The Beaver: Jodie Foster’s Enduring Relationship With the Insane

May 11, 2011

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The Beaver: Jodie Foster’s Enduring Relationship With the Insane

Movie folks think they are better than you or me, and sometimes they are right. Jodie Foster, for example, isn’t the world’s best director, but she may be the bravest. Who else would have the brass to direct her old buddy from 1994’s Maverick and today’s leading object of collective hatred, Mel Gibson, in The Beaver, a good dramedy about hereditary manic depression?

The two stars courageous enough to speak up for Gibson repeatedly (and he needs a lot of speaking up for) have been Foster and Robert Downey, Jr. Gibson stood by Downey during his drug problems, but Foster is rare among stars in that the great scandal of her career—John Hinckley, Jr. shooting President Reagan in 1981 in a demented effort to impress the then Yale coed—was not her fault.

The frostily private Foster wouldn’t seem to need much standing by. Yet The Beaver’s point is that everybody does. (When this Mayflower descendant needs a friend badly, however, you probably aren’t going to hear about it until she sublimates it into a movie.)

“Jodie’s performance in the marital sex scenes is remarkably ardent. That’s some damn fine acting!”

It’s taken me decades to appreciate Foster because she tends to radiate a sense of herself as Homo superior. Granted, this isn’t wholly unwarranted: She was reading at 18 months and earning a paycheck as an actress at three years.

There’s been a strangely enduring relationship between this calmest, most preternaturally professional of actresses and the insane. Her adolescent role in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver as a prostitute who drives an obsessed Robert De Niro into attempting a political assassination morphed into Hinckley’s art-becomes-reality rabbit hole. She won an Oscar sparring with Hannibal Lecter.

In real life, she’s been stalked by two more psychos since Hinckley. Yet even the craziest male maniacs should have gotten the joke that Foster is a little too tomboyish to be interested.

Over the years, Foster has pursued projects dwelling on nature/nurture questions. She directed Little Man Tate, the story of a single mother raising a child prodigy. Her Egg Pictures produced The Baby Dance about surrogate mothering. She then gave birth to a son by an undisclosed sire. She was widely rumored in the British press to have eugenically searched out a handsome scientist with a 160 IQ to be the donor. In Foster’s life, art tends to foreshadow action.

For much of the last decade, Foster struggled with Jewish groups who have so far successfully blocked her most grandiose ambition: to play Leni Riefenstahl, the Nazi film directrix of Triumph of the Will.

My attitude toward Foster finally changed while watching Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s 2004 WWI drama Un Long Dimanche de Fiançailles (A Very Long Engagement). Jodie suddenly pops up in a high-impact supporting role, speaking—as far as I could tell—impeccable French. (Foster was valedictorian of Le Lycée Français de Los Angeles.) It’s almost unheard of for an American star to risk humiliation by attempting a role in a foreign-language film. Yet the normally boyish Foster threw herself into the role of a French woman lustily trying to conceive (the old-fashioned way).

In The Beaver, Gibson plays an executive who inherited the family toy company after his depressive father committed suicide. He has become catatonically depressed, too, which appalls his older son, who fears inheriting the illness.

Kyle Killen’s screenplay asks the unpopular question: “To what extent can people change?” Therapy, books, and pills haven’t helped the businessman. His longsuffering wife, an engineer who designs (metaphor alert!) roller coasters, is played by the normally boyish Foster in one of her most womanly and endearingly ordinary performances. She finally tosses Mel out, so he tries to hang himself from his hotel room’s shower curtain rod. Unsurprisingly, this doesn’t work.

More bizarrely, he returns home in a chipper mood, with a large brown beaver puppet on his left hand that offers him good advice about getting a grip on himself.

Mel’s younger son is overjoyed by how much more fun dad (and/or his furry new friend) is. But Jodie’s character is freaked out when he gives her a card that reads, “Hello, the person who handed you this card is under the care of a prescription puppet.…” (Some psychotherapists actually do use puppet therapy with children, but nobody tells grown men to speak only via a puppet with a Michael Caine accent.)

The Beaver’s acting and screenplay are better than last year’s hysterical Oscar winner The Black Swan, but the score isn’t by Tchaikovsky. Cherry Jones, a lesbian activist actress, drags down every scene she’s in. And Foster doesn’t quite have the directing chops to make us wonder whether Mel’s manic spell after he becomes a national celebrity isn’t all in his head.

Still, Jodie’s performance in the marital sex scenes is remarkably ardent. That’s some damn fine acting!


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