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The Curious, Courageous Career of Jodie Foster

The past 20 years of the actress-director’s career have been peculiar and unpredictable. In ‘Hotel Artemis’ she returns to the screen after five years, and reminds audiences what makes her so special.

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Identifying actors with their characters is bad and lazy. By all accounts, Alan Rickman was an adorable person while being known for playing terrifying villains in Die Hard and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves; despite playing the original manic pixie dream girl in Garden State and then another iteration in Closer, Natalie Portman has a psychology degree from Harvard University. But when an actor’s roles are characterized by how unusual they are, it’s hard not to see an unconventional person behind them. Nicolas Cage has played everything from bad lieutenants and insane criminals to sweet romantics and bizarre family men, presumably because he could never be just any one of them.

From her very beginnings, Jodie Foster stood out. A child prodigy, she was cute in kid-bait like 1976’s Bugsy Malone, but also had the raspy voice of a chain smoker. In her teens, she became a star by interpreting Iris, an underage prostitute even more blasé about her situation and the dismal state of the world than her new friend and protector, Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle. After winning an Oscar for The Accused, she doubled the feat three years later; at 29, she played the only person Dr. Hannibal Lecter would rather talk to than eat in The Silence of the Lambs and, somehow even more strikingly, the only woman in the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit. In a genre not necessarily known for strong female roles, she made Clarice Starling an enduring heroine. The rest of the ’90s saw her dive further into prestige Hollywood and establish her movie star-ness with the kind of unusual roles in midbudget films that are rare today, such as the period drama Sommersby (1993) and the freewheeling Maverick (1994). For playing the mysterious hermit Nell (1994), she received her third Best Actress Academy Award nomination.

Perhaps the fierce independence of these captivating characters explains why, in a strangely circular way, there are so few of them on her résumé. Foster’s 49-year career hasn’t been an exponential rise to worldwide recognition but rather an irregular series of astounding turns, failed bold moves, and periods of absence. She never played another part resembling Taxi Driver’s Iris and avoided the tough FBI parts despite her success with The Silence of the Lambs—still, she has always favored such strong characters. Her fine traits and figure are a compelling contrast with her distinctively deep voice, a combination that lends itself well to odd protagonists that may at first seem inoffensive, but hide a complex psyche that her precise and expressive acting style slowly reveals. The bizarre thriller Hotel Artemis, now in theaters, marks Foster’s return to feature-film acting after five years and sees her try something new and daring as a reclusive older nurse secretly taking care of the criminal tenants of the titular institution (she’s gotten better reviews than any of her costars). The actress herself admits to being picky with her roles and never wanting to do the same thing twice. In the past decade, this determination to do things her own way has made her path ever more tortuous, but also richer. Foster is pursuing her craft and her own heart with a new assurance. The results are often mixed, but always fascinating.

After a series of successful mainstream action thrillers in which she played strong women—including concerned mothers under siege in both Panic Room and Flightplan—2008’s Nim’s Island allowed Foster to try on another bizarre character: Alex Rover, an author of adventure novels for kids, who surprises her biggest fan (Abigail Breslin as Nim) when she turns out to be not only a woman, but an agoraphobic and germaphobic one, too. Gender-flipping, antisocial, and tortured by various pathologies, this character made for some interesting acting choices, but unfortunately not for a successful film. After Nim’s flop, it took Foster three years to return in front of the camera—and, some 16 years after her underrated Home for the Holidays, behind it.

Foster has been outspoken about the incompatibility of her independent personality and an acting career. In the midst of her early success, she took a break to study English literature at Yale and later chose to focus on her family, determined to be present to raise her children. But directing was always on her long to-do list. “I didn’t want to be the most successful director, or the highest paid, I just wanted to be somewhat of an auteur,” Foster told The Observer in December 2017. It might still be difficult to pinpoint her characteristic authorial touches, but never taking the easy route is assuredly one of them. She chose to jump into feature directing straight after the worldwide phenomenon of The Silence of the Lambs, and with a wildly different film: Little Man Tate was a typically 1990s family drama about an exceptional little boy wanting to be accepted by society. But the very subject of the misunderstood outsider fit perfectly with Foster’s persona. Distancing herself further from Clarice, Foster cast herself as the protective single mother. The film received positive reviews; from then on, her career followed two tracks, acting and directing, and neither of them would be straightforward. Her second feature, 1995’s Home for the Holidays, may have been sold as just another holiday drama, but it was filled with family secrets, past regrets, a tender coming-out subplot, and satire of the absurdity of American Thanksgiving traditions.

