The following post is part of a series of on Jodie Foster specifically, and Hollywood actors generally, as historians.
If Anna and the King is in important respects of a piece with Foster’s vision as a whole, it nevertheless signals some important shifts in her work. One of the most important is a more nuanced engagement with the lives of men. Though it is of course usually men who intimidate, terrorize, or otherwise oppress her characters, Foster movies, whether directed by her or not, have never simple exercises in male-bashing. Still, in the 21st century, her projects have shown a new level of depth in their portrayal of male characters. Whether or not this has anything to do with the fact that Foster herself bore two sons – Charles Foster in 1998 and Christopher “Kit” Foster in 2001 – is hard to say. But she has referred to wanting to make movies her kids could see, and it stands to reason that she would be interested in “boy” stories as part of a mix with “child” stories.
One intriguing document in this regard is The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys (2002), a small independent film in which she plays a 1970s nun who teaches at a Catholic school. The two main characters of the title, played by Emile Hirsch and Kieran Culkin, lead a small posse of comic-obsessed kids prone to sketching graphic pictures that include sexual poses of Foster’s character, Sister Assumpta. Such behavior, along with relatively mild school pranks, are for the most part portrayed as developmentally understandable, if not exactly appropriate, behavior, though Foster’s is shocked and hurt when she discovers them. (In an age when the Catholic Church has much to be ashamed about, it is bracing to see Foster, as well as a priest played by Vincent D’Onofrio portrayed with real empathy, even when we sense they’re not necessarily reacting in the most productive ways). Culkin’s character, however, has an ominous self-destructive streak, which coalesces around a plan to free a tiger from a local zoo. (Hirsch’s character, by contrast, is content to explore romance with his new girlfriend, who is struggling to overcome the legacy of incest with her brother.) Foster’s Sister Assumpta, who walks with a limp, is anxious, even desperate, not to be seen as a fool, which leads her to make psychological pronouncements about the boys of dubious accuracy. But her stricken look at a funeral in the final scene of the movie – Sister Assumpta appears to realize that her name bespeaks a character flaw – suggests her understanding that she has not apprehended the realities in the lives of her students, a message of muted, implicit hope in a time of rapid social change in social and sexual mores.
Foster’s other project of 2002, Panic Room, was one of her biggest box office successes, in part because of its terrific screenplay by veteran writer David Koepp and the typically gloomy, yet arresting, direction of David Fincher. In the movie Foster plays a divorcee with a diabetic tween daughter (Kristen Stewart) who buys a Manhattan apartment that happens to have a special high-security chamber built for the needs of previous owner. The problem is that she’s unaware that the man left behind a cache of millions stored in safe of the Panic Room, and that the man who designed it (Forrest Whitaker) has plans to retrieve the money, for which he has enlisted a friend (Jared Leto), who in turn recruits another (Dwight Yoakum). The robbers break into the house expecting it to be empty; mother and daughter naturally take unwittingly take refuge in precisely the place where they will be besieged. A series of psychic and logistical twists ensue, among them the need to get rid of police who sincerely want to help but whose presence is on the apartment doorstep only makes matters worse. (As such, a typical Foster scenario.) For our purposes the main point is that we come to see that Whitaker’s character has redeeming qualities, and that he increasingly becomes a besieged himself by the ruthlessness of Yoakum. Ironically, it’s Whitaker, not Foster or her daughter, who ends up as the tragic figure in the story, blindsided by the very kinds of malevolence that have afflicted Foster characters going back to Taxi Driver.
Another new accent in this phase of Foster’s career is an increasing emphasis on inner turmoil no less than external threats. In Flightplan (2005), she’s a widow bringing her young daughter from Germany back to America to begin a new life when that daughter literally disappears into thin air on a plane over the Atlantic. Not only does no one know where the child is; there is doubt the child was on the plane in the first place. (Flightplan is modern day variation on the 1938 Alfred Hitchcock film The Lady Vanishes, which involved a train rather than a plane.) In one sense, this is standard Foster fare: women in distress fighting back hard against malicious forces – in this case, as it turns out, diabolically clever terrorists who exploit 9/11 fears to their advantage, part of which involves finger-pointing at Middle Eastern passengers. What’s also typical is that authority figures like that pilot are either unable or unwilling to help, or unwitting enablers of terror in their own right (in the form of a terrorist who masquerades as an air marshal). The difference is that for the first time in a Foster movie, one of her characters is forced to question her own sanity. Foster characters aren’t always perfect, but they’re almost always strong, as is this one. But she can’t help but be dogged by self-doubt in the face of a wall of denial, where even those not involved in the conspiracy become increasingly hostile to her “antics” and evident “irrationality.”
Next: Recent Foster, from The Brave One to The Beaver