We Are All Her Foster Children

Photo by Collier Schorr

In 1974, at the age of twelve, Jodie Foster swaggered onto the big screen as Audrey in Martin Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. She was a vision of androgynous bravado.  In the movie, Ellen Burstyn, who portrayed Alice, has a whining, tiresome son, played by Alfred Lutter.  The son is bearable exactly twice: when Audrey gets him drunk on Ripple and when she introduces him to shoplifting. 

Audrey’s wiry hair looks as if it had been cut around a bowl.  Her mother is a prostitute, information she defiantly throws at anyone who will listen. She is a classic “tomboy,” a name given to girls who balk at traditional feminine grooming.  “Tomboy” constructs a safe box around female toughness. It implies a phase through which a young woman will pass, not a permanent defection from a gender role.    

Audrey doesn’t exit gracefully.  “So long, suckers,” she shouts in her last scene.  She wears a long skirt, which, on different actor, might have signaled a coming-to-terms with femininity.  On Audrey, it looks like a hippie bedspread wrapped over her dungarees.

From the ABC After School Special “Rookie of the Year,” 1973

Of course I loved Audrey.  I was Audrey.  Or at least I had been a slightly more scholarly version of Audrey when I was Audrey’s age. In 1974, I was a freshman at Yale, where Foster herself would matriculate a few years later. I had mastered the annoying art of “looking like a girl,” but I didn’t practice it unless I was pressed to do so.  I hung out in black turtlenecks and Gap jeans with a pretentious group of undergraduate cinephiles, who were more zealous and opinionated about movies than any professional critic I knew.  With neither streaming video nor DVDs, we lived for Yale Film Society showings of La Dolce Vita, Metropolis, The Conformist and Breathless.

Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore gave us “hope for American cinema,” as one sophomore Buñuel devotee put it.  In the fall of 1976, we left campus to see Taxi Driver and were so blown away we sat through it twice. Then we came back and saw it again. We homed in on how one year after Robert Altman’s Nashville, not one but two important films fixed on political assassination. 

A still from “Taxi Driver,” 1976

The ending of Taxi Driver shattered us, as, one assumes, Scorsese and screenwriter Paul Schrader expected it to do.  But it would not have worked without Foster. Foster portrayed a child prostitute—when she herself was actually a child.  Thirteen years old.  Despite the hooker get-up–preposterous heels, hot pants, a top that was little more than a handkerchief—Foster brings a lot of Audrey to her character. This shows when she wolfs down a piece of toast bought for her by the eponymous taxi driver, Travis Bickle, played by Robert De Niro, who does not demand sex in exchange for breakfast. 

At the time, I suspected Foster’s inner Audrey hated her costume more than her profession—a perception Foster recently confirmed in The Hollywood Reporter: “I was sniffing back tears because I had to wear those dumb shorts, platform shoes and halter tops. It was everything I hated. I was a tomboy who wore knee socks. But I got over it.”

For the movie’s ending to work, the audience must believe that Foster is a child.  De Niro’s character evolves into a gun nut, who, for complicated reasons, targets a political candidate. When that plan fails, he decides to rescue Foster—slaughtering her pimp and his muscle.  Yet instead of being imprisoned for the bloodbath, he is lauded as a hero.

           Another amazing thing about Taxi Driver is Bernard Hermann’s sultry, riveting score.  My cinephile friends told me to notice it and I did.  The movie pairs a hypnotic saxophone melody with gritty images of New York, a broken city on the edge of bankruptcy.  The score pulls in the viewer even when the film’s images—of violence, of forced sex– make the viewer want to turn away.

Unfortunately, my heightened appreciation of music came at a bad time—before seeing Bugsy Malone, a 1976 movie directed by Alan Parker and featuring Foster.  Its premise is intriguing: tell a classic Prohibition-era gangster story with child actors.  But the movie was a musical, and the music, in the view of my kindest cinephile friend, was “uninspiring.”

FOXES, Jodie Foster, 1980, (c) United Artists

In 1980, when Foster starred in Foxes, she was coded to look like an adolescent. The film details the lives of a group of San Fernando Valley high school girls who are so badly neglected they are almost feral.  It was the directorial debut of Adrian Lyne, who would make a big splash three years later with Flashdance.  Yet while Foster was dressed as a teenager, her character is the movie’s only grown-up. She parents her reckless friends and needy, divorced mother.

Carny also came out in 1980, yet Foster had matured in appearance to the point where she could only be interpreted as a woman—even wearing the sort of jeans and shirts she wore in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.  With this movie, her hoyden heyday was over.  Her career as a mature actor had begun. 

Nevertheless, I think there is a little bit of Audrey in her mature characters, particularly the two for whose portrayal she won Oscars.  They are Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs and Sarah Tobias in The Accused

In The Silence of The Lambs, Foster looks the part of a crisp, buttoned-down FBI agent.  But in the film’s scary denouement, her survival depends on her street smarts as much as her professional education.

Likewise, Sarah Tobias in the Accused could be Audrey grown up. She is defiantly working class, struggling to recover from a brutal victimization by men.

In 1974 when Jodie Foster came into my cultural – even political – line of vision I could not have predicted how the world would change.  A majority of Americans now support marriage equality.  Fun Home won the Tony Award for Best Musical with a central character that Alison Bechdel based on her earlier “tomboy” self, one that could have been played by an earlier Jodie Foster.  Playwright and actress and lyricist Lisa Kron, who won the Tony for Best Book of a Musical and shared the Tony with composer Jeanine Tesori for Best Score, is an out lesbian – as is Foster now, as is Bechdel, as am I.  People have a greater acceptance of gender fluidity.  In many instances, vicious homophobes have themselves been pushed to the margins of society.

As I watch the sun set on the haters, I think of Audrey’s lovely, loutish goodbye delivered with  Foster’s unruffled flair: “So long, suckers.”

  • M. G. Lord is a cultural critic and investigative journalist. She is the author of the widely praised books Astro Turf: The Private Life of Rocket Science, a family memoir about Cold War aerospace culture, and Forever Barbie: The Unauthorized Biography of a Real Doll, and The Accidental Feminist: How Elizabeth Taylor Raised Our Consciousness and We Were Too Distracted by Her Beauty to Notice. She is a regular contributor to The New York Times Book Review and that paper’s Arts & Leisure section. Her work has also appeared in such publications as Travel + Leisure, Discover, Vogue, the Wall Street Journal, The Los Angeles Times Book Review, and The New Yorker. A graduate of Yale, Lord was for twelve years a syndicated political cartoonist and columnist based at Newsday. She teaches in the Master of Professional Writing Program at USC.

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