Foster’s directorial follow-up, 16 years later, was never going to be an easy sell. The Beaver was meant to be a comeback project for Mel Gibson at a low point in his career. Gibson was in dire straits, and the film’s subject matter is literally a cry for help: a man ravaged by incurable depression finds salvation in extremis in an old beaver hand puppet that takes control of both his tongue and his life, to a mixture of alarm and relief from his family and curiosity from the outside world. The Beaver’s semi-comic, semi-horrifying handling of depression is puzzling, but Foster isn’t pretending otherwise. The puppet’s/Mel Gibson’s British accent is deeply unsettling on its own, and Gibson’s fight against his own hand, although making for one of his finest onscreen moments (reminiscent of the horror comedy Evil Dead II), is fucked up beyond anything Hollywood usually allows. Confidently directed and acted by Foster (who plays Gibson’s wife), The Beaver is ultimately a savage and eccentric—if not entirely convincing—look at how the coping mechanisms we develop can be more selfish and dangerous than helpful. Unfortunately, Foster casting Gibson didn’t turn out to be worth the joke; a week before the film’s premiere at the South by Southwest Film Festival, Gibson was charged with misdemeanor battery and became the subject of several tabloid and newspaper stories. She steadfastly stood by her friend and star: “I know that he has troubles, and when you love somebody you don’t just walk away from them when they are struggling,” she told The Hollywood Reporter then. The scandal buried the film and its strangeness under rather lazy comparisons between Gibson and his depressed character. It grossed less than $1 million domestically.

Following this flop, acting became even more of a rare endeavor for Foster. She gave a typically great performance in the vicious chamber drama Carnage, but working with the exiled Roman Polanski had its own negative associations; shooting with two infamous and controversial men in the same year disappointed many of her fans. After two more years of radio silence, she returned as the second-billed star of the big-budget dystopian Neill Blomkamp film Elysium. Pitted in a villainous role against Matt Damon’s hero, Foster played Delacourt, a fascistic defense minister enforcing drastic anti-immigration laws to keep the less privileged from leaving the polluted Earth. Mixed reviews and disappointing box office results didn’t deter Foster. When she received her lifetime achievement award at the Golden Globes, she gave a speech that is much better remembered for her innuendo-heavy phrasing of her coming out than for its declaration that nothing could keep her from telling stories as a filmmaker. Foster’s refusal to “honor the details of [her] private life with a press conference, a fragrance, and a prime-time reality show” marked her yet again as one of the most liberated, no-bullshit figures and filmmakers currently working in Hollywood.

The rise of independent prestige television helped Foster keep her promise to focus on directing. In 2013 and 2014, she refined her skills with two episodes of Orange Is the New Black and one of House of Cards. Money Monster, with its $27 million budget, remains Foster’s biggest swing to this day. A thriller about the despair caused by the financial crisis and its subsequent exploitation by the media, the film proved that Foster was integrating her off-screen political commitment with her work. Money Monster came out after a group of similarly topical films: Charles Ferguson’s documentary Inside Job (2010), Oliver Stone’s Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010), J.C. Chandor’s Margin Call (2011), and Adam McKay’s The Big Short (2015) had all laid the path and created expectations about the subgenre. And obviously, Foster was the only female director to tell this type of story.

After The Beaver, Money Monster was another effort audaciously centered on a troubled man, in the story of a Jim Cramer-esque TV host, played by George Clooney, who is taken hostage on air. Reviews were mixed; the script’s “shrill, reductive quality” was the main culprit for critics. Foster’s directing was praised as “the most fluid and well-considered of her career.” Money Monster didn’t make much money either. It never followed through on a promising first weekend and ultimately earned just $93 million worldwide, a failure given its starry cast and attendant hype.

Despite this series of disappointments, Foster perseveres in her independence. Last year, she returned to a subject dear to her by directing a Season 4 episode of Charlie Brooker’s technophobic anthology Black Mirror. “Arkangel” centers on a mother-daughter relationship, echoing not only Foster’s maternal roles but also her own relationship with her mother, who pushed her to acting at a young age. Foster follows the duo from the daughter’s difficult birth to her teenage years, when the microchip that her mother had implanted becomes a dangerous intrusion on her privacy. In many ways, this hour-long episode is the opposite of Panic Room: the cameras are now placed inside the daughter’s eyes, terrifying mom instead of reassuring her whenever stressful things enter her daughter’s vision. Foster’s direction, too, is as emotional as David Fincher’s was cold and clinical. It is as though the actress was taking her legacy and bravely reworking it from her new perspective as director.

With Hotel Artemis, Foster ends her acting break but not out of any necessity or fear of missing out. “Especially now, I find it much more satisfying just to act because I love it and for no other reason,” she recently told Slant. The film itself, a high-energy dystopia set in riotous L.A. only 10 years from now, is yet another strange choice, at once fitting and at odds with the rest of her career. Her return in Hotel Artemis only proves that Jodie Foster can check out any time she wants, even if she never leaves.