Jodie Foster is just a mom who confronts cannibals 

click to enlarge Actor and filmmaker Jodie Foster will receive the George Eastman Award in Rochester on Thursday. - ROBERT TRACHTENBERG  /  GEORGE EASTMAN MUSEUM
  • Robert Trachtenberg / George Eastman Museum
  • Actor and filmmaker Jodie Foster will receive the George Eastman Award in Rochester on Thursday.
In “The Catcher in the Rye,” Holden Caulfield imagines himself as someone who saves children who are running through a field of rye, catching them before they fall off a cliff they cannot see.

Jodie Foster is perhaps a modern-day version of this precipitous metaphor: catching young actors before they come to a cinematic end.

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“I see myself being drawn to young actresses and connecting with them, because I can see not just the pitfalls, but the pain of it all,” she said earlier this week, by phone from her home in Los Angeles. “It’s tough. Especially now, when everybody’s got a camera, and there’s almost no such thing as privacy anymore.”

Foster is particularly prone to invasive cameras. It is, in fact, her job.  A retrospective of her work has been showing throughout May at the Dryden Theatre. It’s eight of her films, including Wednesday’s sold-out screening of “The Silence of the Lambs,” with Foster arriving from California in time to deliver a pre-show talk on the film.

That’s followed, on Thursday, with Foster being honored at the George Eastman Museum with the George Eastman Award during a dinner ceremony.

Dinner. Will lamb be served? “Brave Clarice,” said Anthony Hopkins, perhaps the best known of all the film world’s many cannibal serial killers, Dr. Hannibal Lecter. ‘Clarice’ is Clarice Starling, the character played by Foster. Starling confesses to Lecter that she has recurring nightmares, drawn from her childhood, of spring lambs being slaughtered. “You will let me know,” he said, “when those lambs stop screaming, won’t you?”

“The Silence of the Lambs” is their critically acclaimed confrontation.

It is perhaps Foster’s best-known work, yet it is only a sliver of the résumé accompanying her George Eastman Award, presented for distinguished contribution to cinema. Past honorees of the award include Charlie Chaplin, Lauren Bacall, Cecil B. DeMille, Meryl Streep and Michael Douglas. Julia Roberts was the most recent winner, in 2019, before COVID shut down the event for the last few years.

And now, Jodie Foster. In the history of our amusements, there are few quite like her. A career that has evolved from a 3-year-old in a television commercial as the Coppertone baby, to Disney film star. From playing Becky Thatcher in a 1973 film version of “Tom Sawyer” to, three years later, a child prostitute in “Taxi Driver.”

She’s been a fairy on the 1968 television show “Mayberry RFD,” taken time off to study literature at Yale, narrated an episode of the PBS documentary series “Makers: Women Who Make America.” Foster’s episode was on women in space.
Because yes, Foster has explored other worlds. “Contact,” the 1997 film based on a novel by Carl Sagan, is about the search for extraterrestrial life.

Does Foster believe in aliens?

“I believe that I don’t,” she said. “There are so many phenomena that are potentially a science I don’t understand. So there you go.”

But she’s clearly hedging her bets in what she called “a Carl Sagan-kind-of-style answer.”

Some normalcy seeped through the phone connection. At one point, Foster’s mixed-breed rescue dog, Ziggy, started barking furiously at a delivery person.
Foster’s move into directing came because she had always been told her acting career would be over by the time she was 40.

“I had to just kind of make room for directing,” she said. Although, in her crowded mind, it was never enough.

“I was also raising small children, and didn’t make the amount of projects I wanted to make as a director,” she said. “I’ve only made four films and a bunch on TV as a director, which is not much, considering I started when I was 26.”

Never mind that she supplied the voice for Maggie Simpson, the baby on the animated television show, “The Simpsons.” Foster has also taken on some tough film roles. In “The Accused,” she played a young waitress who is gang raped. That won her an Academy Award for Best Actress.

