When Jodie Foster ’85 last directed a film (“Home for the Holidays”), Bill Clinton LAW ’73 was only two years into his presidency, Pierce Brosnan had just stepped in as James Bond and TLC was “chasing waterfalls.” 1995 was a long time ago.
Tremendous success in front of the camera had come naturally to Foster. She received her first Academy Award nomination when she was only 14 years old (Best Supporting Actress for “Taxi Driver”), and before she turned 30 had earned two Oscars for lead performances in “The Accused” (1988) and “The Silence of the Lambs” (1991). Foster’s acting not only drew rave reviews from the critics, but also brought widespread public recognition, as she became renowned for bringing strong, inspirational female characters to life onscreen. In turn, she gained greater creative power offscreen.
Foster always sought to move behind the camera and found her first opportunity to direct a feature in 1991’s “Little Man Tate.” “Tate” was a personal story for Foster; like the main character Fred, a boy genius, she too grew up away from her peers and was a child prodigy raised by a single mom. Opportunities for Foster to wear her director’s cap since have been few and far between. Over the years, her success as a performer in films as diverse as “Nell” (1994), “Contact” (1997) and “Panic Room” (2002) has obscured her attempts to branch out from acting.
It wasn’t until “The Beaver,” which will be released next month, that Foster finally found a path back to directing in a project she has called “the most challenging professional experience of [her] life.” For years “The Beaver” topped Hollywood’s blacklist, a list of the best unproduced screenplays. It was linked to comedians Steve Carell and Jim Carrey before coming to Foster’s hands. She chose to take the concept — a man uses a puppet to get back in touch with his family — in a different direction, calling on her experience as a storyteller to shift the emphasis from the laughable premise to the story’s emotional core.
Even now, in the final promotional push before the film’s wide release on May 20, Foster has continued to stress that “it’s not what you think it is.” Instead of focusing on the puppet, she has explained that the movie assumes a much darker tone than the audience might expect. It’s part of the campaign set by the film’s distributor, Summit Entertainment, which has called on Foster to make endless publicity rounds for her movie — trips to radio stations and TV shows, countless interviews — to reach out to different audiences and raise interest in the movie.
The subject of “The Beaver” has been difficult to market from the beginning, but by far the most trying problem has been Mel Gibson. Following the huge public controversy surrounding the leaked audio of Gibson’s phone messages to his girlfriend this summer, as well as his past troubles with alcohol and bigotry, the film remained on the shelf for months with no release date in sight. Summit had picked up the rights last summer, but was afraid to go ahead with the film’s distribution, certain that failure at the box office was all but inevitable. As Gibson has become old news in recent months, Summit decided on a spring release. Although it will be nearly impossible to detach reality from Gibson’s performance in the film (which so closely mirrors his own personal struggles), Foster has taken it upon herself to staunchly defend her longtime friend and his contribution to the movie.
With Gibson out of the spotlight, Foster has taken responsibility for clarifying “The Beaver”’s subject matter and dealing with the fiasco surrounding her co-star. The product stays true to Foster’s other two directing efforts as an intensely intimate work both onscreen and off — each a personal story as much about relationships and people as about the filmmaker who made them. Foster has said that the director “always knows where the train’s headed … and always has a clear hand of discipline.” Though she has demonstrated that she has the fierce resolve to make and market a difficult film, the critical and financial success of “The Beaver” in the coming weeks will determine if Foster will see more opportunities to direct in the future. No pressure.