the best moments in the movie, particularly when Kathryn asks Sarah what she was feeling while she was being raped.  Sarah’s answer, and Foster’s acting, is shattering.

There’s an interesting scene where Sarah cuts her hair off, following a confrontation with Kathryn regarding the deal, reducing the charges.  In 2013, the iconic television character Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay), on NBC’s Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, was abducted and tortured for several days by a serial rapist/killer.  Following her escape, she cuts off her hair.  I conducted an online search, and women are apparently more vulnerable to violent sex crimes when they have longer hair.  It should be mentioned that Hargitay has used her celebrity to launch The Joyful Heart Foundation, which helps victims of sexual assault, domestic violence, and child abuse heal and reclaim a sense of joy in their lives.

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