Tuesday, July 24, 2007
I imagine there are very few film fans who would deny that Jodie Foster is one of the most talented American actresses of the past forty years. From her teenage roles in the likes of TAXI DRIVER to her Oscar winning turns in THE ACCUSED and THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, Jodie has consistently been an actor of uncommon intelligence and strength. I have been equally intrigued by her work behind the camera and the two films she has managed to complete are two that I have revisited often in the past fifteen years.
I must admit that I feel very connected to both the films that Jodie Foster has directed and get pretty emotional about them. One reminds me very much of my childhood while the other makes me remember the most important relationship I have had in my life. I'll try to look at the films honestly and not get too personal but it might be a bit difficult for me, which is why I have held off writing on them.
In 1988, just before her career was about to undergo a major renaissance, Jodie stepped behind the camera for the first time with an episode from the TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE series entitled DO NOT OPEN THIS BOX. This finely tuned episode of the series immediately showed Jodie as someone with a confident directors eye who knew how to compose a shot and work with her actors. This shouldn't have been surprising as Jodie had literally grown up on film sets and had been closely watching everyone from Martin Scorsese to Adrian Lyne.
Shortly after finishing up Demme's THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS in 1990 Jodie began preparing her feature length film debut as a director. Working from a touching and well constructed script from the acclaimed Scott Frank, LITTLE MAN TATE would be shot on a small budget in a number of locations including Cincinnati and Columbus, Ohio in late 1990. The film would premiere at Toronto Film Festival in September of 1991 and would earn mostly positive reviews and was a small hit when it hit US theaters just before Halloween 1991.
LITTLE MAN TATE, with it's focus on a frustrated and lonely child prodigy and his struggling single mom, really hit home with Foster and she brings a really sweet and poignantly easy going directorial style to the film. It is a remarkably assured debut feature that would recall the works of one of Jodie's biggest personal influences, Francois Truffaut, and it holds up much better than most pre-PULP FICTION films of the nineties.
Jodie's fierce intelligence really comes through in LITTLE MAN TATE. Most first time directors, especially actors stepping behind the camera, usually attempt to wow the audience with flashy camera moves and tricks but Jodie is smart enough to not let the style of the film overwhelm its themes or actors. Which isn't to say that LITTLE MAN TATE isn't a beautifully shot film it just isn't a showy one. Working with cinematographer Mike Southon and composer Mark Isham, Jodie's first feature is a lovely and thought provoking little character study that seems about as far away from the formulaic mainstream modern Hollywood film as possible.
Chief among LITTLE MAN TATE'S many charms are the performances Jodie draws from her cast. Nine year old Adam Hann-Byrd is remarkable in the title role, giving an incredible natural and moving performance as the struggling boy genius who wants nothing more to fit in and have fun. Equally compelling is Dianne Weist as the well meaning but overbearing head of the school that wants to take Fred away from Dede. Rounding out the cast is the always great Debi Mazar and in a very solid performance, a young Harry Connick Jr. Jodie herself plays Dede and it is actually one of my favorite performances of hers even though she seems slightly unhappy with it on the dvd's valuable commentary.
Reportedly Joe Dante was originally set up to do LITTLE MAN TATE and I imagine it would have been a much different film had Dante directed it. I think Dante's LITTLE MAN TATE would have been a good film but Jodie brings a real humanity and feminine touch to the film that seems essential to the thematic feel of it. There is never a moment in the film where we feel separated from Dede and what she is going through, it is a much more honest look at what it is like to be a single mother raising a child than most Hollywood films have ever even thought to picture. Much credit has to go to Frank's outstanding script for this as well.
I feel a very strong connection to LITTLE MAN TATE. While I was far from a boy genius (as a look at my grades will attest to) I was mostly raised by a single mom and LITTLE MAN TATE gets this dynamic so right that I find it to be one of the most knowing relationships between a mother and son in American film history. I also relate a lot to Foster anyway and I grew up with her and her films. It is also noteworthy to recognize just how much Foster obviously loves not only Truffaut but the French New Wave as a whole and LITTLE MAN TATE feels much closer to say Eric Rohmer than Steven Spielberg.
I had just graduated from High School when LITTLE MAN TATE came out and it remains a really special film to me. It was a film that I thought a lot about and watched my first year at college and it is a work that I still get very emotional about.
Jodie would win a second Oscar for SLIENCE OF THE LAMBS just as LITTLE MAN TATE was getting ready to hit home video and she quickly stepped back in front of the camera for a series of more great performances including SOMMERSBY (1993) and NELL (1994) before directing her second feature, 1995's HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS.
HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS is an even more accomplished film that LITTLE MAN TATE and one of the most underrated films of the nineties. Jodie had just seen Mathieu Kassovitz's intense LA HAINE and had been instrumental in bringing it to American shores. Jodie obvioulsy had this film in mind as HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS would, like LITTLE MAN TATE, have a much more European feel to it than most Hollywood films of the nineties.
On its incredible commentary track Jodie says something along the lines that she wanted to make an anti-holiday film as she was tired of the overly nostalgic and sentimental attitude of most Thanksgiving and Christmas works. HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS certainly isn't the first film to look at a dysfunctional family around the Holidays but it is hard to think of a more insightful one. Working from a script by W.D. Richter with an astonishing Holly Hunter leading one of the best ensemble casts of the nineties, Foster's film is a funny and bold look at how much family members can damage each other.
Joining Hunter's Claudia Larson are Robert Downey Jr. (one of his best performances) as her brother, Charles Durning and Anne Bancroft as her parents and a young Claire Danes as her daughter. Foster would call Danes the best actress of her generation and if Danes hasn't yet lived up to her promise, at least her small turn in HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS is among her best.
Even shot more unfussy than LITTLE MAN TATE, Jodie's direction of HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS is incredible in how easily she maneuvers between each character and storyline. This couldn't have been an easy script to film and many seasoned directors would have had trouble balancing it out but Jodie never slips.
It is perhaps a bit ironic that Jodie Foster's anti-holiday film has become one of the key holiday films of the past decade. It is routinely stuck in with all the classic holiday films for sale between Thanksgiving and Christmas and pops up on tv all the time in those two months. It has defiantly become my Thanksgiving film of choice as I can heavily relate to its cynical and finally hopeful nature.
I saw HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS with my girlfriend Jennifer in November of 95 and it remains one of my most memorable and emotional film going experiences. There is a moment towards the end of this film when Jodie allows us to see a special memory for each of her characters. I remember glancing over at Jennifer and wondering if that moment with her in that theater would turn out to be one of those special memories for me...and over a decade after losing her, I must say, it is.
HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS received some baffling mixed reviews and only did modestly well at the box office. There are very few films from the nineties that move me more than Foster's second film as a director though and I will take it over most of the decade's 'great' films.
Since HOME FOR THE HOLIDAY'S Jodie Foster has yet to direct another film. Her doomed FLORA PLUM project is apparently never going to happen and her announced SUGARLAND appears to be in trouble. I think it's tragic that such an obviously intelligent and skilled director like Jodie can't get these projects off the ground. Hopefully one day she will return to the directors chair but if not LITTLE MAN TATE and HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS make up a fine, if small, legacy for her.
Both films are available on dvd and they each come with two of the most insightful, intelligent and honest commentaries I have ever heard. Much like the film's themselves, Jodie Foster comes across in these talks as someone not only incredibly smart but finally very human and real. They both remain very special works to me, as does their creator who I first saw nearly thirty years for the first time in the original FREAKY FRIDAY.