The following post is part of an ongoing series on Jodie Foster specifically and Hollywood actors as historians generally.
By the second half of the seventies, it was increasingly clear to those in the business that Jodie Foster was more than just a novelty act. Her emerging persona – bright, confident, impatient with the strictures of traditional authority – was perfect for the post-sixties zeitgeist. “It was just at the beginning of women’s liberation, and she kind of personified that in a child,” Brandy Foster recalled in 1988. “She had a strength and uncoquettishness. Maybe it comes from being raised without a father to say ‘Turn around and show Daddy how pretty you look.’” That last line is arguably self-serving – plenty of fathers are happy enough with tomboys, or at any rate wish for more than daughters who look good in a dress – but the elder Foster was surely right that the her daughter’s unselfconscious demeanor would have been filtered widely through an ideological lens in ways that worked in her favor.
One of the first people to recognize this was Martin Scorsese, himself at the beginning of one of the legendary careers in cinematic history. Scorsese cast Foster in a small part as a tough-minded tomboy who befriends Ellen Burstyn’s son (played by Alfred Lutter III) in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974). Foster has only two scenes, one of which involves faking an injury as part of goading Lutter’s character into an act of shoplifting, but she’s a compelling presence, just as she was in real life. “Jodie just walked into our office on the Burbank lot, and she had total command,” Scorsese later remembered. “A total professional, especially at the age of twelve, is totally reassuring.” Kris Kristofferson, who starred in the film, was also impressed. “She came right up and shook my hand, all business,” he said in the commentary that accompanied the DVD release of the film. “She wasn’t like a little girl at all.” This poise allowed her to win an important part in the early Alan Parker movie Bugsy Malone (1976), a mock gangster musical with an all-child cast.
But the turning point in Foster’s career as an actor – and a landmark in providing a durable touchstone for her preoccupations as an artist – was her second Scorsese project, Taxi Driver (1976). A signature document in the emergence of independent cinema in the 1970s, the film tells the story of Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro), a deeply troubled Vietnam vet-turned cabbie who takes a shine to, and is spurned by, a beautiful young woman (Cybill Shepherd) who works at the Times Square office of a slick but inane presidential candidate. In his extreme emotional isolation, Bickle becomes increasingly paranoid and determined to do something significant, which we gradually sense may be an assassination attempt on the candidate. But Bickle accidentally encounters a child prostitute named Iris (Foster) and begins an effort to rescue her from her pimp, Sport (Harvey Keitel). The movie has a conclusion of legendary violence – and irony.
This is not a film many mothers would let their children see, much less perform. But there’s little indication that Brandy Foster had reservations about the twelve year-old Jodie acting in Taxi Driver. Foster herself was eager to take the part; clearly the recipient of a cosmopolitan upbringing, she was already a foreign film aficionado and understood this was more than just another acting job. Child welfare authorities in California, however, were not so sure this was a good idea. Only after an evaluation by a UCLA psychiatrist (who reported that Foster had a very high IQ) and the intercession of former California governor Edmund “Pat” Brown (father of the current governor) was she permitted to proceed with the role. As anyone familiar with the story knows – and pretty much everybody over the age of about 40 does – Foster did indeed end up paying a heavy psychic price for playing Iris, though not for a reason easily foreseeable at the time.
Still, Foster has repeatedly and consistently described her experience working on the film as one of the highlights of her career. “When I did Taxi Driver, it was like the first time I ever did a role that was a little out of character,” she told the Los Angeles Times in 1981. “I felt like I had accomplished something.” She repeatedly affirmed the importance of working on the film many times in the decades since, perhaps most succinctly in a 2007 interview with Entertainment Weekly: “Taxi Driver was the best thing that ever happened to me.”
A big part of the reason why was tutoring she received at the hands of De Niro, whose advice – and example – transformed acting from a lark into a vocation. Their major scene together, which takes place in a diner, is truly extraordinary and worthy of the Academy Award nomination Foster garnered, whatever her age. She glides seamlessly from worldly adolescent (“Didn’t you ever hear of women’s lib?” she asks, pouring sugar on top of toast with jelly, in sarcastic reply to the suggestion that she belongs at home) to naïve teenager (she rejects Bickle’s suggestion that Sport is a killer with the assertion that he’s not because he’s a Libra, “which is why we get along so well”). But every once in a while, Bickle says something to her in the form of concern for her welfare, and her face, partially hidden by absurd green sunglasses, momentarily but unmistakably stricken. Just there are a couple times in their scenes together where Bickle is about to give up and she tugs on her sleeve or reaches out in a way that reveals the child beneath the tough exterior, which makes her subsequent scene with Sport, who smoothly reassures her with effortless lies, all the more appalling.
Indeed, if one makes the slightly unorthodox move of viewing Taxi Driver from the point of view of Iris (whose very name suggests both vision and flowering, or culmination), we see that amid is nihilistic vision of politics and seemingly antiheroic protagonist, it is a movie with a moral vision. In part, that’s because there’s a real villain in it: Sport. Travis Bickle is clearly a very troubled man, and his destructive impulses, which are as likely to turn inward as outward, pull him in some very dangerous directions. But however awkwardly expressed, or mingled with other imperatives, there’s something altruistic about his desire to rescue Iris. But there’s nothing redemptive about Sport: he lies and exploits Iris all the more mercilessly because his mild veneer and emotional manipulation make overt violence unnecessary (and because he’s obsessively guarded in dealing with his customers). Screenwriter Paul Schrader, who comes out of the Dutch Reformed Church, has a self-conscious theological vision that he often brings to his work, most obvious in the complicated relationship between Jesus and Judas in his 1988 screenplay The Last Temptation of Christ (also directed by Scorsese). For our purposes, the important thing to note that while Taxi Driver in some ways seems to reflect a vaguely leftist, relativistic, countercultural critique of American life common in the films of the 1970s, it is animated by a powerful vision of evil – atavistic, unexplained, palpable evil – that suffuses the city like the vapor rising up into the street in its unforgettable establishing shot at the start of the movie. It corrupts Iris; it shadows Travis. But it saturates Sport, and explodes in the climax of the movie. Though it lacks any formal theological or philosophical framework, this notion of implacable, unexplained malice will ultimately become a fixture of Jodie Foster’s body of work, a vector presses down on most of her films and which gives many of them the melancholic weight that has always made her a bit unusual even as she went on to become an artist who would operate in the heart of the Hollywood mainstream.
Next: Foster's adolescent career