Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Reconstructing Jodie

Foster followed Silence of the Lambs with a series of projects that widened her range.

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

Jodie Foster came out of the post-Silence of the Lambs gate with Little Man Tate (1991), her directorial debut. Although it’s namesake is a precocious, Salingeresque little boy (Adam Hann-Byrd), in a screenplay written by Scott Frank (a newcomer at the time who went on to have a successful career), it’s not hard to see an oblique autobiographical subtext this story about a brilliant child and the tug-of-war he engenders between two powerful women. Foster plays Dede Tate, working-class mother of the seven year-old Fred, who loves him fiercely but lacks the resources, intellectual and otherwise, to develop his prodigious talents. Enter Jane Grierson (Dianne Wiest), who runs an institute for gifted children, but shows startling deficits in nurturing them. It is to Foster’s credit that she chose to tell this notably fair-minded story, which shows sensitivity to some of its specifically gendered dimensions (Harry Connick Jr. does nicely in a brief role that shows the possibilities and limits of male role models for the boy). Little Man Tate is also a hopeful movie in that it suggests that conflicts between adults over children may actually contribute positively to their development when those adults come to realize the important, if incomplete, roles they can have in the life of children. (In this regard, Little Man Tate is a bit like Denzel Washington’s The Great Debaters, a film in which an argument between two men helps forge the strong character of a Civil Rights leader.)
Foster followed Little Man Tate with a bit part in Woody Allen’s Shadows and Fog (1992) one of the better-realized projects of that prolific director. Shadows is Kafkaesque fable set in an unnamed city—think New York or London in the second quarter of the twentieth century—about a man (Allen) ordered to find a serial killer abroad on a foggy night. Mia Farrow plays a circus performer angry with her unfaithful companion (John Malkovich) who finds herself in a whorehouse whose employees include a genial prostitute played by Foster. “There’s only one thing men will brave murder for,” she says in a moment of wry levity with her companions. “The little furry animal between our legs.” Though thoroughly gothic in its black-and-white cinematography, the movie has an upbeat ending that gets about as close as Foster ever does to buoyancy in her movies.

Her next project, Sommersby, is really the only one in the Foster Hollywood canon that can truly be said to be a historical epic. Given its French source material, it’s a bit surprising that co-star, Richard Gere was executive producer, though he probably had more money and clout than the Francophile Foster did at the time. Sommersby is based on the life of Martin Guerre, a sixteenth century man who became a source of folklore in French life and culture. Guerre, who hailed from the Basque country, left his wife to fight for the Spanish Habsburg King Philip V, in a Europe wracked by religious conflict (Spain of course was arch-Catholic; Guerre hailed from a region with strong Calivinist tendencies.)  Years later, the returning soldier resumed his place in his village. But suspicions grew that he was an imposter, and those suspicions grew substantially when the real Martin Guerre returned and claimed he had been robbed of his identity by a man who was really Arnaud du Tilh, nicknamed Pansette (“belly”). Pansette was eventually tried, convicted and executed. A 1982 cinematic version of this story, starring Gérard Depardieu, was co-written by Princeton historian Natalie Zemon Davis, who later published the definitive scholarly account of the tale.[1] The inspired conceit of Sommersby involved taking a different period of intense warfare and ideological conflict—the American Civil War—and telling an analogous story rooted in local events and relationships.

Though nominally a conventional romance—the only one Foster ever made—it’s not hard so see how Sommersby held appeal for her beyond simply establishing her as a leading lady. Though presumably a struggle over identity between two men, it’s really the woman—Bertrande du Rols in life, Laurel Sommersby in the movie—who functions as the keystone of the story. It strains credulity to believe that du Rols failed to recognize that that the returning soldier was not her husband, but this was nevertheless her stance as long as she could possibly maintain it, largely because her actual marriage was an unhappy one (partly the result of Guerre’s impotence, which brought their union to the brink of annulment before his departure).

Sommersby feels compelled to stack its deck beyond simply having dreamboat Gere as the fraudulent title character by having him champion agricultural self-sufficiency for poor farmers and having an almost laughably enlightened view of race relations in the Reconstruction South. Yet there is a modicum of historical truth in his trial being presided over by a black judge (James Earl Jones), for the story is set in that brief interregnum between slavery and the imposition of a segregated Jim Crow regime. In one of his many fine performances, Jones manages to both endow his character with dignity and an implicit recognition of how fragile it is. Which really goes to the heart of one of the most important meanings of the Martin Guerre saga: that in times of social upheaval, it becomes tantalizingly possible to plausibly imagine a different, better personal life.

No one makes this point better than Foster, who manages to convey it solely on the basis of her facial expressions at the start of the movie. We first see her tilling the family field, accompanied by another farmer (the ever-game second fiddle, Bill Pullman), who is in love with her. Informed that her husband has returned from the war, she runs to the house, grabs her son and goes inside to watch his approach with an excited crowd. Obviously guarded—is it because she’s unhappy to see him or knows he’s an imposter?—the two go out to the front steps, awaiting the veteran’s approach. “Go say hello to your daddy,” she finally says to her son, clearly too young to really remember his father, and we sense she’s playing for time, not ready to embrace the man or call him a fraud. But he’s playing his part to the hilt; “I’d forgotten how beautiful you are,” he says, taking the hands that she had just been rubbing nervously. Foster’s faint half-smile seems to suggest amusement with the performance, but after she closes her eyes and two embrace, she opens them briefly, suggesting nervousness about where this ruse is headed.

Mrs. Sommersby nevertheless proves skillful in parrying her “husband’s” advances, “reminding” him that they had not been sleeping together at the time of his departure and would not now, either. Over time, of course, the two fall in love; the great irony of Gere’s character is that his identity theft cannot disguise his irrepressible optimism and sincere generosity. The couple’s happiness is ineluctably temporary, but no less precious for that. The thin but heartfelt smile Foster renders as she watches Sommersby on the scaffold at the end of the movie suggests a joy that not even his death can take away, and the final image of the movie, of black men repairing the steeple on a damaged church, suggests that such small islands of hope become the basis of new and better worlds.