Director Jonathan Kaplan on set with Kelly McGillis (left) and Jodie Foster.
Director Jonathan Kaplan on set with Kelly McGillis (left) and Jodie Foster.
AF Archive/Alamy Stock Photo

'The Accused' Oral History: A Brutal Rape Scene, Traumatized Actors and Producers' Fights to Make the Movie

Jodie Foster, Kelly McGillis, Sherry Lansing and others reveal the epic backstory of the 1988 film that gave voice to sexual assault victims.

The brutal gang rape scene in 1988's The Accused lasts only three minutes — but at the time of the movie's release, it was considered one of the longest, most graphic and boldest portrayals of sexual assault in the history of film. Loosely based on the 1983 gang rape case of Cheryl Araujo, a 21-year-old woman attacked on a pool table in a New Bedford, Mass., bar while others looked on, The Accused was one of the first films to explore some of the complex issues around rape — including victim blaming and the responsibility of bystanders — that remain ever present, even 28 years later, in today's culture.

A 2016 study by USC of 4,000 comments on 52 articles found that a quarter of all responses to rape articles included victim blaming, with one of the most common reactions being that victims made up the charges after getting intoxicated. (Testimony from the rape trial of former Stanford swimmer Brock Turner included cross-examination about the victim's drinking.) Araujo had to move to Miami to escape harassment from her hometown community (and died four years later in a car accident at age 25). All four of her rapists were convicted, with two bystanders tried and acquitted.

Back in the mid-1980s, getting a film made that centers on a tough, young woman who is raped in a bar was an uphill battle from start to finish. It was led by a pair of unstoppable women: Dawn Steel, then president of production at Paramount, and Sherry Lansing, who produced the film with Stanley Jaffe. Two fearless actresses became the faces of the film: Jodie Foster, who plays the rape victim, and Kelly McGillis, as the lawyer who takes the bystanders to trial. During interviews, McGillis would reveal she had been raped at knifepoint by two men in her New York apartment a few years earlier — and had been met with her own victim blaming. Overcoming a difficult shoot and some of the "worst test screening scores in the history of the studio," The Accused — which was a solid box-office performer, drawing $32 million domestically ($65 million today) on an $8 million budget — became a critical hit and won Foster her first Oscar at age 26.

TOM TOPOR (screenwriter) The real trial of Cheryl Araujo had just become national news, and I pitched a script based on that story around town. A few weeks later, Dawn Steel called to ask if I'd be interested in doing a movie. Dawn was really the instigator, and then Sherry Lansing and Stanley Jaffe signed on to produce it. Dawn and Sherry were the bulldozers all the way through. They were like terriers with their teeth around your ankles — they were not going to let go.

SHERRY LANSING (producer) I was deeply moved by Kitty Genovese, this woman who was assaulted in a [Queens] courtyard [in 1964] and 36 people watched. I thought, "How could people do that?" Then there was the [Araujo] incident in New Bedford, Mass., where a woman was raped and men stood around and cheered. I was obsessed with the culpability of the bystander and the double victimization of people who were raped. Not only was there the crime, but then they were victimized again with this idea that they deserved it. Dawn had talked to Stanley, and we decided to make a movie.

STANLEY JAFFE (producer) It was a story that disturbed us all, and we wanted to tell it. It wasn't meant to preach — but it was entertainment with a message.

TOPOR I interviewed 30 rape victims, a lot of rapists, a lot of prosecutors, defense attorneys, scrub nurses. My original draft had the pool table, but the producers were terrified of being sued, so it was changed to a pinball machine.

LANSING When we were working on the script, we purposely did not want to make the main character a debutante. We wanted to make it somebody who was provocative but, no matter what, did not deserve to be raped.

TOPOR We were all determined to make sure it was about rape as violence. It's not eroticized as all.

JONATHAN KAPLAN (director) I had met with Dawn during the trial of the New Bedford rapists, and we talked about how there might be a movie there. Then, a few years later, Dawn and I were at a birthday party for [her husband] Chuck Roven, and she told me she was developing a movie with Sherry and Stanley and that Jane Fonda had been brought in.

LANSING We had Jane Fonda attached to play the lawyer. Then Jane left the project because she had to do another movie.

KAPLAN The script with Jane was very focused on the lawyer's story. The rape victim was just that — a victim, a prop. I really wanted the rape victim character to be front and center with the lawyer.

TOPOR Jonathan and I looked at a lot of old films, and we couldn't find one that had explored the subject. There were almost no movies where the subject of the movie is rape. There are many movies that have a rape incident in them, but The Accused is about rape, there's no other subject. And it's about two women; there's no man who comes to rescue them. It's a very tough subject.

LANSING The studio was looking for someone who could sell the movie. At the time, Jodie wasn't enough; she was coming out of school. But Kelly McGillis, after Top Gun, was a huge star, so when she said yes, we could go to Jodie.

