The following post is part of a series of on Jodie Foster specifically, and Hollywood actors generally, as historians.
Foster followed Sommersby with another historical movie, this one the comic western, Maverick (1994), based on the old TV series from the late fifties and early sixties that starred James Garner as the title character. This time Garner, who acted with Foster in One Little Indian, plays the father of that character, whose role is filled by Mel Gibson. Maverick was written by a past master, William Goldman, and it’s exceptionally deft in its light quick pace, and a series of plot twists that resemble a card trick, which is appropriate, since the plot concerns a set of poker-playing grifters. Foster plays Annabelle Bransford, a sexy con artist who keeps pace with a fast pack of players that also includes Alfred Molina as Gibson’s antagonist. Indeed, she wins the trump card in the final scene of the movie, a good-natured feminist ending for a movie that is by far the lightest of Foster’s career, and one that she has remembered with great affection ever since. It was during this movie that she befriended Mel Gibson, a man she cast, and stood beside, seventeen years later amid the publicity surrounding The Beaver.
Maverick was a popcorn flick; Foster’s other movie of 1994 was considerably more ambitious, and ranks among her best performances: the title role in Nell, for which she received her third academy award nomination. (In a bravura performance, Foster manages the arresting task of emptying her face of expression for much of the movie.) Though this was a pedigree project with major talent – including Liam Neeson, his wife Natasha Richardson, and the esteemed British director Michael Apted – Nell is a fairly predictable undertaking most notable for the way it once again manifest’s Foster’s emphasis on the malignant forces that subvert the designs of even the best intentioned people. Nell is the story of a young woman who has lived her whole life in the remote woods of North Carolina, insulated from contact with modern civilization. She was conceived as a result of rape, and had a twin sister who died in childhood. When her mother dies, and her death is reported to an unscrupulous grocery delivery boy (Jeremy Upham), Nell’s existence is discovered by local authorities. A local doctor, played by Neeson, tries to assist her, and to do this, he enlists Richardson, a specialist in autism. They realize, however, that Nell is not mentally handicapped; instead her strange language is a combination of emulating her stroke-stricken mother and the special language she shared with her twin. Yet their attempt to serve as surrogate parents for Nell is complicated by medical professionals who seek to institutionalize her, as well as people (like the grocery boy) who wish to exploit her vulnerability. In other words, institutions do not only do more harm than good, they also fail to protect the vulnerable from those who operate outside and against them. After a dramatic hearing in a trail-like setting, Nell wins her freedom and can return to the wild with her new family, the Rousseau-like logic of the film finally affirmed.
Foster essentially repeated that message in a different form three years later in Contact, a tedious science-fiction movie in which she stars as an astronomer who teams up with Matthew McConaughey, unconvincingly cast as a theologian. They battle the skepticism – and, more importantly, the greed and hatred – of those, inside and outside their fields, who reject their fervent belief that alien life exists. The soggy New Age overtones of the film, which include the astronomer’s contact with her long dead father, suggest something of a dead end in Foster’s career-long assertion that goodness and decency are locked in mortal combat with irrational malice. Fortunately, in the ensuing years, her work began to texture this paradigm and portray characters and situations with more internal complexity.
Next: The King and Jodie
Next: The King and Jodie