Monday, July 11, 2011

New Haven blues

Jodie Foster faced a series of challenges during her Yale years, but emerged with a mature artistic vision that would shape her career

The following is part of an ongoing series about Jodie Foster's vision of U.S. history specifically, and Hollywood actors as historians generally.

Jodie Foster turned 18 years old in the fall of 1980. This is a treacherous time in the life of a child actor, one of difficult currents from which many never emerge, whether by choice or not. Foster was well aware of the uncertainties, if for other reason than her brother Buddy’s career. Such considerations, along with a genuinely academic bent, were surely part of the reason why she accepted an offer from admission to Yale. This is not as unorthodox choice now as it was back then, which People magazine described as “the most startling career move since Garbo chose exile.” In an industry where momentum is nearly everything, she was sailing into uncharted waters.
By all accounts, Foster cherishes her Yale education, where she proved to be an adept student and a loyal alumna. But it proved to be a very difficult time in other respects. Foster never gave up her acting career entirely, squeezing screen work into compartmentalized slots like summers. But the material she got – like a supporting role in the 1982 television movie O’Hara’s Wife, with Ed Asner and Mariette Hartley; a more prominent one the following year with Svengali, where she played a muse (onscreen and off, apparently) for the rakishly charming Peter O’Toole – suggested the bobbing of an actor trying to stay afloat rather than a star charting her way. This began to change in her final upperclassman years, when she began doing more high-profile film work. But she was nevertheless waging an uphill battle in terms of forging an adult career.
The biggest challenge Foster faced, however, was the enormous shadow cast over her life by John Hinckley, Jr., a troubled young man from a well-to-do family who developed an obsession with Foster. In some ways still a child, she naïvely tried to parry his advances by phone and letter by taking his calls and trying to dissuade him from pursuing her (he went to New Haven on a few occasions, but the two never met face to face). A warped devotee of Taxi Driver, Hinckley convinced himself he could impress Foster by acting like Travis Bickle and attempting to kill the president – he tried first with Jimmy Carter in 1980 before settling on Ronald Reagan in March of 1981. In the aftermath of the unsuccessful attempt, Foster was unwittingly sucked into the vortex of unwanted attention, which she tried to manage by holding a single press conference, and writing a single essay, which she insisted not be a cover story, for Esquire magazine in 1982 (an anguished cri de coeur, she nevertheless managed to maintain a wry sense of humor, concluding the piece with an expectation that a stranger would one day come up to her and ask, “Ain’t you the girl who shot the president?”). For many years, the incident was something of a forbidden subject; Foster canceled an appearance on the Today show in 1991 when she learned Hinckley’s name would be mentioned in the introduction. In recent years, however, she has referenced it, freely if briefly, without obvious trauma.
 It’s hard for anyone who hasn’t experienced this kind of bizarre notoriety to gauge the adversity it imposed. Foster, of course, was not responsible for what happened, and indeed had been a victim of Hinckley’s long before Ronald Reagan was. Still, it would appear to be in the nature of such situations that people feel forced reflect on what they could possibly have done to attract such attention. But to focus on Hinckley is to some degree to miss the real ordeal Foster faced – and to overlook the bona fide courage she has shown in the decades since.
The first indication that her ordeal was not over came within days. Appearing in an undergraduate play – a challenge in its own right, as she has never been comfortable on stage and has never done live theater since – Foster was stalked again, this time by a man who planned to kill her. Though he could not bring himself to do it, he nevertheless later issued a bomb threat on her dormitory, forcing its evacuation, before he was apprehended by Secret Service agents in New York. In subsequent years, Foster repeatedly would face similar threats – three years later, it was a woman who got arrested for plotting to kill her – along with encounters with flash photographers that ranged from annoying to frightening (one precipitating a broken clavicle). She would also require a fairly elaborate infrastructure, human and otherwise, to ensure her security.
Still, Foster refused to let this ordeal prevent her from proceeding from her acting career. That in itself is not something one should take for granted; it’s easy to imagine another person in similar circumstances suffering some kind of breakdown or simply deciding to retreat from the public eye. But beyond that, Foster has repeatedly chosen to work on movies in which her characters are preyed upon by people with malicious intent. As I’ve already documented, it would be simply inaccurate to suggest that such choices can be explained entirely in terms of her personal experience; before 1981, at least, they reflected a combination of factors that include the opportunities she was offered and her mother’s guidance – and, one would have to assume, her own wishes. But it is nevertheless striking to consider how often her post-1981 movies involve people confronting and overcoming such challenges, including those posed by stalkers (to be discussed in more detail shortly).
While he should not be considered the final or even most authoritative judge of the matter, it’s easy to believe Buddy Foster’s assertion that the Hinckley affair changed his sister, making her a much more guarded figure. That would seem to extend to Foster lending her name to political causes. Much to the consternation of gays and lesbians, for example, she has refused to discuss her romantic life (which, on the basis of what I’ve seen, appears to be bisexual). In the tense atmosphere surrounding homosexuality in the 1980s and 90s, this was seen by some as a damagingly closeted stance. And while in thought, speech, and action Foster is clearly a feminist filmmaker, she seems to deploy the term more descriptively than ideologically, casting her vision more in terms of art, not politics. Many eyebrows were raised in 2010-11 when Foster stood resolutely by Mel Gibson, her co-star in The Beaver (2011), who enjoyed little good will in Hollywood even before he faced domestic violence charges against his companion, later dropped. In interviews Foster would skillfully allude to Gibson's bad behavior while insisting on a redemptive integrity. More generally, it seems Foster has a special sympathy for those in scalding glare of publicity. In his 2011 memoir Stories I Only Tell My Friends, actor Rob Lowe writes that Foster was one of the few people who reached out to him when media reports of his addiction made headlines in the 1990s.
Indeed, one might generally say that for Foster, the personal transcends the political: ideas matter less than relationships. To paraphrase the classic post-boomer line by young women that drives older women crazy, “She is a feminist, but . . .” That’s not necessarily because ideas are unappealing, or even unimportant.  Actually, by most reckonings, Foster is among the most cerebral figures in Hollywood. But at the core of her view of the world, there will always be powerful people – usually men, who tyrannize other men as well as women – who will stand in the way of collective aspiration. For the most part, they must be confronted alone. Now and then.

Next: Toward The Accused, and her first Oscar