The Top 10 Movie Performances of Jodie Foster

From sci-fi favorite Contact through to Clarice Starling, we chart the finest film work of the wonderful Jodie Foster...

Jodie Foster: Twice Academy Award-winning actor. Long-term superstar. Queer icon. Husky of voice, tom of boy and tough as nails – but able to bring an immense vulnerability with it. She’s played wisecracking kids, waspish moms and a whole catalogue of women pushed to their limits. But there’s a through-line a mile wide: these are all, to a number, strong and independent women. Except, that is, when they’re strong, independent girls.

So why, when faced with a survey of her career, is it so frequently frustrating? Flashes of brilliance tempered by the odd lapse in judgement, curious mis-steps, and flawed, almost-great-actually-a-bit-shit movies that haunt her CV. Somehow it doesn’t quite match up with her extraordinary reputation: award-winner, superstar, icon. 

But it doesn’t have to be this way. You see, Jodie Foster’s unpredictable career is the result of an actor steering a course that’s thoroughly, resolutely her own. Foster is one of the few actors in Hollywood utterly in charge of their own destiny. All the more impressive when you consider just how hostile an environment Hollywood is to stars like her. Now they give her Lifetime Achievement awards, and she gives us prickly coming out speeches, and everyone is happy and no one is happy.

Jodie Foster, like her career, is difficult to second guess, but that’s what makes her great. And I know what you’re thinking, that whole The Beaver thing. Surely Foster, of all people, has earned the right to do whatever the hell she wants by now. And you know what? Good luck to her. She’s Jodie Foster. SO LONG SUCKERS!

Now, here are her best bits.

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10. Nell

Oh crikey, this is weird. Produced by Foster, it tells the story of a young woman raised alone in a cabin by an aphasiac mother, the only threads connecting her to so-called civilised society seemingly being a hulking great bible which she can’t read, and a few personal affects.

Foster spends the first act speaking in a kind of ur-language and building a rapport with kindly doctor Liam Neeson and ambitious researcher Natasha Richardson. Then comes the invasion of real life, you know, that ‘civilised’ society – actually a bunch of rednecks and vaguely malevolent medical professionals and things take a predictable turn for the worse.

The whole thing should be an absolute cringefest, not least because it actually has a scene where Nell stands up in a courtroom and delivers some slurred TRUTH BOMBS about who the real uncivilised people are here (clue: not her). Instead, the film is saved by Foster’s choice to dial back her physical performance – think more fragile than feral – and allow the simple humanity of Nell plenty of room to breathe.

9. The Brave One

After a brutal attack in Central Park leaves Jodie Foster’s radio host Erica Bain in a coma and her fiancé dead, Bain goes on to exact revenge . . . by going to the police station and looking in on the file. So far so non-vigilante. But you know what pushes Bain over the edge? Bureaucracy! Police bureaucracy! Tired of sitting in a waiting room for a police officer to show, she decides to take matters into her own hands and buys a gun off a shady guy in Chinatown. Yeah! Fuck bureaucracy!

Thing is, she’s pretty trigger happy and is soon taking out the scum of NYC. Also, because she has an apparently experimental slot on the radio, she’s able to draw the city into the story; walking around late at night with a microphone, picking up the steady hum of urban malaise. It’s kind of like Taxi Driver if Travis Bickle had a field recorder and a show on Resonance FM. How’s that for career development?

Really though, this is Jodie Foster having a pop at that kind of hardboiled vigilante movie, terrain normally ringfenced for grizzled tough guys. Parlaying her hardened determined, independent vibe into full-blown (anti)hero territory, she carries the film and the script’s serious shortcomings into an enjoyable, if bumpy, ride.

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8. Contact

Robert Zemecki’s 1997 sci-fi film has some seriously lofty aspirations; the celluloid equivalent of a long, meaningful gaze at the heavens and, much like the heavens, Contact is multi-faceted, deep and at times seemingly infinite.

