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Filmmakers Jodie Foster: Growing Up on Screen

Dialogue: Jodie Foster with B. Ruby Rich

  • Retrospective: February 1–23, 1991
  • Regional Premiere: The Silence of the Lambs

Jodie Foster is playing an FBI agent-in-training. With her boss, she enters a room full of policemen. Her mentor leans over to the sheriff and, lowering his voice to a strange whisper, explains that due to the, uh, sexual nature of this crime, he would rather—a nod toward Jodie—talk to him alone, if he knows what he means. The sheriff agrees, and they withdraw behind closed doors.

Jodie is now standing alone in a room full of men. Her boss’ remark to the sheriff has stripped her of all previous authority; he has ditched her, thrown her to the boys. Now she is sexualized. The policemen size her up, give her the once-over from head to toe that is every man’s prerogative with every woman. Jodie Foster the actress is impassive. She cannot avoid their gaze, but she can evade it. So she does what every woman does in an invasive and inescapable situation: she sends her mind away. By redirecting her own gaze, away from the men and out the window, her vision runs out of the present and into her own past. Passive resistance. She fully inhabits that past and is entirely absent from the room full of men. She is deep in the grief of her father’s funeral when the boss and sheriff return from their huddle. Now she turns her attention back to the men in uniform.

And what does she do? She remembers that there is a dead body in the room, a dead body of the woman just murdered. She speaks for the unknown mother of that unknown girl and thanks them for their help; and then she speaks as the FBI agent again and orders them out of the room. And the gang of men in uniform, each of them trained to obey authority, forgets the hierarchy of gender and follows the order. They leave, and the scene goes on.

Later, Jodie Foster as Clarice Starling, who is not even a full-fledged FBI agent, reprimands her boss for what he did, for what he teaches the other men by acting like that; and he, too, follows the order and accepts the rebuke. And the movie, The Silence of the Lambs, goes on.

These simple gestures, in a movie full of action-packed moments, are riveting for what they reveal about the assertion of power and its dramatization. They constitute what is, in fact, a fairly emblematic sequence in that it communicates with such clarity the central conceit of the Jodie Foster persona: she embodies both authority and sexuality while managing to avoid the one-for-the-other trade-off that usually characterizes roles for women in mainstream film. Indeed, she is an anomaly in the realm of Hollywood, as an actress, as a persona, and even, as far as we can tell from the notoriously unreliable pages of the popular press, as a person.

Almost always well cast, Foster nonetheless exceeds her roles, bringing to each a sensibility and strength that not only interpret it but, in the end, transform it. More than simple immersion, what she brings to each role—her exceptionality in the Hollywood lexicon of actress—defines it differently. Whether in the thriller The Silence of the Lambs or in the offbeat films of her early career (such as Tom Sawyer and The Little Girl Who Lives down the Lane) or in the arch-serious films of the 1980s (such as The Hotel New Hampshire and Stealing Home), playing wildly different characters in vastly disparate contexts, Foster has managed to create a coherent and surprisingly consistent persona through the infusion of an unmistakable authenticity.

Jodie Foster grew up in the movies and on TV. Was there ever a time when she was not on view? The publicity machine is full of stories: how she was already present in the womb when her film-publicist mother appeared in divorce court, how she fell into her first appearance at age three by stumbling into her brother’s Coppertone audition, how she barely survived her first film appearance (in Disney’s Napoleon and Samantha [1972]) when the starring lion attacked her offscreen, how her family (a single mother with four children) came to depend on her wages for its survival, how she was so smart that she went to Le Lycée Français in Los Angeles and then to Yale, how she was so vulnerable that a madman could use her image as motivation for an assassination. The stuff of legend.

