Thursday, September 15, 2011

The courage to be weak

 Jodie Foster, breaking feminist rules

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

          A more promising, if somewhat ironic, new direction for Foster in recent years is her attempt to show something few actors, especially successful female actors, do: weakness. This is something that was apparently on her mind in mid-decade, because it came up a number of times in interviews. “If there’s one stereotype that I have, it’s that I always play strong women,” she told the UK cineaste magazine, Total Film, in 2005. “I’ve played dumb blondes but they were strong dumb blondes. I’ve played bad characters but they were strong bad characters. I’m not sure I know how to play weak. I really don’t know how.”
In the context of recent cinematic history, this is an odd confession to make. It is more or less an unwritten rule in the movie business that audiences want strength, not weakness, and even in those cases where weakness is depicted, the expectation is that we will see the characters in question triumph over it. The imperatives of late-20th century feminism in particular put a premium on strong women characters: anything else is tantamount to betrayal. As Jane Fonda, one of the great movie stars of the modern era recently put it, “Anger was always easy. Fear was harder.” As we’ve seen, Foster has been a past master of fear, one of the greatest artists of the emotion cinema has seen. But the terrors she’s faced – serial killers, terrorists, rapists, et. al. – have tended to be of the extreme variety. Much tougher are neuroses of the more quotidian variety. So Foster began to rise to the challenge, and to summon the courage to be weak.
Her first such foray, Nim’s Island (2008), was a return to familiar territory, in that it’s a children’s movie, based on the 2002 novel of the same name by the highly successful Canadian juvenile fiction writer Wendy Orr. Abigail Breslin – a child actor who may yet prove to be a Jodie Foster in the making – plays the title character, a girl who lives on a beautiful but remote Pacific island; her widower father (Gerard Butler, a much cuddlier figure than his King Leonidas of 300 the previous year), is a scientist. When dad goes missing on a seafaring expedition, Nim sends an email to her favorite author, Alex Rover, an adventurer who happened to query her dad recently about a professional matter. What Nim doesn’t realize is that Rover (also played by Butler) is really just a figment in the imagination of Alexandra Rover (Foster), who in fact is an agoraphobic woman living alone in San Francisco. Ms. Rover’s desperation to help finally overcomes her desperation to avoid leaving her house. But Foster’s comic rendition of a fearful woman is not without pathos. And while the story is most overtly a vindication of a child’s resourcefulness in the face of adversity, it is also one about the power of imagination in prevailing in struggles that are finally far more internal than external.
            The Beaver (2011), by contrast, is less tidy. Interestingly, while few of Foster’s acting appearances about families, all the movies she’s directed are. Little Man Tate has already been discussed; in Home for the Holidays (1995), in which Foster does not appear, focuses on the life of a loving but chaotic family of adults during Thanksgiving weekend. In The Beaver  – a severe flop for a number of reasons, among them Mel Gibson’s poor reputation and its betwixt-and-between-character as a dramedy – she plays Meredith Black, wife of Walter Black (Gibson), a severely depressed toy company executive who begins communicating via a beaver puppet. The couple has two sons, the older of whom (Anton Yelchin) is a senior in high school terrified he will end up like his father. Meredith reluctantly kicks her husband out of their home, but her resolve weakens when he comes home and plays with the younger son (Zachary Booth), leading the elder boy to rebuke her for her lack of willpower. Despite her stated desire to fight for her marriage if there is any hope of preserving it, is largely a bystander – something that Foster probably could have changed if she really had wanted to, but which makes sense in the logic of the story – which, as is so often the case in Foster movies, matters take a gruesome turn. It is, however, Meredith’s point-of-view from which we see a final father-and-son reunion at the end of the film. At the end of a half-century as a performer, Foster has edged closer to becoming someone almost impossible to imagine: an ordinary person.