Clocking in at two and half hours, it tells the story of Dr. Ellie Arroway, a scientist who has dedicated her life to searching for transmissions from extraterrestrial life. With her SETI facility facing threat of closure from the government, they pick up a signal – and it seems legit (Hitler video aside, you didn’t get that with the WOW signal). The film goes on to explore themes of God, handily represented by Matthew McConaughey’s religious philosopher turned spiritual celeb and politician (James Woods plays a shady NSA guy) and, of course, science. Lots of science.

Now, give or take the bolted on love interest, the film actually makes quite a good fist of exploring such complex issues. However, remove Foster’s central performance, and the thing would be in zero gravity. After all, it’s her character’s story that is supposed to represent the universal curiosity of the human spirit. Frequently railing against the big, bad government bogeyman, her character is so driven by something that may or may not exist that she borders on unsympathetic.

Ultimately, though, she maintains a wide-eyed wonder that links her back to the child we meet at the start of the film. Does she find what she’s looking for? Who knows, but she does find herself, and after a bum numbing two and a half hours, that’s the best you can hope for.

See also: looking back at Contact.

7. Carny

When Jodie Foster’s restless teenager Donna dumps her wet boyfriend and her dead end waitressing gig to run away to the Great American Carnival, she chases the freedom embodied by the carny way of life. She ends up with rapist extortionists, a punch up in a diner and some lame bromance baggage.

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Indeed, while the movie deals in some questionable dynamics – Foster’s teen seriously cramps the relationship between Gary Busey’s clown and Robbie Robertson’s brooding huckster – it demonstrates Foster’s ability to take a two-dimensional character and remake it in flesh, blood and moxie. An undeniably more ambitious film than Foxes, the teen drama Foster also made in 1980, both films see Foster tapping into a sense of particularly teen-flavoured alienation. Here though, she’s allowed to hold centre stage.

In one scene, Donna provokes a brawl with a bunch of truckers, much to the mortification of the others. Her cocky grin and Lolita-like confidence bottles a particularly teen-age bloody-mindedness, wearing her newfound carny status like any other badge of rebellion. In a later plot development, when she joins the circus’ stripper troupe, she expertly meshes gawky awkwardness and pitched up bravado to excruciating effect. Caught between childhood and adulthood, this role seems an attempt to leave behind her child actor status and safeguard her future career as an adult. It worked. Oh, and that scene where she hustles those local girls at the Pull-A-String? Classic.

6. Little Man Tate

Foster’s directorial debut tells the story of a child prodigy called Fred with extraordinary abilities but in the words of one of the characters, played by David Hyde Pierce, “it’s not so much what he knows, but what he understands”. Perhaps this is why Foster identified with the character of Fred, her own precocious talent always tempered by an uncanny maturity.

As well as directing the movie, Foster plays his ordinary, working class single mum Dede who does what she can to protect a son who has anxiety dreams where he’s trapped in famous artwork and is thrown into states of existential dread by the news headlines. Quiet and unassuming, this film is as much about Dede’s struggles to give Fred a normal childhood as it is about the very thing that makes him abnormal: his burgeoning genius coaxed and cultivated by a child psychologist played by Diane Wiest.

But where the movie really succeeds is capturing the tension between ex-dancer Dede’s working class status and the intellectual and rarefied world her son comes to inhabit. This is made especially clear when Fred returns from his school, ladened with pretentious scientific insults, and berates the piano mural Dede has painted for having the wrong number of keys. Foster’s reaction conveys that heartbreaking realisation that all parents have at some point. That A) their sweet kids have become hideous brats and B) the more her child develops, the further apart they will become.

Of course, Dede does the right thing and packs him off with the (strangely judgemental) psychologist so he can become great, but not before she takes her aside and warns: “If anything happens to him, anything at all… l’ll kill you. Now, I don’t mean that I’ll just hurt you. I mean that I’ll kill you.”

