A Hollywood Star gets a lifetime achievement award
The following piece is adapted from my new book, Sensing the Past
Tonight Jodie Foster will be precocious once more. The native Angeleno who began her acting career at age three will be the relatively youthful recipient of a lifetime achievement award at the Golden Globes, having just turned 50. The span of her career has been truly remarkable; her collaborators stretch from Helen Hayes, born in 1900, all the way to Abigail Breslin, born in 1996. Filmographically, at least, Foster qualifies as a grande dame.
This would have been hard to imagine back in the seventies, when she made her mark in movies like Freaky Friday. Foster’s persona—bright, confident, impatient with the strictures of authority—was perfect for the post-sixties zeitgeist. One of the first people to recognize this was Martin Scorsese. Scorsese cast Foster in a small part as a tough-minded tomboy in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974).
But the turning point in her career as an actor—and a touchstone for her preoccupations as an artist—was her second Scorsese project, Taxi Driver (1976), in which she plays a child prostitute. While Taxi Driver seems to reflect a vaguely countercultural critique of American life common in the films of the 1970s, it is animated by a powerful vision of evil—atavistic, unexplained, palpable evil—that suffuses Manhattan like the vapor rising up into the street in the unforgettable opening shot of the movie. Though lacking an overt theological or philosophical framework, this notion of implacable, unexplained malice has shaped Foster’s career, a vector that presses down on most of her films and gives many of them the melancholic weight that has always made her a bit unusual even as she went on to become an artist who would operate in the heart of the Hollywood mainstream.
In pursuing this vision, Foster has made her cinematic journey alone. To a striking degree, she plays single women, and even in those cases where her characters experience romance, these relationships are severed by death or other forms of separation. On those occasions where Foster is a parent, it’s as a single mother. Even her most recent film, The Beaver (2011), a movie that one could regard as an exception because Foster is in a troubled but legally valid marriage, ends with her character on the edge of the frame, observing husband and son from a distance.
Foster tends to live alone in another important respect as well: to a degree that’s singular among actors of her generation, her characters try to live their lives independent of public institutions, particularly government institutions. At best, institutions are ineffectual in meeting their stated aims; at worst, they’re dangerous. In her signature role as Clarice Starling in Silence of the Lambs, she must confront the frightening Hannibal Lecter, and the serial killer whose staircase she descends in a state of pure terror, all by herself.
This state of autonomy tends to be a pragmatic choice, not a deeply-held principle or grievance. Clint Eastwood characters often have chips on their shoulders, even as they try to form communities. Foster characters are tougher: less hostile than guarded, with little inclination to bond. Even in those cases where they do work within institutions (like the nun of The Secret Life of Altar Boys), they tend to work on their own. They not anti-institutional so much as non-institutional. As such, they’re both harder to resist and harder to embrace.
In an ironic yet apt way, Foster is like Ronald Reagan: compelling in her institutional skepticism and the instinctive confidence with which she embodies it. Fate twined Foster’s life with Reagan’s in 1981 when a lunatic tried to impress her by shooting him. This history has been her burden (as history often is, one reason we go to the movies). It’s the singular way Foster has interpreted the world we have shared with her that has made her one of the most distinctive—and, in all likelihood, durable—figures in American culture.