Jodie Foster's 10 best film performances
(Credit: Twentieth Century Fox)

From Martin Scorsese to Robert Zemeckis: Jodie Foster’s 10 best film performances

Normal is not something to aspire to, it’s something to get away from.” – Jodie Foster

American actress and director Jodie Foster has received widespread critical acclaim for her work in cult-classics such as Taxi Driver and The Silence of the Lambs, including two Academy Awards, three British Academy Film Awards, two Golden Globe Awards, and the Cecil B. DeMille Award. She has also directed episodes in popular series like Black Mirror and Orange Is the New Black, earning an Emmy nomination for the latter.

Foster started her career as a child model when she was just three-years-old and made her acting debut in 1968 in the television sitcom Mayberry R.F.D. She majored in literature and graduated magna cum laude from Yale University while she was already a teenage icon due to her iconic role in Taxi Driver and for starring in Disney’s Freaky Friday.

“I always liked to tell my mom when I was little, and my mom asked me what I would do when I would get older, I always said I just wanted to be a professional talker,” said Foster in an interview. “That’s what I ended up doing.”

She added, “I didn’t make as many movies as I was hoping I would. I do regret that I didn’t direct more in all those years, that I only managed to direct four movies in the course of 30 years or something. That’s just ridiculous, but I got busy. I had kids. I had a company. I was acting.”

On her 58th birthday, we revisit some of Jodie Foster’s best film performances as a celebration of her illustrious career.

Jodie Foster’s 10 best film performances:

10. Bugsy Malone (Alan Parker – 1976)

This 1976 gangster musical comedy is a delightful spoof of the genre, featuring child actors in adult roles and machine guns that fire gobs of whipped cream instead of bullets. Foster received critical acclaim for her work as Tallulah a gun moll and singer in a nightclub, winning two British Academy Film Awards for Best Supporting Actress and Newcomer to Leading Film.

Alan Parker said, “Jodie Foster…had made more films than I had, so probably knew more about film-making. She was 13 but had been acting since she was three, and had just filmed Taxi Driver. She got on well with the cast, and certainly wasn’t aloof, which she had every right to be. I suspect she relished being surrounded by kids for once, as she had spent her professional life surrounded by adults.”

9. Maverick (Richard Donner – 1994)

Foster stars in Maverick as Annabelle, a con-artist who teams up with card-player Bret Maverick (Mel Gibson) in order to enter a high-stakes poker game. The film was nominated for an Academy Award and Foster’s performance earned her a nomination for Funniest Actress in a Motion Picture (Leading Role) at the American Comedy Awards.

“I loved doing my character Annabelle,” Foster said. “She gave me a chance to give vent to my sense of humour, which is sassy and a bit nasty, not sweet, like Mel [Gibson]. I loved debunking the myth of the femme fatale you know, the woman who’s passive, helpless, and speaks in those funny accents and takes advantage of everybody.”

She added, “Hey – she’s a con artist! Annabelle thinks she’s so dignified – `How dare you!’ she says – and then she walks into a door or falls on the ground. She’s pretending to be a lady, and the truth is she’s vulgar and a klutz. In all, it was the best experience I’ve ever had making a movie, the happiest I’ve ever been on a project, including any of my own.”

8. Panic Room (David Fincher – 2002)

Inspired by news coverage in 2000 about panic rooms, David Fincher’s psychological thriller features Foster and Kristen Stewart as a mother and daughter whose new home is invaded by burglars. They decide to hide in the panic room but the intruders want something that is in that very room. Foster’s performance was well-received by critics and she was nominated for a Saturn Award for Best Actress.

While talking about the film, Fincher reflected, “I learned that you can’t make a movie just because it’ll be hard. My agent sent me this script and said, ‘You’re not going to want to read this because it all takes place in one house, and it’s a logistical nightmare,’ and I was just, ‘I might be interested in that!’ I’m a little bit of a contrarian.”

7. The Brave One (Neil Jordan – 2007)

Often called a female version of the classic Charles Bronson film Death Wish, this psychological thriller stars Jodie Foster a New York City radio host who loses her partner when thugs beat them up. Determined to take revenge, she arms herself with a pistol and becomes a vigilante. For her performance, Foster received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress.

“As an audience member, you’re asked to progress on this journey with her,” Foster said of her character. “It makes you cheer in places that you wished you hadn’t. It kind of taps into this very true, very authentic, very human, but also very shameful side of us.”

6. The Little Girl Who Lives Down The Lane (Nicolas Gessner – 1976)

Based on Laird Koenig’s 1974 novel, Foster plays a 13-year-old child whose absent poet father and secretive behaviours make her conservative small-town Maine neighbours suspicious. She lives alone in her family house and spends her days reading the books her father has left for her. The film won two Saturn Awards and achieved cult status in subsequent years.

