What Makes Her So Special?

'Flightplan' finds Jodie Foster still dealing with her elevated status

In a 2002 interview, Jodie Foster explained why her once-steady cinematic output has recently dwindled to one or two films every few years. "I have to feel really passionate about [a movie] for me to do it," she told Sydney's Sun-Herald. "When I do make a movie, people know that it's something I really care about, it's something that's obsessing me." A glance at Foster's filmography indeed reveals two polar obsessions: the victim roles of her early years (Taxi Driver, The Accused) and the heroic rescuer roles of the past decade or so (The Silence of the Lambs, Panic Room). Her newest film, Flightplan, seems to fall squarely in the latter category. (See Jodie rescue her daughter! See her kick bitchy stewardess ass!) But this sleek, ambiguous thriller isn't such an easy read, especially for Foster fans who know just how thin the membrane has always been between Jodie the victim and Jodie the rescuer--both onscreen and in life.

Set aboard a transatlantic flight, Flightplan throws Foster's recently widowed mom for a double loop when her daughter (Marlene Lawston) mysteriously vanishes and no one recalls ever having seen her. To save her daughter, Foster must first prove to the incredulous crew that she's not crazy--a difficult task since no physical evidence of the girl exists. The ensuing mind games implicitly recall those in The Silence of the Lambs (1991), in which Clarice Starling (who's also searching for a missing person) undergoes intense psychological scrutiny as a means of vanquishing her nemesis. The moral in both films: Save the victim and you also save yourself. In Contact (1997), Foster's astrophysicist must prove to a government committee that an outer space encounter with her dead father wasn't a delusion. In so doing, she's able to heal the younger, traumatized version of herself, played in flashbacks by Jena Malone.

Would it be too easy to pin the star's victim-rescuer obsession on John Hinckley Jr., the man who claimed that Foster had inspired his attempt to assassinate President Ronald Reagan? Foster's stubborn reticence has effectively drawn a journalistic curtain around the whole unsavory episode. (Meanwhile, the other off-limits subject, her sexual orientation, has been parsed ad infinitum by academics and documentarians.) What we know of the Hinckley ordeal is the superhuman fortitude that Foster displayed throughout, bravely continuing her studies at Yale and emerging from the whole media frenzy years later as a sane, successful actress. Foster appears to have metaphysically wrested herself from the grips of a psychopath--a feat that her early movies often incorporated in their own narratives.

Five Corners (1987) is perhaps the closest any Foster movie has come to directly addressing the Hinckley legacy. Playing a twentysomething Bronx girl, Foster fends off the advances of a murderous stalker (John Turturro) who wails, "I want you to like me!" and who ultimately abducts young Jodie...in a taxicab! There's another stalker type in Foxes (1981), a girls-together buddy pic in which Foster must protect her best friend from an abusive, derelict father. And in The Hotel New Hampshire (1985), Foster's precocious teen seeks revenge on a sicko rapist (Matthew Modine) by subjecting him to a similar form of violation. In each film, a fundamental loneliness grants Foster an inner place to retreat, heal, and rebound whenever threatened. But it also cuts her off from family and friends, making her an easy target for predators of all sorts.

Flightplan neatly crystallizes this isolation in a scene where Peter Sarsgaard's air marshal is interrogating Foster about the unlikelihood that she and her daughter were singled out by kidnappers. "What makes you so special?" he asks. The question pierces the heart of the Jodie mystique. This actress, chosen at an early age to be a star, has played many "chosen" heroines. Clarice Starling is chosen by the FBI, just as Contact's Ellie Arroway is chosen by John Hurt's billionaire to front his space projects. In Nell (1994), Foster's backwoods wildchild is taken into observation in a hospital. There, she performs a messianic act of healing on her emotionally stifled doctors. Even in Foster's directorial debut Little Man Tate (1991), a kid genius is plucked out of obscurity and put on the path to greatness. And of course, Foster herself was chosen by John Hinckley. Hardly a divine gift, the state of being chosen inflicts hellish inner turmoil. Foster's first line in Taxi Driver was "Get me outta here!" and this lament of the unwilling victim still echoes strongly today.

 
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