There is a scene in Jodie Foster’s new movie, Little Man Tate, that shows her stretched out on a windowsill, eating cherries. Her character, Dede, a single, working-class mother, is doing her best to pry a conversation out of her seven-year-old boy, Fred, a child prodigy who has his face buried in a thick book about mathematics. Between her lines, Foster spits out cherry stones. She does it with a cool, conscious insolence, as if she were firing at an unseen target. An insecure and undervalued mother, Dede is looking for a little attention. It is an exquisitely paced scene, evidence of Foster’s skills as an actress and a film-maker—the movie, which premiered last week at Toronto’s film festival, marks her directorial debut. As she spits outs cherry stones at precisely measured intervals, it is clear that she has a keen appreciation of control.
Jodie Foster has brought a new kind of heroism to the movies. She has made a career out of playing tough girls in trouble, workingclass women who refuse to be victims. And she makes hits out of films that defy Hollywood formulas. In 1989, Foster won the best actress Oscar for her harrowing performance as a rape victim in The Accused. Last spring, she crossed a new threshold in The Silence of the Lambs, as a nervous FBI rookie who coaxes secrets from a jailed psychopath and hunts down a serial killer. Silence became a box-office smash—and helped to dispel the myth that moviegoers will not pay to see women in aggressive leading roles. Now, with Little Man Tate, Foster has directed her first feature with remarkable finesse. And for the first time, the former child star is portraying a mother. “I think it’s probably the best performance I’ve given,” Foster told Maclean’s, because “it's a side of me that I’ve never allowed to show in a movie before.” Tough: At 28, Foster has already appeared in 26 movies. She has more experience than many actors twice her age. On screen, she tends to play cheeky heroines who spell out their autonomy in various shades of slang. Onstage at the Oscars two years ago, she gave one of the most lucid acceptance speeches in recent memory—and then appeared as a presenter last year in a breast-baring jacket that almost upstaged Madonna. Foster has shown that it is possible for a woman in Hollywood to be tough, feminist and sexy. She has learned the importance of calling her own shots. Her
Oscar, combined with the success of Silence, has made her bankable. “It has opened doors to projects that I normally wouldn’t be able to get off the ground,” she said.
The actress, who now owns her own movie development company, seems to have an unerring instinct for choosing good scripts. And in an industry where art is a thinly veiled metaphor for money, she invests her work with passionate ideals. “I’m very ambitious about what I want to change and what I want to accomplish,” she said. “I want to continue to do good stuff and challenge the status quo.”
Foster brings a redemptive quality to her characters, who tend to be mistreated and misunderstood. “They are characters who have been judged by the majority,” she said. “You know, a young waitress was there in a tight dress—‘Ah, she deserved to be raped.’ I play characters that are mouthy, that people like to slough off and say, ‘Oh, that’s somebody that I would never know.’ I like to make them know that person.” Added Foster: “What female actors, and certainly women in history, have to fight against is not so much the obvious things—victimization, etc.—but just being ignored. A real hero to me is a woman who has five kids and no money and takes care of them and survives. That’s a heroic feat.”
Joy: With her portrayal of a mother in Little Man Tate, Foster’s career has, in a sense, come full circle. The movie, due for release next month, is about a gifted boy who is a master mathematician, a brilliant pianist and an inspired painter, but has trouble enjoying the simple pleasures of growing up and fitting in. Although Foster was not a prodigy, she was precocious. By the age of 3, she was reading. And she kicked off her career that same year— with her pants pulled down in a Coppertone suntan lotion ad.
On the first day of shooting Little Man Tate—when she saw her eight-year-old costar, Adam Hann-Byrd, on the set—she flashed back to her first real television acting job more than 20 years ago. “I had to come out and say, ‘I am the good fairy,’ ” she recalled. “And I remember I saw my mom’s face and she kind of looked at me and I saw these tears welling in her eyes.”