The filmmaker said, “Directing one of those unique, really magic actors is like a violin player being blessed with a Stradivarius. Jodie, in fact, was quite different from the girl described in the novel, but those differences were never a contradiction. By adding her own personality, her talent, her intelligence, her intuition, her understanding, Jodie enhanced and intensified the feelings she had to express, creating a new, fascinating character.

“Another bonus was Jodie’s surprising knowledge of cinematic technique her feel for the camera, the lighting, the movements, everything. And she avoided all the typical pitfalls of child actors. She was an accomplished professional at 13-years-old.”

5. Contact (Robert Zemeckis – 1997)

This complicated 1997 sci-fi film is a film adaptation of Carl Sagan’s 1985 novel and stars Foster as a radio astronomer who discovers the existence of intelligent aliens through radio signals. Perfectly portraying the determined scientist, Foster fights against bureaucratic regulation and religious fanatics in order to discover the mysteries of the universe. For her performance, Foster won the Saturn Award for Best Actress.

“Certain actors have their own process, but I approach it the same way I always have, which is to take them into a room, talk, and go through the script line by line by line,” Zemeckis said. “Somebody like Jodie [Foster, in Contact] wanted to read every line in rehearsal and hear what her character would sound like. I’m fine with that, but I generally don’t ask my performers to actually perform during a reading.”

Adding, “Most actors that I work with are wonderful. Jodie Foster or Tom Hanks will make anything work. I’ll say, ‘I’m sorry, but I need you to do the most unnatural thing and twist your body like this and lean over here and say this line,’ and they’ll say, ‘Yeah, I can do that.’ They’ll make it work, and they won’t chafe about having to do something unnatural. Because everything about making movies is very unnatural.”

4. Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese – 1976)

Martin Scorsese’s 1976 masterpiece Taxi Driver is often regarded as one of his finest works, of course, but also as one of the most influential films in the history of cinema. Scorsese’s searing investigation of masculinity and disillusioned aggression is a rebellion against the emptiness of the universe and at the centre of it is Robert De Niro’s iconic performance as Travis Bickle, an ex-marine and Vietnam veteran who works as a cab driver in New York City. Foster plays the role of Iris, an underage prostitute for which she received her first Oscar nomination (Best Supporting Actress).

Robert De Niro and I had a bunch of outings, where he took me to different diners around town and walked through the script with me,” she said of their character prep. “After the first time, I was completely bored. Robert was pretty socially awkward then and was pretty much in character, which was his process. I think I rolled my eyes at times because he really was awkward. But in those few outings, he really helped me understand improvisation and building a character in a way that was almost nonverbal.”

3. Nell (Michael Apted – 1994)

Based on Mark Handley’s play Idioglossia, Foster stars as a woman who has lived her entire life with her mother in an isolated mountain cabin in North Carolina. When her mother passes away, she is discovered by Dr. Jerome Lovell (Liam Neeson) who is fascinated by her own private language and slowly introduces her to human society. Foster won the inaugural Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Leading Role and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress and the Golden Globe Award for Best Actress.

“Otherness is a big thing for me,” Foster said. “I’m always drawn to characters that live lives that I couldn’t lead. People who survive and don’t allow the world to change them. Maybe this movie will give someone the idea that if Nell can be herself, maybe it’s OK for them to be brave, too, about their idiosyncratic natures and their otherness.”

2. The Accused (Jonathan Kaplan – 1988)

Foster won her first Oscar for her fantastic performance in this 1988 legal drama as a young waitress who is sexually violated by three men at a local bar. She teams up with deputy district attorney Kathryn Murphy (Kelly McGillis) in her quest for justice. Foster also won the Golden Globe for Best Actress as well as multiple other awards and nominations.

The actress said, “I knew I wanted the role, but I was scared of it, honestly. So I hung out with my friends and went out dancing. I was too scared to read the script again; I did absolutely no preparation whatsoever. Then I got to Vancouver and realised what I was in for. I did a little research.

“The truth is, I’m playing a victim. I didn’t need to learn how to be that. I think I needed just to be free and feel like somebody who is that age [in her early 20s]. I’d never gotten to be that age because I was a child actor and worked for a living.”

1. The Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme – 1991)

Foster’s most iconic performance is probably her portrayal of Clarice Starling, a young FBI trainee who seeks the help of the unsettling cannibal Dr. Hannibal Lecter (played by Anthony Hopkins) in order to catch another serial killer.

Hannibal helps her understand the mind of a psychopath while he asks her details about her own life, playing with her psychological stability. The film won five Academy Awards, including Best Actor and Best Actress wins for Foster and Hopkins.

“For me, it was so important to make there was a healing process, to finally playing a woman who saves the women,” Foster said. “The film is still relevant today. We are moving forward and we’re at a very painful and interesting place in our conscious whether it’s about violence or race.”

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