Thursday, June 16, 2011

Star aborning

Jodie Foster, child prodigy

The following post is part of an ongoing series on Jodie Foster specifically and Hollywood actors as historians generally.

Movie stars are a bit like star quarterbacks in the National Football League: it’s very hard to tell ahead of time who they’re going to be. Lots of quarterbacks start early, and show real promise. But sports lore is full of first-round draft picks who disappoint, and virtual afterthoughts who get a chance and unexpectedly set the league on fire. Late blooming of the Kurt Warner or Tom Brady variety is proverbial. Yes, there are the prodigious Elways and Mannings, too. But they’re maddeningly elusive.
Similarly, when you look at the background of an Eastwood, a Washington, or a Hanks, you typically see signs of talent, or at any rate, distinctive elements of character that retroactively get written as premonitions. But they’re rarely at the forefront of their peers. Many show early interest in their craft, and real promise. Then again, so do a lot of people.  When I was in high school, I thought my classmate Edie Falco was truly lovely, and a good actor, too (I had a moment of glory with her in my high school musical production of My Fair Lady.) But she was only one member of the thespian crowd, and not the person I predicted would end up more famous than any of us.  I’m delighted. But I’m also surprised, notwithstanding her outstanding work in The Sopranos and beyond.
Actually, there’s real reason to think that early success is more a liability than an asset, whether because of burnout or simply because what’s cute in a child does not necessarily carry over into adolescence, much less adulthood. Again, there are exceptions – Mickey Rooney and Drew Barrymore come to mind. But most child actors end up like Buddy Foster of Mayberry R.F.D. (1968-71): they get attention in commercials, move on to bona fide celebrity in television and/or films, and are largely finished with show business with the onset of puberty.
Foster’s kid sister, however, turned out to be a different story. A child of Hollywood in a literal as well as figurative sense, she bucked the odds to have a half-century long career. Actually, it’s a little shocking to realize that her collaborators stretch from the grande dame of the theater, Helen Hayes, born in 1900, through screen legends like Michael and Robert De Niro, all the way to Kristen Stewart, born in 1990. Not yet fifty, Jodie Foster is already a grande dame herself.
Yet her pedigreed background, real as it is, was marked, as many such backgrounds are, by early struggle and subsequent setbacks. She was born Alicia Christian Foster on November 19, 1962, in Los Angeles, the youngest of four children of Evelyn “Brandy” Foster (nee Almond) and Lucius Fisher Foster III, a former Air Force Officer turned real estate broker. The Foster ancestry can be traced back to the famed Pilgrim John Alden, reputedly the first man to step off the Mayflower in 1620.] Lucius, like his daughter, is a graduate of Yale.
But the most salient fact about Foster’s father is his absence from her life. Her parents’ contentious marriage was over before she was born, and there is little indication that they ever had a functional relationship. Instead, her second surrogate parent appears to have been her mother’s companion, Josephine Dominguez Hill (1930-1984), who was known as “Aunt Jo,” and whose bowdlerized moniker, “Jo-D,” became Foster’s nickname.
But the driving force in her life, without question, was Brandy. Driven, controlling, and forced by her divorce to improvise financially, she networked her son into commercials and television, where he became the family breadwinner to the impressive sum of $25,000 a year. Brandy was his manager, professionally supervising his career and actively seeking to expand it.
But it rapidly became apparent that the future lay with Jodie. Walking at six months, talking at nine, she had apparently taught herself to read by the age of three. After finishing a local elementary school, Brandy enrolled her in the prestigious Lycée Français in Los Angeles, where Foster rapidly became fluent in French. (She served as Robert De Niro’s translator at the Paris press conference for Taxi Driver in 1976, has made French films, and dubs her own movies to this day.) Although actors are not typically particularly gifted or committed students academically, Foster also demonstrated uncanny ability at managing her time despite her manifold professional commitments, all the way through a Yale career that culminated in an honors thesis on the fiction of Toni Morrison. At one point in her life she seriously considered pursuing a doctorate in literature.
The important thing, though, were her prodigious skills as an actor – among them an ability to memorize lines rapidly – which emerged a very early age. In what remains a kind of pop culture folklore, Foster became the so-called “Coppertone Girl” in advertisements for the tanning cream, though she’s mistakenly considered the inspiration for the iconic illustration of the child whose bikini bottom is tugged on by a dog in print ads rather than the toddler who appeared in the television commercial of 1965. (Asked her name by a casting agent, she reputedly responded “Alexander the Great.”) Over the course of the next few years, she became a staple of the advertising business, appearing in 50 commercials by he time she was ten.I was stunned to come across her doing a 1971 GAF Viewmaster commercial with Henry Fonda (!), in which Fonda, in grandfatherly mode, chats with a few kids precious kids about the virtues of this newfangled toy. Each child has something precocious to say – “extremely interesting,” says one; “the three-dimensional color pictures are extraordinary,” says another – culminating in Foster’s line, delivered with preternatural off-handedness: “I always considered the GAF Viewmaster an ingenious device of great educational value.” (“Gee, I always thought it was just a lot of fun,” Fonda concludes.) Even here, her acting chops were apparent, head and shoulders above her peers.
The commercial work led to a string of appearances in now-forgotten TV shows -- The Doris Day Show in 1969, Kung Fu in 1973 – along with others of somewhat more significance, like Julia, starring Diahann Carroll, notable in the history of television as the first show with an African American lead actor (Foster appears in a 1969 episode and arguably does a better job than the actor cast as her father). It also led to what might be termed an apprenticeship with Disney studios in which Foster was cast in a series of supporting roles: as the junior partner of Johnny Whitaker in Napoleon and Samantha (1972, featuring a very young Michael Douglas); as Becky to Whitaker’s Tom Sawyer in a halfway decent production of Tom Sawyer (1973); and as the daughter of Vera Miles in the 1973 western One Little Indian, starring James Garner (who would team up with Foster 21 years later in a movie version of the old TV show Maverick). Foster also made an appearance as the daughter of Raquel Welch in the 1972 roller derby movie Kansas City Bomber.  Her primary job in all these roles was to be cute, and her principal talent was largely a matter of the concentration and consistency necessary to literally and figuratively hit her mark in a professional setting. She also proved to be a trooper amid adversity, surviving a mauling at the paws of a lion during the filmmaking of Napoleon and Samantha.
But by the second half of the seventies, it was increasingly clear to those in the business that Foster had a distinctive character as an actor, and that 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.

Next: The breakthrough -- Taxi Driver