The following post is part of a series of on Jodie Foster specifically, and Hollywood actors generally, as historians.
Jodie Foster came out of the post-Silence of the Lambs gate with Little Man Tate (1991), her directorial debut. Although it’s namesake is a precocious, Salingeresque little boy (Adam Hann-Byrd), in a screenplay written by Scott Frank (a newcomer at the time who went on to have a successful career), it’s not hard to see an oblique autobiographical subtext this story about a brilliant child and the tug-of-war he engenders between two powerful women. Foster plays Dede Tate, working-class mother of the seven year-old Fred, who loves him fiercely but lacks the resources, intellectual and otherwise, to develop his prodigious talents. Enter Jane Grierson (Dianne Wiest), who runs an institute for gifted children, but shows startling deficits in nurturing them. It is to Foster’s credit that she chose to tell this notably fair-minded story, which shows sensitivity to some of its specifically gendered dimensions (Harry Connick Jr. does nicely in a brief role that shows the possibilities and limits of male role models for the boy). Little Man Tate is also a hopeful movie in that it suggests that conflicts between adults over children may actually contribute positively to their development when those adults come to realize the important, if incomplete, roles they can have in the life of children. (In this regard, Little Man Tate is a bit like Denzel Washington’s The Great Debaters, a film in which an argument between two men helps forge the strong character of a Civil Rights leader.)
Foster followed Little Man Tate with a bit part in Woody Allen’s Shadows and Fog (1992) one of the better-realized projects of that prolific director. Shadows is Kafkaesque fable set in an unnamed city—think New York or London in the second quarter of the twentieth century—about a man (Allen) ordered to find a serial killer abroad on a foggy night. Mia Farrow plays a circus performer angry with her unfaithful companion (John Malkovich) who finds herself in a whorehouse whose employees include a genial prostitute played by Foster. “There’s only one thing men will brave murder for,” she says in a moment of wry levity with her companions. “The little furry animal between our legs.” Though thoroughly gothic in its black-and-white cinematography, the movie has an upbeat ending that gets about as close as Foster ever does to buoyancy in her movies.