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5. Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore

“She looks like a boy and talks like a man.” So ran one critic’s summation of Jodie Foster’s small but scene-stealing performance as mildly delinquent Audrey in Martin Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. Generally considered her first important screen role, it marked the moment she swapped the juvenilia of apple-cheeked kids’ roles in TV shows and adverts for headstrong girls/women who have little truck with living up to society’s expectations.

Here she swaggers and smirks, going by the name of Audrey because she doesn’t like her given name of Doris and generally acting as a bad influence on the wide-eyed Tommy (“You wanna get high on Ripple?”). The scene where she gets Tommy drunk on wine is intriguing in as much as it demonstrates the difficulty with which the adolescent Audrey occupies the space around her; restless, bored, awkward, gawky, batting a lamp shade and pacing the room.

Seriously, you can count on one hand how many portrayals of tomboys there are in Hollywood history, and this is surely one of the greats. It was a performance that marked her out as a young actor mature way beyond her years, and of course, Scorsese was paying close attention.

4. Panic Room

David Fincher’s follow up to Fight Club saw him have a ball with what might have been a fairly rote studio thriller. Panic Room follows a recently divorced mum and her pre-teen daughter (Kristen Stewart, clearly picking up the tomboy torch for a new generation) on their first night in a new Manhattan Brownstone. A pad formerly owned by a secretive millionaire and boasting en suite bunker. Right on queue, three intruders (played by Forrest Whitaker, Jared Leto and Dwight Yoakam) force their way inside in search of a sum of money in a suitcase. A suitcase secreted in the panic room which, ah damn, is exactly where mother and daughter have locked themselves. What happens next is a kind of Rear Window meets Home Alone, with lashings of blue filter and swooping, CGI camera techniques.

Originally conceived with Nicole Kidman playing Meg, the studio almost pulled the plug when Kidman pulled out due to injury. Foster stepped in and made the film hers. She plays a mum – rich, probably sophisticated but excruciatingly uncool to her Sex Pistols t-shirt wearing daughter. She can’t even swear right. Still, in mortal danger and with her daughter’s plummeting blood sugar levels adding an extra layer peril, Meg Altman makes a formidable match for the housebreakers, hardwiring dead phones, torching propane in the ventilation shaft and generally countering every attempt the criminals make at dislodging them.

Normally women in peril pictures are unwatchable and exploitative, but Foster’s gritty presence and rapport with Stewart makes for something altogether more intelligent and rewarding. In fact, it was so good, Foster made it again in the form of 2005’s Flightplan.

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3. The Accused

The Best Actress category at the 1989 Academy Awards was a Platonic ideal of Best Actress categories. It’s eternal, immutable, the Best Actress category against which all Best Actress categories will be judged. Meryl Streep, Melanie Griffith, Sigourney Weaver and, of course, Jodie Foster all duked it out. It was Foster, though, who walked away with the statuette for her performance as rape victim Sarah Tobias fighting for a shred of dignity. The film’s themes feel as important today as they did then, the character’s hard partying and unrepentant drug use weakening her testimony. Even her own lawyer (Kelly McGillis) is wary of putting her in the dock, opting to make a deal with the rapist’s lawyers and agrees to lower the charge from rape to reckless endangerment.

Crucially, Foster plays Sarah as a real person; she gets hideously drunk, takes drugs and flirts with guys. She also knows that she was a victim of rape and will live through even more pain if it means the rapists will be brought to justice. Early in the film, she realises that she’ll have to return to the bar where it happened to identify the men and a look of incredulity, then fear spreads across her features. By the time she’s taken another drag on her cigarette, it’s hardened into determination. A masterclass in conveying so much with the slightest of gestures.

When the film slips into courtroom drama, with lengthy flashbacks and testimony of the rape itself, it becomes a tough watch, and you’d expect nothing less. However, the shared moment of victory at the end, sealed by the briefest of hand holds between Foster and McGillis, is absolutely magical.