Little Man Tate, a movie that invites tears of both sadness and joy, is about a boy stranded between two conflicting visions of motherhood. Dianne Wiest plays Jane, a child psychologist
who wants to tap Fred’s genius by placing him in competition with other gifted children. But while Jane works to harness his mind, she has no idea how to reach his heart. Foster, who has tended to play misfits, says that Fred could be anyone who feels left out. “Every kid at some point has felt that they were the one person who would never fit in,” she said. “But a mature mind ends up saying, ‘I don’t want to fit in; I just want to belong.’ ” Added Foster: “I’m not interested in being normal, because I didn’t have a normal life and probably never will.” Alicia Christian (Jodie) Foster grew up in Los Angeles, three blocks from Hollywood Boulevard. Her mother, Brandy, who still helps manage her career, worked in public relations. Her father, Lucius Foster, who is estranged from the family, divorced Brandy when Jodie, the youngest of four children, was just a few
months old. The family was not wealthy, but it “was definitely about culture and beauty,” Foster recalled. “I was raised in a house that was terra-cotta colored with Italian cypresses and perfect French tapestries and leatherbound books.”
Foster’s mother enrolled her in a program for gifted children, but transferred her to a French-immersion school by the fourth grade. Meanwhile, Jodie cultivated a childhood career on prime-time television. She had appeared in 50 episodes of various TV series by the age of 8, when she acted in her first movie, Napoleon and Samantha. At 13, she played a child prostitute in Taxi Driver, winning an Oscar nomination. Eight movies later, Foster retreated into a semblance of a normal life by attending Yale, where she earned a BA in literature. But in 1981, John Hinckley Jr.’s attempt to
assassinate President Ronald Reagan—which Hinckley said was meant to impress Foster— cruelly yanked her back into the spotlight. She exorcised her anger in a confessional essay written for Esquire. Since then, she has put the Hinckley incident behind her and refuses to discuss it. Foster, who is unmarried, is also loath to talk about her private life.
Gun: Despite the Hinckley trauma, Foster has portrayed victims of violent predators in four movies. She was raped in The Hotel New Hampshire (1984), cornered by a psychotic suitor in Five Corners (1988), gang-raped in The Accused and stalked by a psychotic in The Silence of the Lambs. But each time out, her character became stronger, until in Silence she finally struck back with a gun.
Foster says that she had to convince director Jonathan Demme to cast her in Silence. His
first choice was Michelle Pfeiffer, who turned him down. Orion Pictures, meanwhile, took a risk in casting her and making the movie, Foster maintained. “You have a female hero and seven-page dialogue scenes between two people where the camera doesn't move,” she said. “Now, if you’d made that film at Disney, they would have made the girl a boy, and then they would’ve taken out the dialogue and said, ‘Cut to the killer, man! This is a waste of time.’ ” Added Foster: “But if you take risks, you can actually change things. But you have to change them within the system.”
And one thing that she clearly wants to change is the image of women in the movies. She said that the success of features like The Silence of the Lambs and Thelma and Louise represents a critical advance. “It’s a business, a very expensive business. Once we have women heading a marquee, it’s very important for these movies to make money—otherwise it won’t happen again.”
Weird: Although Foster is deluged with scripts, she has trouble finding even one decent role a year. “Female roles are not written like human beings,” she added. “They’re written like stereotypes or functions of the plot. So instead of sitting around and waiting for it, I try to make it happen. I read every go-project [a script that has production money behind it]. I know everything that’s happening.”
Little Man Tate took on a personal significance for Foster. She says that she could not trust anyone else to direct it: “I felt that it would be mishandled in some weird way.” As an actress, Foster relies heavily on technical skills rather than becoming obsessed with her character. And as a director, she expected the same from her cast. “My method,” she said, “is to tell the S story. I don’t want the actress to kind of I get foam in her mouth. I want her to s know why we’re moving the camera in a certain way—to know all the pieces of the language that contribute to the performance.” In the end, she found directing easier than acting. “So much of acting is letting go of what you think and accommodating other people,” Foster explained. “And that, to me, is much more emotionally exhausting than directing. Being given all the information and having the ultimate voice is so much more relaxing.”
In Little Man Tate, she finally gets to exercise full responsibility, both on screen—as a mother—and offscreen, as a director. The two roles may not be far apart. “People who know me think I’m very maternal,” she said. “When I work, I always find somebody to take care of because it helps me cope.” A child of the movies, Jodie Foster is finally taking charge.
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