KELLY MCGILLIS (Kathryn Murphy) I was sent a script and asked what role I would like to play, and I didn't want to play a victim. For me, as a victim of rape, it would be too weird. In light of what happened to me, I thought this movie had an important thing to say. I had that experience of being dismissed: When I was sexually assaulted, I was dropped off at a hospital near Harlem by the police, and then that was it. I called the next day, and they said there's no way they could catch the guy. I said, "No, I will do anything to catch those two guys." I ended up picking them out from pages and pages of mugshots. [In a 1980s trial, Leroy Johnson was sentenced for rape, serving three years in prison; the other assailant's charges were dismissed.]

JODIE FOSTER (Sarah Tobias) Everybody wanted the part, everybody. I had just gotten out of college, and I'd made like five movies when I was in college, but nobody saw them. So it took a lot of door-banging for anyone to be interested in me.

KAPLAN It was a brutal audition. We considered a lot of actresses. In the end, the movie is about an East Coast working-class girl — Jodie comes from a humble family, and she just got it. She was always my first choice.

STEVE ANTIN (Bob Joiner, one of the rapists) I originally auditioned for [the bystander who calls 911]. My agents said they wanted me to play one of the rapists. I was surprised; I was often typecast playing these young, privileged guys.

LEO ROSSI (Cliff Albrecht, a man who cheers the rapists on) I had worked with Jonathan Kaplan on Heart Like a Wheel, and he fought for me to get the role. Right before we signed the papers, he said, "Are you sure?" I said, "Of course, yes." I wondered what he meant at the time.

MCGILLIS For research, I spent time with the New York DA who actually prosecuted my case. I learned there's a level of detachment because you can't become emotionally invested in everything you do; otherwise, you'd be absolutely exhausted and probably suicidal.

FOSTER I knew I wanted the role, but I was scared of it, honestly. So I hung out with my friends and went out dancing. I was too scared to read the script again; I did absolutely no preparation whatsoever. Then I got to Vancouver and realized what I was in for. I did a little research. The truth is, I'm playing a victim. I didn't need to learn how to be that. I think I needed just to be free and feel like somebody who is that age [in her early 20s]. I'd never gotten to be that age because I was a child actor and worked for a living.

The film shot in northern Vancouver in the summer of 1987.

KAPLAN Dawn was pregnant when we were getting ready to shoot. Then she was let go from Paramount during the shoot, fired while she was in labor. That's the environment we were dealing with at the time.

FOSTER There was a lot of discussion about my character. How tough was she going to be? How likable? How attractive? How short should the skirt be, and what kind of shirt should she wear? There was a lot of discussion about wardrobe and costume and hair, and I remember hating that. I hate it when we have costume and hair wars right before we start shooting because it just makes me feel self-conscious.

KAPLAN Jodie was the only actress who auditioned who didn't ask how we were going to shoot the rape scene. I thought since she shot Taxi Driver, she was mature beyond her years and had dealt with it. But I wasn't sure, so during the week of rehearsals, I took her to the location and showed her the storyboards. I heard this, "Oh …" I realized she hadn't really dealt with it. I took her through every shot and asked her how she felt about it.

ANTIN When we shot that horrific scene, Jodie starts off with her character dancing to that jukebox. I watched her transform into this character that is so different than who she really is. It was incredible to watch her fearlessly tackle that. I remember when we were shooting the rape scene, she said to me, "If you don't hold me down, I'm getting up. I want this to look real, and I want this to feel real."

JAFFE Jonathan handled the rape scenes very well. Sherry and I absented ourselves, which we always did when somebody was nude because we don't think there should be anybody on set that doesn't need to be there.

ANN HEARN (Sally Frazer, waitress) There was a sense on the set that everybody felt protective of Jodie and the women and how traumatic the situation could be for them. But the boys were incredibly upset. It seems like nobody had expected how upsetting that would be for them. Then there was a shift to, "OK, this is upsetting for everyone."

FOSTER The guys were just a mess. They were devastated and uncomfortable. They wanted to have lots of heart-to-hearts about it. I spent all my time worrying, "Are they gonna be OK?"

ROSSI During the shoot, Woody Brown [who plays one of the rapists] bolted, and Jonathan told me to go see what was wrong. I went to his trailer, and he was sick to his stomach, throwing up.

ANTIN It was really heavy on set. Woody was really emotional. I think he had a daughter at the time, or was about to, and he was really affected by it.

FOSTER Jonathan did everything he could to make sure the experience wasn't traumatizing for me. But at the same time, there's nothing you can do because it's big — it's a big experience. I have a big bravado, and I certainly did at that age. I was very busy telling everybody I was fine. Interestingly, I don't remember shooting the actual rape sequence. I blanked out. He yelled, "Cut," and I would sort of find myself on the floor with the costumer, with a parka over me.

ROSSI As much as we were in it during the week, on the weekends we would go out together. It was a very close-knit family; Kelly and Jodie baby-sat my daughters when my wife and I went out. We just leaned on each other because it was grim stuff.

