The film was well received. Jodie Foster portrayed Sarah Tobias, the victim, earning the Academy Award for Best Actress, the film's sole nomination. This was the first time since 1962 that the lead actress won the Best Actress Academy Award without the film being nominated in any other category; Sophia Loren had won Best Actress for her performance in Two Women.
One night at a bar, working-class woman Sarah Tobias (Foster) is gang raped by several drunk bar patrons, while onlookers cheer them on. Assistant district attorney Kathryn Murphy (McGillis) is assigned to the rape case. Her superior wants to drop the case, believing that Sarah's background and prior record will make her testimony appear weak to the jury and that she will not win the case. After a heated argument, her superior suggests Murphy arrange a plea bargain with the rape defendants that requires some jail time. They make a plea bargain to charges of reckless endangerment, and are sentenced to prison. Sarah is enraged by the deal, as she did not get to testify in court against her attackers.
Sarah rams a pickup truck after recognizing its driver as one of the witnesses from the bar, and being outraged by his crude proposition of her. Her injuries require hospitalization. After this, Murphy decides to prosecute the men who cheered the rape for criminal solicitation. Sarah's friend Sally (Ann Hearn), a waitress at the bar where the rape took place, picks three men out of a line-up as those who encouraged the attackers. They get three different defense attorneys for the ensuing trial.
Sarah testifies that she was raped. College student Kenneth Joyce (Bernie Coulson), a friend of one of the rapists, testifies to watching the rape before he made a 911 call to notify police. After Kathryn Murphy's closing statement and a single summation from the three defense lawyers, the jury deliberates for a long time. They ask several times for Joyce's testimony to be reread to them.
In the end, the jury convicts the three defendants. As the trial provides testimony and evidence that the men raped Sarah, the three men already serving prison time for reckless endangerment are unlikely to be granted early parole. They will likely have to register as sex offenders for many years afterwards.Jodie Foster as Sarah TobiasKelly McGillis as Assistant District Attorney Kathryn MurphyBernie Coulson as Kenneth JoyceLeo Rossi as Cliff "Scorpion" AlbrectAnn Hearn as Sally FraserCarmen Argenziano as District Attorney Paul RudolphSteve Antin as Bob JoinerTom O'Brien as LarryPeter Van Norden as Attorney PaulsenTerry David Mulligan as Lieutenant DuncanWoody Brown as DannyTom Heaton as JesseAndrew Kavadas as Defendant Matt HainesScott Paulin as Attorney Ben WainwrightTom McBeath as Defendant Stu HollowayKim Kondrashoff as Kurt"I'm Talking Love" by Vanessa Anderson"At This Moment" by Billy Vera & The Beaters"Kiss of Fire" by James Harman"Love to the Limit" by Only Child"Love in Return" by Gina Schock"Middle of Nowhere" Gina Schock and Vance DeGeneres"Walk in My Sleep" by House of Schock"Mojo Boogie" by Johnny Winter
The film grossed a total of $32,078,318.
Writing of the two criminal prosecutions in the film, Roger Ebert finds that the lesson of the trial "may be the most important message this movie has to offer...that verbal sexual harassment, whether crudely in a saloon back room or subtly in an everyday situation, is a form of violence - one that leaves no visible marks but can make its victims feel unable to move freely and casually in society. It is a form of imprisonment."
The film was nominated for the Golden Bear at the 39th Berlin International Film Festival in 1989.
Jodie Foster won an Academy Award as Best Actress for her performance; the film received no other nominations for Academy Awards. It was the first time this had occurred since 1961, when Sophia Loren won Best Actress for her performance in Two Women.
Since The Accused, there have been other instances in which female leads have won Academy Awards for Best Actress in films that did not receive other nominations: Kathy Bates for Misery (in which she plays a psychotic, obsessed fan holding the object of her affection hostage); Jessica Lange for Blue Sky (in which she portrays a housewife living with bipolar disorder); Charlize Theron for Monster (in which she portrays a serial killer who attacks men); and Julianne Moore for Still Alice (in which she portrays a woman with Alzheimer's disease).
Marjorie Heins, in the 1998 book The V-Chip Debate: Content Filtering from Television to the Internet, said that educators worried that the film would "receive V ratings and be subject to at least a presumption against curricular use in many public schools."
Kelly McGillis acknowledged at the time of film release that she had survived an attack and rape. Based on her experience, the actress took the role of the fictional Assistant District Attorney Murphy in the film. McGillis was initially recruited to play the role of Sarah Tobias (the assault victim) but declined, citing her personal experience.
In 1982, McGillis was assaulted, raped, and robbed in her home by Leroy Johnson, a sex offender who had recently escaped from juvenile jail, and his adult accomplice.