Two years later, she starred in a thriller of a different nature. In “The Silence of the Lambs,” the great tension in the film lies between Anthony Hopkins, who plays the imprisoned killer and cannibal, Dr. Hannibal Lecter, and Foster, who plays a young FBI trainee, Clarice Starling.
click to enlarge "Hello, Clarice."
  • Clarice Starling, played by Jodie Foster, meets Dr. Hannibal Lecter, played by Anthony Hopkins, in this scene from "Silence of the Lambs."
“I remember there was a lot of discussion behind-the-scenes from my people, specifically my mom,” she says. “Like, ‘Wait a minute. Why are you lobbying to do this movie that centers the great opportunity for performance is Lecter’s performance, and Clarice is so quiet?’ There was a lot of pushback from her about the movie, about how grizzly it was, and how difficult it was. And maybe after just having won an Oscar, maybe I should do something different.”

“The Silence of the Lambs” won Oscars in all five major categories, including Best Picture, the only horror film to do so. And Foster again won the Oscar for Best Actress.

“It’s not that many times in a lifetime that you have something that lives up to your idea of the pot at the end of the rainbow,” said Foster. “You get this Frankenstein monster you create, that you never knew exactly how it was going to be. Had ideas about how you were hoping it would be. But I really feel like ‘Silence,’ that all of us surpassed the dreams that we had for the movie.”

For the record, Foster is not a vegetarian. But, unlike Dr. Hannibal Lector, she is not a cannibal.

“Cannibalism as a metaphor is very interesting,” she said, “and Lector talks about that a lot in the book. And, you know, Ted Bundy talks a bit about it. So, as somebody who's a literature major and cares about text, for me, that was fascinating.”

So mothers are maybe not always right, but they seem to have good intentions. By being picky over the last two decades of her career, “I’ve really made room for my life, in a way,” Foster said. “I had to. Because no one else was going to.”

She took time off. She went to college. She took her kids on vacations. She made room for her life; to raise two children. “I was there for every minute of what they did,” she said.

It’s part of what she calls her “design for living.”

“Probably anybody who turns 30 starts thinking about that,” Foster said. “What am I doing here? What’s the point? Why am I on this hamster wheel?"

She thinks maybe she’s had a bit longer to think about that.

“I started working when I was 3,” she said, “and part of the beauty of being a child actor, having a creative outlet, meeting new people, and going lots of places comes with a lot of responsibility as well.”

Responsibility to family. And responsibility to serving the public.

“And so, obviously, I got to thinking about all this stuff very early on,” Foster says. “You know, how to do the right thing and how to be the person I wanted to be. And some of that meant that I had to police the industry to make sure that it wasn’t taking my life away. Make sure that I was able to have integrity, I guess, and not work myself to death, and live life and have something to say, and stand up for the right things and know myself."

Because others insist on intruding on the public person’s design for living, Foster dealt with stalkers over the years. Most notoriously, the assassin who attempted to take the life of President Ronald Reagan claimed he did it because he was trying to get the attention of Foster. In his hotel room, the man had a copy of “The Catcher in the Rye,” the book referred to in the opening paragraph of this story. The men who murdered John Lennon and the actor Rebecca Schaeffer had the same book with them when they committed their crimes.

So Foster treads with caution. “The Accused” and “The Silence of the Lambs” are entertainments. Otherwise, it’s a world of trouble out there.

Now, at 60 years old, she knows the right thing for her and for the world when she was six years old, or even when she was 25, is not the same as it is now.

“I’ve made lots of mistakes, and I’ve done the wrong thing, thinking I was doing the right thing, and I’ve justified the wrong thing,” she said.

It’s the convolutions of doing the right things. For other young actors. And for her kids.

“They just need moms,” she said. “They just need somebody who’s been in the business and can say, like, ‘No, have faith in yourself. You’re a wonderful actor and if you take two years off, you’re going to find something. Even if it’s an episode of, whatever. You’re going to be able to prove what a wonderful actor you are again. So take the two years off that you need, in order to be a sane person, because we don’t want to see you in a ditch somewhere.”

Jeff Spevak is Senior Arts Writer for WXXI and CITY Magazine. He can be reached at [email protected].

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