PETER VAN NORDEN (Ted Paulsen, attorney defending the rapists) Jonathan had us do the entire speech to the jury, and then he would shoot it from different angles. I loved that because it worked well with my theater background. Jonathan and the cinematographer, Ralf Bode, were really careful with how they set up shots because it was a courtroom drama and it could get really static. They would try to do different angles or move the camera. Whenever time would get tough and they would rush him he would scream out, “Fine, fine, I’ll do the Starsky & Hutch shot!” which to him meant the really boring shot. I loved that he was never going to settle.

FOSTER It really was a very deep, personal experience that I had with the crew. They became like brothers. You all experienced this once-in-a-lifetime thing that you'd never be able to explain to anybody else. Not all movies are like that. I became friends with one of the grips, and he taught me about the I Ching and brought me poems. We'd talk about T.S. Eliot. I had such a strong relationship with this guy, and I'll probably never see him again.

After wrapping up a trying shoot, the project had trouble in postproduction and nearly was scrapped after terrible test screenings.

BRAD FIEDEL (composer) Jonathan let Jodie pick the music for the dancing scene before the rape. She chose Prince's song "Kiss." Usually rights are cleared ahead, but when we were almost done, they were mixing the film, and they could just not get Prince to give clearance for that song. They asked me to make a song, so Ross Levinson and I co-wrote the song, "I'm Talking Love." Over the years, I've gotten requests from fans for the song, and I don't believe it was ever released.

LANSING At the test screenings, we got the lowest scores in the history of Paramount. The audience thought that Jodie's character deserved the rape. The studio wanted to put it on the shelf and forget about it. Stanley and I had to go in and beg for another chance at the edit.

KAPLAN We had a research screening at the studio, and it was totally clear that the executives were looking for a reason to not release the movie. Sherry said: "Don't freak out. This is my job. Let me handle this." She asked for another screening with just women. She got that screening, and it went through the roof. Of the 20 women in the room, 18 had experience with rape — that either they or someone they knew had been raped.

LANSING When we tested it again months later, it got among the highest scores in the history of Paramount. No one believed us. I think they thought I was in the bathroom filling out the cards myself. So we had to test it three or four more times to prove it.

FOSTER Jonathan brought me in for the first cut, and I kind of hung my head and thought, "Oh, man, I suck." I just felt like I didn't know what I was doing. I looked at that character and thought, "She's not that likable, I don't really like her. She's too loud, too brash." She was so different than I was. I thought, "Nobody's going to like it, nobody's going to like me." So I took my grad school exams to study African-American literature. I thought that would be my path.

Paramount released the film on Oct. 14, 1988. Foster won the Golden Globe and her first Academy Award for best actress. During promotional events, McGillis revealed that she herself had been raped.

LANSING I had never known that Kelly had been raped, even after we had shot the film. Jodie, Kelly and myself were on a plane to do press for the movie when Kelly said, "I'm going to tell you something, and I want your advice." She told me, and I said: "This is so personal. You have to do what is best for yourself." She felt so strongly that she had to tell the story so other people wouldn't be ashamed.

MCGILLIS When we were on the PR tour, somebody asked me a question like, "Have you ever had an experience like this?" I didn't want to be a liar. I was caught completely off guard. I chose to say the truth. I got a lot of flak for it. A lot of people accused me of doing it for publicity. People can be incredibly cruel.

VAN NORDEN I went to see the movie with my wife at the Grauman's Chinese. Sitting in front of me were two African-American girls. When it got to my monologue to the jury, one of these teenage girls yelled out, "F— you!" When the movie was over, I leaned over and said, "Boy that was intense." She started screaming at me, "You! I hate you!" It was one of those movies that had that impact.

ROSSI After the movie came out, I would be walking down Ventura Boulevard and a carload of teenage boys would stop and cheer me on and say, "Wanna play pinball?!?!" Boy, did they miss the message. But then I'd be in a restaurant with my wife and two daughters and a waitress would come up to me and say, "I saw that movie. God, I hated you, you were so sleazy."

FOSTER I didn't expect the Oscar at all, and it was a bit of an out-of-body experience. I had been nominated when I was a kid, so I knew it was sort of a possibility for the future, but not one that I ever thought I would have. I just thought I would always be the person ordering Chinese food, watching it on a bed somewhere. It was just me from the movie, no one else was nominated, so I was alone. I was wandering around, not really knowing what to do with myself. Do I have a glass of wine? Do I eat a bowl of chocolate? Do I have ice cream?

MCGILLIS After the movie came out, a lot of women came up to me and said: "I'm so glad you did this movie. That happened to me, and I never told anybody." I think it's really surprising how many secrets women carry, really heavy secrets that may not be as extreme as rape but can be as simple as being in an awful situation and selling your soul to get out of it. Those are all ways that we betray ourselves, and that's a heavy burden to bear.

A version of this story first appeared in the 2016 Women in Entertainment Power 100 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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