Foster wins as a victim

Actress: The two-time Academy Award winner has carried the banner for women in Hollywood.

March 30, 2002|By Ron Dicker | Ron Dicker,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Jodie Foster has played the victim many times, and does so again in the new thriller Panic Room, which opened yesterday.

That would seem a contradiction for an actress considered a pioneer for women in Hollywood. With due respect to the 1940s actress Ida Lupino, Foster was perhaps the most visible leading lady to direct and produce first. She also blazed a trail by slowing her career for college, graduating magna cum laude from Yale in 1985.

Swallowed by a cushy chair in a hotel room in Park City, Utah, Foster does not look the part of industry stateswoman. With her cat's eyes peering behind black-rimmed glasses and slim figure sheathed in a black turtleneck, she looks more like a hip librarian.

But the two-time Academy Award winner - today is the 10th anniversary of her Oscar for Silence of the Lambs - has been happy to carry the banner for female empowerment. Women in the industry still thank her.

"It feels great," she says. "I have to be honest, though, I got given all these opportunities because I was an actor. I was valuable to people, and they could exploit another side of me.

"Hollywood is well-meaning. It's just that when it comes to giving $5 million to a stranger and patting them on the back and saying, `Go ahead, go make the movie. I trust you,' women are just not the first people they bring into the boys club."

After two previous directorial outings, Little Man Tate (1991) and Home for the Holidays (1995), Foster is trying to get her third, the 1930s circus-set Flora Plum, off the ground after a long delay. The star, Russell Crowe, hurt his shoulder just three weeks before shooting was to begin last year. Then came the birth of Foster's second son, Kit. (She has a 3-year-old, Charlie.)

In the meantime, Foster will fill the big screen with two vastly different roles. In Panic Room, she is a mom who seeks refuge with her daughter in a vaulted quarter of their New York brownstone to evade violent burglars. In The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys, out later in the spring, she plays a mother superior in a coming-of-age tale about Catholic school students.

Altar Boys gave Foster a chance to nail the school-marm persona after a tepid effort in her last movie, 1999's Anna and the King. Foster, a petite 5-foot-4, considers herself too small to be commanding, but the tense mouth and mummy-like limp she employs in the film make her imposing enough.

Panic Room, co-starring Forest Whitaker, Jared Leto and Dwight Yoakam as the robbers, turns Foster back into a cornered animal. She won her first best-actress Academy Award for playing a rape victim in Accused (1988). Silence of the Lambs (1991) highlighted a dynamic in which she was used as a pawn by one madman (Anthony Hopkins) and nearly killed by another.

Other victim portrayals include her backwoods savant in Nell (1994) and her prostitute Iris in Taxi Driver (1976), for which she received a best supporting actress Oscar nomination. (She later received awkward publicity because President Reagan's would-be assassin, John Hinckley Jr., said he was inspired by her character.)

"I do think that there was a long time in my life that I played victims - women that were under difficult circumstance and who managed to survive," she says. "I'm sure there were all sorts of psychological reasons I was attracted to those parts. But when you look at women's history, [being a victim is] a good percentage of it."

Foster, who turns 40 in November, is private about a lot of things, her personal life above all. She does not answer questions regarding the paternity of her children. Told that her protective stance only heightens curiosity, she replies, "I'm just who I am. It doesn't have anything to do with me being a public figure.

"You know, in America, you go into an elevator, and within five minutes, some lady is going, `Well, yes, I'm divorced, my husband cheated on me and I make this much money a year.' I don't want to know all that. I just am not like that. I wasn't raised that way. It would be really uncomfortable and be very trivializing for me to be that way."

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