By Jessica Alexander
It would be difficult, if not impossible, to begin a conversation about women in film honestly without the inclusion of Jodie Foster. As an enigmatic, albeit somewhat controversial, figure in the world of film, Foster has had an undeniable impact on the status of women in Hollywood. She counts herself among the few major names who have been successful both in front of, and behind, the camera. Though this is a success in its own right, her ability to maintain a presence as both an actor and a director is even more impressive when viewed through the lens of her identity as a woman.
Foster’s ascent to the top of the ladder seems almost fated when one considers how it began. When she was just three years old, her brother, a successful actor himself, was up for a part in a Coppertone commercial. Being so young, their mother brought her along. Much to his surprise, Foster upstaged her brother at his own audition, securing the part for herself. There must be some sort of cosmic irony in that moment. Or, perhaps, it can at least help explain Foster’s subsequent disregard of the film industry’s unstated rules and barriers for female actors and filmmakers. Even if that moment did not lead to an expectation that all doors were open to her, it certainly did propel her into stardom rapidly.
Following that moment, Foster became a constant fixture on the screen, starring in dozens of commercials, television shows, and eventually films. Many of her early roles show her in the role of the token ‘tomboy,’ proving that early on she exuded energy which surpassed the stereotypical expectations of her gender. Continuing this trend of atypical roles was her breakout casting as a child prostitute in Martin Scorsese’s 1976 classic “Taxi Driver.” Years later she would lament the controversy surrounding her casting, stating her dislike of everyone’s assumption that young actresses have, “to play Shirley Temple or someone’s little sister.”
In the years immediately succeeding “Taxi Driver”, Foster secured a litany of roles which garnered rave reviews, nominations, and awards. Film critics were thrumming with interest in the startlingly intelligent and mature young actor, but she was unwilling to take her stardom for granted, enrolling at Yale in 1980, mindful of how few up-and-coming young actors are able to maintain their success into adulthood. It was there that she put to rest any lingering doubts surrounding her remarkable intelligence, and she graduated magna cum laude in 1985 with a degree in literature.
“If “Taxi Driver” launched Foster’s career, then “The Accused” solidified it. Oddly enough, where her first role had come so easily, her defining role was one she had to fight for.”
The years after her graduation were starkly different from those before; Foster was no longer the fresh-faced child, grateful for whatever roles came her way. No, she had become discerning and committed, choosing parts more selectively, as if pruning her own talents, finally committed to her craft. Whatever she saw in the roles that she chose, critics were blind to. A few of her films were modest successes, but she was no longer the media darling she had once been. Frustrated and wondering whether her decision to commit herself fully to acting had been the right one, Foster held her breath and took one last role.
If “Taxi Driver” launched Foster’s career, then “The Accused” solidified it. Oddly enough, where her first role had come so easily, her defining role was one she had to fight for. Despite her previous achievements, filmmakers were worried that the recent string of critical pans she had received would weaken their opening. Thankfully, several other well-known actors passed on the role and it became hers.
Foster was not initially impressed with her own performance in “The Accused,” and feared that its premiere would be the end of her career. Because the film explores sexual assault and its aftermath in a way that had previously gone largely untouched, it became a sort of lightning rod, attracting criticism from feminists and anti-feminists alike. Despite the initial upset surrounding whether the graphic nature of the film was necessary, there are few people who would discount the film’s groundbreaking look at the effects of sexual assault on a victim. Ultimately, it became both a commercial and critical success and started an entirely new chapter in Foster’s life.
“Crew members, as well as the director himself, would later describe Foster’s transition into the part as “effortless.” It was as if Clarice Starling was who she was born to play.”
Foster’s luck was just beginning. Shortly after she torpedoed back to the forefront of critics’ minds with “The Accused,” she secured the part of Agent Clarice Starling in “The Silence of the Lambs.” This was an important role to Foster and remains one of her favorites to this day. She began taking on small directorial projects after college and had gone so far as to attempt to purchase rights to “The Silence of the Lambs” in order to adapt it for the screen herself. Though those efforts were fruitless, it was arguably for the best, as it allowed Foster to portray Starling in a manner that can only be described as iconic. Crew members, as well as the director himself, would later describe Foster’s transition into the part as “effortless.” It was as if Clarice Starling was who she was born to play.
The respect that the role of Clarice Starling garnered Foster helped her transition into the world behind the camera. Just a short eight months after “The Silence of the Lambs” premiered, Foster released her full-length directorial debut, “Little Man Tate.” She was criticized for her choice to become a director, something that Hollywood, at the time, was not prepared to accept from a female actress. However, the film was a moderate box office success and established that Foster had talent as a director, and wasn’t simply relying on her name. That very next year she founded her own film production company, Egg Pictures.
Egg Pictures permitted Foster to explore her new-found passion for directing and producing while at the same time maintaining her presence in front of the camera. Truthfully, she could not have chosen a better film to begin this new venture with. “Nell” was the first picture Foster both produced and starred in, and while reviews were initially mixed, critics were silenced when the film was extremely profitable and garnered its star a Screen Actors Guild award, as well as nominations in both the Academy Awards and the Golden Globes. “Contact” became her next starring role, which was also well received, and her successes allowed her to further pursue her the goals of her production company.
Foster’s later projects in the 1990s were more criticized, and in the early 2000s she shut down Egg Pictures, lamenting that the constant stream of projects was keeping her from her family. At the time, the slowdown in Foster’s work may have been seen negatively, but looking back, it is clear that she was giving herself a much-needed break. Ultimately, it allowed her to return more impassioned and capable than ever before, starring in a string of thrillers which launched her back into the spotlight. “Panic Room,” “Flightplan,” “Inside Man,” and “The Brave One” introduced Foster to an entirely new audience, one that was younger, and far more receptive to her feminist ideals.
At some point, it must have become clear to Foster that, once again, her commercial successes as an actress could allow her to step behind the scenes, where she has always aimed to be. In more recent years, she has focused less and less on her acting, choosing instead to commit herself to directing. Her third directorial credit, “The Beaver,” was never quite given a fair shot, mostly due to the controversies surrounding its star, Mel Gibson.
“Foster has broken through many boundaries as a woman, never bowing to the misogynistic standards and practices of the entertainment world.”
However, she quickly rebounded from that minor setback and directed a number of critically acclaimed episodes for “Orange Is the New Black”, “House of Cards”, and “Black Mirror”. While the bulk of Foster’s work has been in film, it’s clear from these recent projects that she is more than capable and welcome on the small screen as well.
Foster has broken through many boundaries as a woman, never bowing to the misogynistic standards and practices of the entertainment world. She admits to having a ‘bossy’ reputation, something to which many strong women can probably relate to. It is perhaps her desire for greater control over her parts that led her to directing. She once noted, regarding her actions behind the scenes, “as a director, it’s not any different than what I do as an actress, except that I’m allowed to.”
However, her desire for control doesn’t seem to come from a place of selfishness. She once stated that she wouldn’t be involved in a film that didn’t come from the perspective of civil rights or feminism. When looking at her career in its entirety, it becomes clear that the strength of women is the most common theme throughout her projects. While advancing herself, Foster has brought the rest of womankind right along with her.
Martin, Ray (2011). Ray Martin’s Favourites. Victory Books
“New Again: Jodie Foster”. Interview. May 7, 2014. Retrieved September 10, 2015.