Raised in front of the camera, moving from childhood to adolescence to adulthood on-screen, Jodie Foster grew up as an image. By all rights, by the design of Hollywood, she should have become a predictable commodity as an actress. But she did not turn into the empty vessel that movies so often like a woman to be, insuring that the director and the audience and the wet-dream critics can fill her up. She did not outgrow the movies, either, like so many child stars. Since she grew up right inside the image factory, she never had to stand outside it, trying to get in. No years of high school plays, straining to look cuter or prettier than the other girls. No afternoons dawdling in the proverbial malt shop, yearning to be discovered. Foster was there from the beginning. But in her case, Hollywood performed its own innoculation. She managed to become immune to the artifices of glamour and the siren song of artificial femininity. She became her own woman instead of theirs, with the happy result that women in the audience got to see up there on the screen someone whose guts showed on her face, someone whose body looked connected to its spirit, someone who—as much of an actress as she clearly was and wanted to be—seemed somehow to be more than an actress, too. Her mother says it best:

“[Jodie] was never a traditional-looking little girl. And I think that has a lot to do with her success. It was just at the beginning of the women’s liberation, and she kind of personified that in a child. She had a strength and uncoquettishness. Maybe it comes from being raised without a father to say, ‘Turn around and show Daddy how pretty you look.”—Evelyn Foster in an American Film magazine profile of her daughter (October 1988)

Ah, the family. That is where little girls are made, right? In Foster’s case the family Hollywood created for her as she grew is particularly striking. She was not given a nuclear family like so many other celluloid girls. From the start, her families were fractured and, when not fractured, dysfunctional. In Tom Sawyer (1973), one of her earliest screen appearances, Foster’s spunky Becky Thatcher lives with her father, and no mother is mentioned. In Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974) her Audrey has a mom who turns tricks and a dad who left years ago. In The Little Girl Who Lives down the Lane (1977) her Rynn Jacobs is an orphan dominated by the spirit of her dead father, with hardly a word for her much-hated, deceased mother. As Donna in Carny (1980) she runs away from another hated mother and never mentions her father. In Foxes (1980) she is Jeanie, whose parents are divorced; living with her mom, she spends all her energy trying to gather her friends together into a familial whole. When Foster crosses the Atlantic to appear in Claude Chabrol’s The Blood of Others (1984) she seems to have left behind family as much as nationality: evidently an orphan, she mentions no family of her own, living en famille with another girl and her sickly mother. Even this adopted family is nonnuclear.

By the late 1980s, the pattern is set. Foster’s Linda in Five Corners (1988) lives with an ineffectual father and no mother. The weirdo Nancy in Siesta (1987) has an absent, indulgent mom. Sarah Tobias in The Accused (1988) is given an absent, punitive mother (no dad). And her newest film, The Silence of the Lambs, returns her once again to the model of orphan accompanied by the memory of a beloved father.

Of course, there are exceptions, the films in which she does have both parents, for better or worse, until death do them part. But the nuclear family can be fatal to the Jodie Foster character: she is terminally ill all the way through Echoes of a Summer (1976). And when the sexuality that has inflected the Foster persona during most of her career collides with a family context, the result is oedipal perversity—predictably played for laughs in an attempt for diffusion. In the Disney vehicle Freaky Friday she and her mother perform a mind-body switch, and the audience holds its breath while the movie tiptoes around daddy’s game responses to the wife (who now calls him “daddy”) and daughter (who now calls him “Bill”). This being Disney, we stop short of full oedipal rupture. In The Hotel New Hampshire (1984), however, there is no such restraint; by the time the story ends mommy is dead, daddy is blinded, and Foster’s Franny has gone to bed with her brother.

Jodie Foster may be a menace to the nuclear family, but it proves to be a danger to her as well. Taxi Driver (1976) offers up a “happy ending” in which, after her bloddy rescue by Travis Bickle, Foster’s little Iris is returned to the parents she had fled in Iowa. But she does not appear on-screen again, nor does she again get to speak for herself. As the parental Iowan speech takes over the sound track, with her father speaking the words of his letter of thanks to Travis, Iris does not even have a voice anymore—she is back “home.”

Foster grew up at a moment in United States history when the notion of home as sanctuary was retreating into nostalgia (at least for the white middle class, since Latino and African-American families continued to hold their own). Girls all over the country were leaving home, and “bad girls,” the kind that Foster often got to play, were moving out fast. However, if the nuclear family was dangerous—a truth hammered home throughout the 1970s—the world outside was not exactly safe either. Certainly not for women.

