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Foster, Jodie (1962—)

Foster, Jodie (1962—)

Actress Jodie Foster earned a reputation as a precocious, complicated preteen in Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1976) and went on to prove herself as a no-nonsense actress/producer/director in the 1990s. When, in 1981, the tabloid spotlight unexpectedly hit her following John Hinckley, Jr.'s attempt to assassinate President Ronald Reagan, she displayed a grace and reserve to the media that reinforced her status as an intelligent woman. Having won two Academy Awards for Best Actress, Foster has established herself as one of Hollywood's most powerful women and one of the few female stars able to guarantee astronomical box-office receipts in the increasingly important global market.

In 1962, Alicia Christian Foster was born the youngest of four siblings in Los Angeles, California. She was tightly bonded to her mother, Evelyn "Brandy" Foster, in part because her father had abandoned the family before she was born and in part because her mother actively promoted Foster's acting talents from an early age. Foster made a popular Coppertone commercial when she was three years old and garnered a minor television role on Mayberry RFD, a program in which her brother Buddy was also a star.

Her film debut came with Disney's Napoleon and Samantha (1972), and she went on to play a number of children's roles on-screen. It was her infamous performance as Iris, a child prostitute who soberly and unaffectedly carried her pain and powerlessness through a New York City world of moral corruption, opposite Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver, which won her a National Film Critics Award. This part also affirmed the fact that the capricious, nimble-witted characters she took on at Disney made her incredibly well-suited for more adult material. After Taxi Driver, she starred in Freaky Friday (1977), a family film in which her character finds herself in the skin of her mother (Barbara Harris) for a day, as she humorously confronts the realities of being an adult housewife.

While actively pursuing her career as a performer, Foster graduated and was valedictorian at the Lycée Français in Los Angeles and went on to earn a cum laude degree in literature at Yale University. It was while she was at Yale that she was stalked by John Hinckley, Jr., whose obsession with Taxi Driver motivated him to shoot President Reagan in 1981. Though Foster was trying to carry on the life of a "normal college student," she immediately held a press conference on campus in hopes of containing the publicity and went on to write an article titled "Why Me?" for Esquire magazine which explained her experiences as one of Hinckley's targets.

Once out of college, in an attempt to recharge her acting career, Foster lobbied for the role of a working-class rape victim in The Accused (1988). She won a difficult competition among a number of up-and-coming female stars, even dropping weight for the part upon request from studio executives, and went on to score her first Academy Award. She battled yet again for the role of FBI agent Clarice Starling in the thriller The Silence of the Lambs (1991), convincing director Jonathan Demme that she had a better psychological understanding of the "rising heroine" character than the other top-notch stars he preferred. This performance garnered her a second Best Actress Oscar.

Foster moved into the role of director with two Hollywood feature films, Little Man Tate (1991) and Home for the Holidays (1995). The former film tells the story of a young child prodigy and his complicated relationship with his struggling, little-educated, waitress mother, played by Foster. At the release of the film, Foster admitted that her interest in it partially stemmed from her own experiences as a child living in a world beyond her years. With Home for the Holidays, which was produced through Foster's company, Egg Pictures, the director follows an insecure single mother (Holly Hunter) as she journeys home to her eccentric family for Thanksgiving.

While increasing her power as a producer/director, Jodie Foster continued to turn in remarkable performances in films such as Nell (1994), in which she plays a rugged wild child brought painfully into contemporary society, and Contact (1997), an adaptation of Carl Sagan's science fiction story about a woman who explores the possibility of life in outer space.

Foster developed a reputation as an anti-establishment pragmatist who remained within the Hollywood system in order to transform its representations of women and bring unconventional character pieces to the screen. She is also known as a down-to-earth, democratic star who, throughout her twenties, lived in the less-than-glamorous "valley" of Los Angeles and reportedly refused to rely on a personal assistant for mundane tasks such as picking up dry cleaning or going to the post office. Foster fiercely protects her private life, having earned the respect and protection of Hollywood trade reporters and mainstream journalists. She became mother to a boy, Charles Foster, in the summer of 1998, provoking a relatively minor outcry when she refused to name the baby's father.

In films such as Silence of the Lambs and Contact, Foster drew on the androgyny and maturity of her childhood characters and solidified a reputation as an actress who rebelled against traditional feminine stereotypes and sought out complex acting opportunities that had been relatively unexplored by female stars. She became notorious for taking disenfranchised, scrappy characters and moving them closer to heroic self-empowerment. In a 1993 discussion of Hollywood, Foster explained, "… 95 percent of the people will always try to maintain the status quo. It's the other five percent that move the art form further…. What's different about [women] is that we identify with the underdog, so we spend a lot of time thinking about who's left out. When you sit around a table like this with a bunch of guys, they spend a lot of time thinking about who's on top." The first three decades of Foster's career leave little doubt that she stands within "the other 5 percent" and that, despite her immense Hollywood power, she has spent considerable efforts "thinking about who's left out."

—Christina Lane

Further Reading:

Chunovic, Louis. Jodie: A Biography. Chicago, Contemporary Books, 1995.

Foster, Buddy. Foster Child. New York, Penguin/Putnam Books, 1997.

Kennedy, Philippa. Jodie Foster: A Life on Screen. New York, 1996.

Lane, Christina. "The Liminal Iconography of Jodie Foster." Journal of Popular Film and Television. Winter 1995, 149-153.

Rich, B. Ruby. "Never a Victim: Jodie Foster, A New Kind of Female Hero." Sight & Sound. December 1991, 50-61.

Smolen, Diane. The Films of Jodie Foster. Seacaucus, Citadel Press, 1996.

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