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This movie won an Oscar for Best Actress (Jodie Foster.)

'The Accused' (R)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
October 14, 1988

America's appetite for violence goeson trial along with the men who cheered on a gang rape in the moving drama ''The Accused.'' The courtroom battle primarily showcases Jodie Foster's gutsy eloquence as the not-so-innocent victim, a ''low-class bimbo'' who some say ''was asking for it'' when she was raped repeatedly in a seedy redneck bar. Though her attackers initially elude justice, the scrappy heroine finds another way to have her say in court.

As Sarah Tobias, Foster works in tandem with Kelly McGillis, the frosty assistant district attorney Katheryn Murphy. Given Sarah's reputation, the career-oriented yuppie plea-bargains the triple rape case away. But when confronted with Sarah's anger and inspired by her courage, Katheryn attempts to undo the damage by prosecuting the onlookers in a precedent-setting case.

In setting the scene, ''The Accused'' draws provocative but forced parallels between violent crime and America's notion of fun and games. It is horribly apt that Sarah is attacked on a pinball machine, which recalls the infamous New Bedford, Mass., pool table rape case. And there's a point scored when Katheryn is obliged to discuss her case with her male colleagues at a hockey game. The lawyers tsk-tsk violent felonies, as fans full of booze and vicarious adrenaline applaud violence on the ice. ignoring the rules is expected and the penalties are slight.

Sarah's sport is sex, and driving men wild is her hat trick. She gets into trouble not because she is ''asking for it,'' but because she assumes her opponents will play fair. It's late and she's mad at her boyfriend when she naively sashays into the bar to visit a waitress friend (Ann Hearn). Heads turn, mouths drop, temperatures rise as her straps slip off her shoulders and her hair spills down her naked back. There's sexual tension enough for a topless bar when Sarah does a dirty dance in the back room. When the only woman in the room storms off in disgust, the men lose all restraint.

Face it. No women in her right mind would have gone into that bar and done her impression of a Vanity video. But Sarah's lack of good sense isn't on trial here, nor for that matter is male aggression. ''The Accused'' addresses the accountability of the bystander. Katheryn's ''criminal solicitation'' case is hypothetical, but it is based on accounts of witnesses who did nothing or led cheers. Here, screenwriter Tom Topor indicts the sideline scum, but his drama is mainly a call for heroes. And in the end, there is one -- a fraternity boy, Danny (excellent Bernie Coulson), who becomes a key witness for the prosecution though it means helping convict his best friend of first-degree rape.

This is Topor's second look at the consequences of sex crimes. His first movie, ''Nuts,'' has virtually the same structure as ''The Accused'' -- a crusading lawyer (Richard Dreyfuss) goes to court with a prostitute (Barbra Streisand) who was molested as a child. But where ''Nuts'' was flashy and melodramatic, ''The Accused'' is underplayed and chilly. In trying to avoid sensationalism, director Jonathan Kaplan becomes dispassionate. The rape scene ought to outrage, but it almost seems choreographed, the movie's oddly glossy climax.

Katheryn's summation was meant to be the final flourish, but McGillis gives a flat-footed performance. However, Foster overcomes McGillis' inertia, as the sweet-natured Sarah, a lonely little waitress who makes her home in a trailer park. Under her tight jeans and tough talk, she proves as fragile as a ballerina on a music box. Foster creates the ultimate victim without ever becoming a wimp, mixing dignity with defenselessness. ''The Accused'' must be acquitted of its misdemeanors if not for its good intentions, for this vibrant performance. Case closed.

The Accused, at area theaters, is rated R.

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