Thursday, July 14, 2011

Turning a "Corner"

Jodie Foster, non-exceptionalist 

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 is not really a historical filmmaker. Yes, over the course of making some forty odd movies, she’s made a few set in the past. But most of those take place in her lifetime (perhaps not surprisingly, the 1960s are well represented). Of those that handful which be considered genuinely historical dramas, the most important are French, like the 1984 World War II Claude Chabrol production The Lives of Others, or the beautifully made, yet graphically realistic, 2003 film A Very Engagement, an Audrey Toutou vehicle in which Foster has a small but compelling part as a Polish woman who becomes unwillingly enmeshed in a tragic love triangle between two soldiers on the Western front. Even her most prominent U.S. historical drama, Sommersby (1993), has French origins as a transposed version of the 1982 classic The Return of Martin Guerre, moved from the sixteenth century Basque countryside to the nineteenth century Reconstruction South. Among Foster’s first post-collegiate releases – one that marked an early foray into the role of producer – was Mesmerized (1986), based on a real-life 1882 New Zealand case in which Foster plays an emotionally abused orphan-turned adolescent bride acquitted of murdering the her sexually deviant husband (John Lithgow), which she actually does by hypnotizing him into drinking poison.  Shot in New Zealand while she was still at Yale and given the alternative title My Letter to George, it was not a particularly impressive piece of filmmaking (I think of it The Little Girl Who Lives Down Under, albeit less satisfyingly gleeful in its villain getting his just desserts.)
But when thinking about these projects in the context of the movies Foster has made and set in the United States, there’s something real implicitly embedded in her choices as they reflect her vision of American history: She’s an anti-exceptionalist. There are bad people everywhere, and bad things happen to good people at all times. Not even the land of the free and the home of brave is exempt from the capricious – or not so capricious – hand of fate. What’s particularly striking about his message is that it surfaces in movies set during periods that are often viewed as moments of hope, even optimism, like the sixties (1860s no less than 1960s).
One can see the outlines of this vision emerging in the one true prestige project Foster undertook at Yale, Tony Richardson’s The Hotel New Hampshire (1984), based on the 1981 novel by John Irving. As a number of observers have noted, the movie, a weird hybrid of Hollywood farce and European art-house drama, falls flat somewhere between the two. (I’d also place some of the blame on the source material, as John Irving’s fiction always seems stuffed with too high a quotient of zany characters and improbable scenarios.) Foster plays Franny Berry, the oldest daughter in a large family whose parents met in Vienna in World War II and later open a New England inn.  But the father’s true American Dream of success is going back to Vienna where he opens a financially wobbly hotel (hence the title). Over the course of the story, Franny will endure rape at the hands of a classmate (Matthew Modine), resist the incestuous entreaties of her brother (Rob Lowe), be held hostage with the rest of the family by Marxist terrorists (among them Modine in another role and Amanda Plummer), and grapple with the tragedy of a suicidal sister who happens to be a dwarf as well as a gifted writer. If ever there was a role written to appeal to Foster’s imagination, this surely was it. Indeed, it’s a virtual compendium of the scenarios in which she’d appear for the next thirty years.
A more compelling variation on Foster’s sensibility is a much more modest project, Five Corners (1988), written the emerging playwright John Patrick Shanley, who would go on to write Joe and the Volcano for Tom Hanks before finding major commercial success with Moonstruck (1987) and the stage and screen versions Doubt (2004/8). Though not autobiographical in any strict sense, Five Corners, set in the Bronx of 1964, is vivid with a strong sense of local color. That color, however, is dark: this is not the sixties of the Beach Boys or the rising tide of the Civil Rights movement, but one of rising urban crime and national backlash hinted at in background television sets that broadcast information about Barry Goldwater and the murder of Civil Rights workers. Early in the film, which also features Tim Robbins and John Turturro on the cusp of their commercial breakthroughs, a high school teacher is killed when an arrow pierces his back, a work of random violence that helps establish a tone of mordant humor. We also see the threatening figure of Heinz (John Turturro), a psychopath recently released from prison, who bullies the owners of a Jewish delicatessen. Now that he’s back, he wants to resume his pursuit of Linda (Foster), a pet store clerk who was only rescued from an earlier rape attempt by Heinz with the intervention of her friend Harry (Robbins), who has since become a convert to non-violence by the example of Martin Luther King, Jr. Linda has a boyfriend (Todd Graff) who wants to protect her, but it’s clear that he will not be a match for Heinz. When Heinz summons Linda, she feels she has no choice but to meet him, and is subjected to his brutality in the form his frustration over her lack of enthusiasm for the gift of two penguins (stolen from the Bronz Zoo). Heinz, who will go on to show himself capable of decidedly more hideous violence, knocks Linda unconscious, and takes prisoner King Kong style. Her boyfriend, Harry, and the police frantically track them to the roof of an apartment building in which Linda is literally rests on the edge of death. Nominally, the movie has a happy ending, but Linda is saved neither by any of these men, but rather another random act of violence in the form of one of those arrows. A strangely quirky yet compelling movie, Five Corners has an indy sensibility (it was made by George Harrison’s company, Handmade Films, and features the Beatles song, “In My Life,” on the soundtrack) that anticipated the breakthrough of the movement the following year with Steven Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies and Videotape.
