J ODIE FOSTER FEATURE
Liam Neeson as Dr Jerome Lovell, Neil’s guardian angel
anyone realised. Only three days after Hinckley‘s arrest. a second man. Richardson. sat lOft away from Foster with a loaded gun during a Yale stage performance. He had previously threatened to kill her. When arrested in Washington. presumably en route to finish off Hinckley's botched assassination of Reagan. he merely informed police: ‘She was too pretty to kill.‘
This. then. is Hollywood‘s understanding of Foster's career — a prodigioust intelligent child star. beloved of directors everywhere. is the innocent victim of a deranged fan and comes bouncing back as adult star. brighter and stronger because of her ordeal. The reality is more complicted. By l981. Foster’s career was in the doldrums — she was at the awkward stage that casting directors tend to shy away from. suspended between childhood and adult status.
‘She was so good. technically good. because she had been doing it since she was three. It was too easy . . . by 1980 her work had begun to look slick.‘ says Alan Parker. who directed Foster in his 1976 gangster spoof Bugsy Malone. "l‘hcrc was a change alter Yale and the things that happened in her life. Suddenly there was a strength and an edge that she didn‘t have before and she propelled herself into a different league of acting.‘
Foster began to seek out scripts featuring radically isolated. often working class women in central. heroic roles usually reserved for men. Significantly. of all her characters. Foster feels closest to Clarice Starling. who in Silence oft/2e Lambs slays the dragons of Foster’s past by catching and killing the current demon of America‘s underbelly: a serial killer. Foster has more than revenged herself on Hinckley in such roles — they are a blow for lris. the 12-year-old prostitute in Martin Scorcese’s Taxi Driver (1976). a character so misunderstood by Hinckley. They are also a blow for all Hollywood actresses who spend their time ‘either making coffee or getting tied up’. as Foster succinctly puts it.
Nell is Foster’s thirty-second feature film — one for every year of her life. She not only stars
in it. but developed the script and produced the film through her own production company. Egg. This is a far cry from the vanity publishing deals which the Hollywood studios sometimes mete out to their big stars as a sop to their egos. Polygram has backed Egg to the tune of $100 million over the next five years and fully expects to reap a profit.
Hollywood is investing not only in Foster the star. but Foster the businesswoman. who has learned from some of its best directors and producers. She frankly admits her primary aim is to exert a control that has always eluded her as an actress. Her first foray in this direction was her directorial debut in 1991 with Little Man
‘Nell and Little Man Tate are about extraordinary people who we consider freaks or handicapped because they are exceptional. They are exceptional in ways we marginalise, in ways we don’t value.’
Tate. the tale of a precociously-gifted child, Fred. Foster also played Fred’s embattled single mother Dede Tate. another isolated character. The lilm was not a success. derided by most critics for its sentimentality. Similar criticisms have been levelled at Nell. in which another single mother‘s child is dramatically rescued from the evils of American society by an overly- heroic Liam Neeson and returned to her happy life in the wilderness. Comparing the films. Foster says: ‘Both are about extraordinary people who we consider freaks or handicapped
because they are exceptional. They are exceptional in ways we marginalise. in ways we don’t value.’ Both films. linked by their
schmaltzy happy endings. are far from Foster’s best work. but are as close as she has come to autobiography.
While Hollywood views the Hinckley affair as the one traumatic battle Foster has fought and won. she is also fighting an older. more mundane struggle. Coppertone’s happy family in 1965 was part of the American lie films like Taxi Driver so ruthlessly exposed a decade later. At three. Foster. like so many of her generation. had a one-parent family. Pregnant with Jodie and with three children to support. Foster’s mother Brandy was left by her father Lucius. Setting her children up as child actors was not the conceit of a stage mother. but the survival instinct of a Hollywood woman with no money.
‘My mom did something really smart.‘ says Foster. ‘I didn‘t realise at the time. but she always emphasised the work. She wanted me to be taken seriously and be respected . . . she didn‘t say. “Oh. aren’t your ringlets cute?" or “Don‘t you look nice in that little dress?” That wasn’t the work.’
She adds: ‘I don’t think I am a walking wound from my childhood in the film industry.’
Jodie’s older brother Buddy was initially successful as a child star of television soaps. but his career faded as Jodie's began taking off. On her young shoulders fell the responsibility of keeping the whole family and in many ways she took the place of the father she never had.
Her work now provides an arena for her to explore this absence and while the critics might find it a little painful. Foster’s audience has remained loyal. Nell has already paid for itself in box office receipts.
In one scene during the film. the media descends on Nell‘s mountain hideaway in
helicopters and pick-up trucks. Neeson’s character. a local doctor. tries to escape with Nell as she clings desperately to the front porch of her rickety home. ‘Ga Ang. Ga Ang.’ screams Neeson in Nellish and Nell lets go. Ga Ang. as the heroic doctor has discovered. means guardian angel. Nell has been waiting for one all her life. C]
The South Bank Show: Jodie Foster's Brilliant Career is broadcast on Scottish on Sunday I 2 March at 10.15pm. Leo Barley is a researcher
JODIE FOSTER: the highlights of acareer
Kansas City Bomber (1972)
Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974) Bugsy Malone (1976)
Freaky Friday (1976)
Foster as child prostitute Iris Steensman
Taxi Driver (1976)
The Little Girl Who Lives Down The Lane (1977) Carny (1980)
The Hotel New Hampshire (1984)
Five Corners (1987)
The Accused (1988)
Little Man Tate (1991)
Chasing demons as Clarice Starling
The Silence ()1 The Lambs (1991) Sommersby (1993)
The List lO-23 Mar I995 7