2. Taxi Driver

It still makes you bristle, seeing an actual 12 year old child portraying a 12 year old child prostitute. Even, or perhaps especially because Jodie Foster plays her with such street-hardened maturity. She wasn’t first choice for the role, with Linda Blair originally cast in the role before withdrawing. However, after her performance as Audrey in Scorsese’s 1974 film Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, Scorsese put the call in to Foster.

Taxi Driver is, obviously, brilliant: a nightmarish snapshot of one deeply damaged individual exposing himself to the city, the “ Whores, skunk pussies, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies”, that feed his bile (literally, he thinks he has stomach cancer). However, the scene where Jodie Foster’s Iris agrees to go to breakfast with the deeply troubled Travis Bickle, his mental scars finding relief in a misplaced saviour complex, provokes incredulity at his paternal earnestness.

But for all her street smarts, hot pants and businesslike approach to her job, watch how she slathers the jam and the sugar on her toast or swaps out her dime store sunglasses mid-way through the conversation, a cutting reminder that for all her posturing (“God, you are square”) she’s still a young girl. A point rammed home even later, when she reveals she doesn’t want to work the streets anymore and suddenly her hardened exterior recedes, revealing a frightened child. As her pimp gathers her in his arms and slow dances with her, his adult frame against the smallest of hers makes for a seriously uneasy few minutes.

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1. The Silence of the Lambs

Here it is. You knew it was coming, and it’s no real surprise. But ultimately, it’s difficult to really overstate how incredible this performance is. Jonathan Demme’s thriller is brilliant and I could write a whole treatise on why it’s the greatest film of all time. But now’s not the time and you don’t need that Spotify playlist of Buffalo Bill’s favourite songs by The Fall.

Silence of the Lambs was a huge commercial and critical success upon its release in 1990, grossing $272.7 million worldwide and scooping the Big Five at the Oscars. You knew that. You also know that Jodie Foster plays top FBI student Clarice Starling as her archetypal tomboy all grown up. She’s resilient as hell, “doesn’t spook easily” and steels herself against many a man’s hostile stares (at the wake, in the lift, while she’s running for goodness’ sake).

When she’s assigned the task of questioning Hannibal Lecter in his reinforced glass cell at a high security prison, Foster’s ambition is tempered by fear: as she walks towards Hopkins standing alert in his cell, her jaw clenches as if holding back fear of Lecter, yes, but fear of failing. There’s an excellent moment when Foster allows Starling’s nerves to betray her, laughing excruciatingly with the lame joke segue into the reason why she’s really there.

Revealingly, Demme uses tight close-ups on Foster’s face during Hopkin’s lines, capturing her reactions in unflinching detail. As he dismantles everything about her, including her cheap shoes, roots, homely background and, most memorably, her West Virginia accent (one of the most memorable accents in a film ever) you see her physically shrink. Indeed, Foster’s physical performance in Silence of the Lambs is notable, visibly puffing out her chest when addressing a room full of patronising cops, sometimes sinking right back into the padded shoulders of her tweed jacket. Her vulnerability remains obfuscated, sealed off from the men around her, to be glimpsed in fleeting moments – a hesitation, a flicker of emotion, the beginnings of a tear – or stolen, as when we catch her pain reflected in the mirror of the inquest room.

Of course, central to this film is the chemistry between Foster and Hopkins (“people will say we’re in love”) and it’s extraordinary to watch. It’s difficult to imagine anyone other than Jodie in the role, who could have matched up to Hopkins’ own campy, powerhouse performance even when there’s been someone (Julianne Moore, in the godawful Hannibal). The denouement in Buffalo Bill’s house is not only preceded by one of the greatest pieces of cross cutting, but is also one of the most viscerally scary scenes in cinema. And that’s before we get to how refreshing, not to mention rare, it is to see a woman rescue another woman in film. But of course, what did you expect? All hail.

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