From one standpoint, it seems bizarre that Foster would choose to make a film about a crazed stalker. It seems even more bizarre that she would claim not to have realized she’d done so until the film began shooting. When the subject came up, as it did repeatedly, she reacted with irritation. “I took this film because it’s the best screenplay I’ve read in a long time,” she said at the time. “It has a very strong narrative – it’s realistic as well as mythic and is about an era that interests me. I’m not of the school where I look for juicy parts, and I don’t do films because psychologically I could learn something about myself or because the character is something I always wanted to play. A lot of people do, but that doesn’t interest me as much as doing a good book. I look for good films.”
Fair enough. But such a response begs the inevitably subjective question about what makes a screenplay “best” or “good,” and here it does not defy logic to believe that Foster defines it in such a way that might also allow her to work through her experience and exorcise it artistically. Still, even if one accepts such a premise, it’s clear her tastes run broader than refracted autobiography. Yet even so, a grim subtext was apparent even in presumably more upbeat stories. Foster followed Five Corners with Stealing Home (1988), a much more conventional Hollywood story in which a lost soul and former baseball player (Mark Harmon) is inspired by the memories of his childhood babysitter, played by Foster. But these memories are prompted by her suicide, which is disclosed early in the story. Foster is credible as a wild spirit and source of adolescent fantasy, but Stealing Home is marred by its clichéd plot and the lack of a credible reason why her character would kill herself.
Again, though, she was still at a stage where she could not afford to be picky. And one, moreover, that she would have to fight hard and even create any opportunities that might come her way. Foster’s third film of 1988, The Accused, was her breakthrough. But it was a movie in which she got the lead only after more prominent actors turned it down, and was forced to audition for the part, something not usually required of an established actor.
The Accused is based on the true story of Cheryl Araujo, a waitress from New Bedford, Massachusetts, who was gang-raped at a local bar in 1983. What was important about the case was not simply that it became a local media circus in which Araujo’s identity and character became matters of public discussion, but that two men were convicted for their role in inciting the rape along with two who actually committed it (two others were acquitted). Besides a relatively trivial change of venue to the Washington state, the movie significantly changes the facts of the case by stripping its ethnic dimension: those tried for the crime were Portuguese immigrants, leading to charges of bias, despite the fact that the victim was Portuguese as well. Instead, the movie inserts college students into the largely working-class mob, simplifying the ethnic politics and replacing it with a more straightforward story of gender violation reinforced by white privilege.  While this seems politically dishonest, it’s also probably the only way an already difficult movie could have ever been made.
That said, The Accused does challenge its audience by giving it a relatively unsympathetic protagonist. Foster would win her first Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance as Sarah Tobias, a hard-bitten working-class woman whose evident appetite for sex and alcohol made her case a difficult one even for the zealous prosecutor played by Kelly McGillis (herself a rape victim) to press. Indeed, Tobias’s behavior in the movie appears to have been more provocative than that of Araujo. McGillis’s character nevertheless drives a hard bargain and cuts a relatively stiff plea deal with the lawyers of the rapists, but Tobias reacts with outrage: she wanted her day in court, and would endure any backlash to get it. This leads McGillis to prosecute the secondary figures for incitement, despite her (male) boss’s resistance, culminating the victim’s testimony in open court.  Foster’s performance is compelling not simply for the profile in courage of her protagonist but also – and this would increasingly become a theme of her career – her ability to convey the terror of women facing brutal treatment, physical and otherwise. While one must be careful not to conflate the agony of Cheryl Araujo (who died a few years after her ordeal in a car crash) with that of the woman who portrayed her, there’s little question that the graphic rape scene in the movie was a serious personal trial. The decision to do it was a professional triumph, to be sure, but also one of solidarity with a victim and one important for calling attention to serious issues of public policy.

The Accused was an important personal milestone for Foster, and as an entrant into the elite club of Oscar winners, put her in the catbird seat for her next role. Characteristically, she did not cash in this chit by seeking a commercial payday, but instead by deciding to take a leading role in the next movie by Dennis Hopper, a Hollywood legend for behavior no less than directing movies like Easy Rider (1969). It would prove to be a move she regretted, as Hopper lived up to his difficult reputation and was never able to complete the film, titled Catchfire (1990), in a form to be exhibited in theaters. It was later issued in DVD as Backtrack (1994). In the movie Foster plays an artist who witnesses a murder that leads the criminals involved to hire Hopper as a hitman to rub her out.  But he falls in love with his prey, and she ultimately with him. It’s surprisingly high concept fare for a man who was always known for pushing the envelope – a weird array of actors from Bob Dylan to Vincent Price make cameo appearances – and the movie was competently executed (notable in particular for its use of Southwestern landscapes). But it was at best unremarkable film, if still one in keeping with Foster’s penchant for choosing roles in which characters find themselves in dangerous situations for reasons not of their choosing.
In her next role, however, Foster would play someone who did find herself in a dangerous situation of her choosing. And in so doing achieved durable greatness.

Next: Facing Hannibal Lecter