From the late 1970s to the mid-1990s, few women in the movies were cooler than Jodie Foster. An exceptionally talented and levelheaded actress, Foster earned an Oscar nod at age 13 for Taxi Driver, graduated from Yale with honors, and won two Academy Awards for Best Actress for The Accused and The Silence of the Lambs before she turned 30. After Silence, Foster enjoyed a string of box office success in the 1990s, including Maverick, Nell, and Contact. But a decade later, Foster's career is now notable only for its utter unremarkableness, her credits now coming from a small pile of forgettable thrillers and dramas like Flightplan, The Brave One, and Nim's Island. Then came The Beaver, Foster's third outing as a director, which was bafflingly released in the midst of star Mel Gibson's total meltdown in the press and made less than a million domestically. The Roman Polanski-helmed Carnage, a dark comedy about two warring sets of parents, is the first film in over a decade to give Foster a chance to flex her formidable acting muscles. Can Carnage and a few strategic PR moves salvage Foster's rep after the mega-flop of The Beaver the most disappointing decade of her career?
No, because interesting roles for women in Foster's age bracket are damn near impossible to find.
Call it the Debra Winger Syndrome. (Who? Exactly.) In Hollywood, interesting roles for actresses of any age are in limited supply, and they become downright scarce for actresses over 40 (and Meryl Streep gets half of them). That scarcity easily explains why Foster has shown none of the creative adventurousness of her younger years when she played, for instance, a child prostitute in Taxi Driver, a hermit who invents her own language in Nell, a Victorian schoolteacher-turned-royal adviser in Anna and the King, and a peg-legged nun in The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys. Instead, the last decade has seen Foster invariably play besieged mothers or stern career women—the same roles offered to every other fortysomething actress—and hardly a stretch for a woman whose public persona, at least, seems very much that of a fiercely protective mother and a no-nonsense workaholic.
Yes, because playing mothers in crisis pays off for A-listers.
In recent years, several thirty- and fortysomething actresses, working with indie directors, have bolstered their careers and drawn critical praise by portraying mothers in crisis. Examples from this year alone include Tilda Swinton in We Need to Talk about Kevin, Charlotte Gainsbourg in Melancholia, and Ellen Barkin in Another Happy Day. Understandably, the audiences for these films aren't huge, but no cinephile would accuse Swinton, Gainsbourg, or even Barkin of having dead careers. Carnage doesn't offer Foster and her co-star Kate Winslet the abysmally tragic material to work with as the films mentioned above, but it does offer them substantive roles in which the female characters and actresses have opportunities to be just as interesting (and crazy) as their male counterparts.
No, because Foster's too picky about her directors, but not picky enough about the films.
Foster's recent collaborations in films by David Fincher (Panic Room), Spike Lee (Inside Man), Neil Jordan (The Brave One), Roman Polanski (Carnage), and District 9 director Neill Blomkamp (the upcoming Elysium) strongly suggests that she's interested in not only working with, but also learning from, serious directors. By a strange stroke of sustained bad luck, however, none of those films wound up being their director's best work, with the possible exception of Elysium (too soon to tell). Foster has stated in recent interviews that she could foresee getting out of the acting biz entirely to devote all her energies to directing, so she might not be too upset about the hits her box office mojo has taken, given all she's learned from working with those auteurs. But as an actress, there's no denying that her decade of chasing talented directors who aren't particularly interested in women characters has kept her in that fortysomething actress rut.
Yes, because she has branched out to directing and producing.
Foster's feature film debut as a director was actually 1991's well-reviewed Little Man Tate, which she also co-starred in. Her two follow-ups-1995's Home for the Holidays and 2011's The Beaver—received mixed reviews, and not surprisingly, few flocked to theaters for the latter to watch a hateful crazy man pretend to be a charming crazy man. But Foster's continued forays into directing and producing will ultimately afford her the opportunities to be as quirky in her role choices as she used to be.
No, because she seems excessively concerned about keeping her lesbianism under wrap.
Like Anderson Cooper, Foster's homosexuality has long been one of the worst-kept secrets in Hollywood. Her one-foot-in-the-closet PR strategy makes her seem like an anachronism—a figure from a bygone era before Ellen awkwardly danced her way into Middle America's heart—and makes her appear defensive, not discreet, about her gayness to Generation Overshare. Thus, it's hard not to read Foster's choice in mother role after mother role as part of an overly cautious effort to make her gay parenthood (Foster has two children) appear "normal." She further alienates her natural fanbase—lesbians, feminists, and mama grizzlies of all political stripes—by defending her friendship with human-slug hybrid Mel Gibson and collaborating with Roman Polanski, who is a fine director, but also an unrepentant child rapist.
Yes, because Hollywood loves a comeback.
Just look at what a small but memorable cameo in a no-budget stoner movie with two unknown "stars" did for washed-up TV actor Neil Patrick Harris. Despite the lacklusterness of her several previous roles, Foster is undoubtedly one of the finest actresses of her generation and enjoys a tremendous amount of critical and audience good will. And with her trademark square jaw, thin lips, husky voice, and intelligent blue eyes, few actresses in Hollywood look and sound like her. If Foster can develop a sense of humor about herself and commit to caring about her acting career enough to salvage it, she could easily pull an NPH-like career resurgence by proudly coming out, doing a few against-type roles as weirdo non-moms playing, for example, an one-eyed pirate or a jaded fortuneteller or even (gasp!) a lesbian(!), and directing, producing, and/or starring in films with interesting roles for women, with no Mel Gibsons anywhere in sight.