In film after film, Jodie Foster plays characters who are manipulated, abused, set up, pimped, raped or nearly raped, even killed. But however often she may be victimized, she does not play the victim. Never submissive, she brings bravado to every performance and holds on to a subjectivity that cannot be demolished. She fights back, defends herself, gets even. However vulnerable at the level of the body, every Foster character is smart and tough and determined to prevail.

Furthermore, bad things happen to the men who imperil or defile her. Her pimp is murdered (Taxi Driver), her would-be molester killed (The Little Girl Who Lives down the Lane), her rapist theatrically raped (The Hotel New Hampshire), her attacker murdered (Five Corners), the rape collaborators convicted (The Accused), and the serial killer shot and killed (The Silence of the Lambs).

From the beginning, Foster has never quite fit the damsel-in-distress profile. Instead of waiting for a man to save them, her characters have, increasingly, acted in their own defense, casting the damsel aside. In Five Corners, for instance, Foster’s Linda goes down swinging: she whacks a psycho with a board and knocks him flat, rescuing both herself and the penguin he is about to slaughter. When he catches up with her later, it takes what seems like a townful of men to save her; no single man, neither her sweetheart who limps nor a cop who gives his life can do it. In fact, Five Corners, in overturning the totem of male protector that traditionally has marked the province of the action movie, inadvertently lays the basis for her next two films.

In The Accused, men are the problem, no longer the solution. Sarah Tobias looks across class, not gender, for a savior and finds her in the person of a yuppie D.A. who takes on her rape case as a routine assignment. Yet, even sooner than usual, the Jodie Foster character realizes that she has to help herself. She may be dependent on another woman legally, but first she has to fight back, literally on her own.

Her self-defense is coded for both melodrama and action vernaculars in twin case studies of rage. First, she invades her attorney’s dinner party and lashes her with anger. Second, she fends off an attack by one of the rape witnesses by destroying his truck with her car. Whether fighting emotionally or physically, Sarah rejects any hint of victimization. It is only when she is immobilized, in a hospital room, with the D.A. there in a classic beside scene, that Jodie Foster as Sarah Tobias is willing to let down her guard and to speak, ironically, lines that seem to pick up where Iris left off at the end of Taxi Driver: “I never got to tell nobody nothing. You did all my talking for me.” Sarah wants to defend herself, not just with action but with law; she wants to bear witness, and she gets to triumph.

No film could better demonstrate the present status of Foster’s evolution than The Silence of the Lambs. Here, her character defends herself against Buffalo Bill, a serial killer onto his fifth victim, and wins. Her succession of films thus forms a clear character progression from the rescued victim to the avenging victim to the avenger of victims. Gradually but finally, Foster has won the right to play characters on her own terms and thus to alter, up to a point, the rules of the Hollywood game.

“Obviously I wouldn’t do softcore porn—it doesn’t interest me. Nor do all those boys’ films that have two minutes worth of girl interest…I wouldn’t do anything regressive or repressive or that advocates an old moral regime.”
—Foster in Interview magazine.

Indeed, she doesn’t—not anything regressive, certainly nothing repressive. Yet the fact of her sexuality, coupled to the demonstration of her strength, creates a fascinating tension in Foster’s films, one that says as much about gender definition in late twentieth-century America as about her own career.

Foster’s role in Taxi Driver marked her for years because of the child-sex charge that inflected it. Yet Bugsy Malone, made soon after, did no such thing despite her even more sexually inflected performance. Why? Interestingly enough, the difference has less to do with sex per se than with the child-adult dynamic. In Taxi Driver, Foster plays Iris as someone who is still a kid, adulthood passed onto her like a cheap disguise, with her sexuality a commodity produced in her by adult men, for adult men. It is the shock of the disjunction—a child, sexualized, in an adults’ world—that provides the tone of perversity. In Bugsy Malone, though, the assignment of sexuality to Foster has the opposite effect: it marks her as an adult in a world of children. Her expert integration of herself with the role of Tallulah, the world-weary and seductive gangster’s moll, sets her apart from the world of children she inhabits. Her consummately convincing “adult” expression of sexuality, played to a Bugsy who is still visibly a kid, results in an inversion of the same kind of perversity that Iris was marketing. Both films came out in the same year, offering a clear demonstration of sexuality’s variable nature. The sexuality in these two films moves between them like a floating signifier, cut adrift, shifting like a word that means two very different things in two different languages.

Female sexuality is always a double-edged sword, with power (and who’s got it) always hanging in the balance. Nowhere is this more true than in the movies. Foster presents us with characters who are strong-willed, not weak; active, not passive; direct, not coy; openly sexual, not repressed or puritanical. Sure, the parts are written by screenwriters and not Foster, but if not actually scripted with her in mind, they are certainly defined by being given to her. The charge of sexuality makes these touch characters vulnerable, but it also gives them the strength to sustain that vulnerability. The Accused makes this shatteringly clear. The scene of gang-rape on a barroom pinball machine has been described over and over, until it has gathered the same symbolic significance as the actual rape in New Bedford, Massachusetts, in 1983. But any viewer of the film today can notice, as Foster has herself pointed out, that the more fraught moment really takes place before the rape, when Sarah Tobias flirts drunkenly in the bar and does her long sexy solo around its dance floor.

It is in this moment that The Accused becomes a metaphor for a woman’s place, in cinema as in the world: Foster dances, and we see Sarah enjoying and indulging her own sense of self and sexuality, confident, projecting at once control and abandon. But the dance is played out under the sign of the tavern, a male gathering place, where the presentation of a female self is subsumed, first by a voyeurism that strips away her autonomy and then by an invasion that transgresses the boundaries of passive voyeurism. The public display of a private self is an act of risk for a woman, and in this film it is a risk with frightful consequence. The male possession of public space is not limited to the tavern; movie theaters, too, constitute a regime of power in which the viewer can assume ownership over that which he views and feel proprietary toward a female body captured only by his gaze. Sarah Tobias dancing in that bar becomes a metaphor for every actress performing on the screen. Thus the victory of the trial resonates beyond the film to claim, for Foster as for all of us, the right of a woman to the expression of a self-determined sexuality, free of punishment or invasion.

The Silence of the Lambs ups the ante. This time around, women are sought not for their sexuality but simply—literally—for their bodies, and the drive for possession is stripped of any sexual impulse whatsoever: Buffalo Bill is collecting skins. In the climactic sequence, in which Foster’s Clarice Starling hunts the killer only to become the prey, Buffalo Bill’s use of infrared glasses turns the drama in a peculiarly self-reflexive direction. It is here that Foster gets to reverse the outcome of the barroom scene. She may still be on view, may still be subject to the consuming gaze of the more powerful male, but here the deck is not stacked. Here she can win, saving not only herself but also a girl, panicked, trapped at the bottom of a well, screaming out “Help me!” Who is she? Every actress offed by a killer in a horror movie, every woman assaulted, you, me, Foster herself in other movies.

“I’d like to direct a real film about real people. A very American film about relationships and disappointments.”
—Foster in Vanity Fair profile

More than a decade ago, the BBC did a documentary on a new young American actress named Jodie Foster. In the course of shooting, the crew discovered that she herself wanted to direct. So they lent her a camera and included her short film The Hands of Time in the finished program. Now, in 1991, Foster is realizing the ambition she revealed to the BBC as she directs the forthcoming Little Man Tate.

As an actress, Foster has worked with original, inventive, even fashionable directors: Martin Scorsese, Adrian Lyne, Claude Chabrol, Jonathan Kaplan, Jonathan Demme. There is no doubt that they have all played a part in the definition of her screen persona. But now something different is going on. After conducting her most successful on-screen self-defense as Clarice Starling, Jodie Foster can move from acting for directors to acting as one herself. Poised to take on yet another form of cinematic self-defense—the switch to the other side of the camera, straight into the director’s chair—Foster is ready to take control of the image, not merely her own, but the film’s as well.

—B. Ruby Rich, New York City, January 1991

A film critic and cultural theorist since the mid-1970s, B. Ruby Rich has been closely identified with important movements such as feminist, Latin American, and post-9/11 cinema; independent film in the United States and Europe; and new queer cinema. A long-time contributor to the Village Voice, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, and the British Film Institute’s Sight and Sound, and author of Chick Flicks: Theories and Memories of the Feminist Film Movement, Rich teaches at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Jodie Foster