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Jodie Foster Makes It Work

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Growing up so publicly, Jodie Foster seemed as likely a candidate as any for the full-color, first-person confessionals in the supermarket mags: TEEN STAR CRASHES AFTER LIFE IN THE FAST LANE. Foster got her first job – a Coppertone ad – at age three and was the main support for her family by the time she learned to sign her name in script. Beginning a discussion about her childhood, she's quick to point out that it was not normal. "You can't shove Ozzie and Harriet down my throat and tell me to be happy, because it's not me," she says. For nearly two decades, Foster has had reporters dissecting her early years – particularly her relationship with her divorced mother and manager, Evelyn "Brandy" Foster. One interviewer even showed up with a psych book on gifted children. She didn't mind when he read aloud from it.

"I get analyzed to death, and that's okay," Foster says, grinning. "That's what I'm here for." Talking about her childhood, she can do serious, she can do Freudian. And she can do jokes, just like her mom did every time she'd wisecrack, "HEY, where's my DAD?" "Immaculate conception" was Brandy Foster's stock answer, though Jodie knew her mother had filed for divorce before she realized she was pregnant with her, the fourth child. Born in the Bronx to a strict German family, Brandy Foster was raised in Rockford, Illinois. In the Fifties, she left home for Los Angeles, where she married Lucius Foster, an air-force officer who became a real-estate executive. The marriage lasted ten years. Jodie has seen her father only a few times. She is several years younger than her two sisters and one brother. While she watched cartoons, they went through the customary periods of rebellion. They had parties when her mom wasn't home. Her brother was a surfer. The big kids had the big fun. (It was the late Sixties.) Jodie was good. "I was the model child," she says. "I spoke three languages and got straight As, had no curfew, wore a uniform." In school she was obedient, did her homework ahead of time. Though she tested as gifted academically, she says her real precocity had to do with reading people.

"I was born more sensitive to events and behavior and what they mean," she says. "I paid attention to it. That's part of what makes me a good actor, I think. And my history is very different than other people as well. I mean, I wasn't raised in the nuclear model American family." Understand, please. She would never call it tragic, never say she was deprived. It was okay. But she did grow up with people who had hard lives. They were mainly women – her mother among them – stuck in late-Sixties California with no husbands, plenty of kids and back-alimony blues. "The single-parent family obsesses me in some ways because it's all I've ever known," she says. "Everyone I grew up with was a single-parent kid. All my mom's friends were divorced women, and they would sit around and talk about that asshole and that bastard, whatever." Men might come and go, but the women were always there.

"There was Aunt this and Aunt that, and they'd pick me up from school, and she'd pick up their kids," says Jodie. "It was like you had a new family – the nonnuclear American family. The casualties of divorce."

She stops, and adds the customary punctuation: "It wasn't horrible. It was just – what it was." What all those fourth-estate analysts seem to miss, she says, is the less obvious reason for her closeness with her mother. It's not so much that she was a child star but that she was the child of a single parent. "I do have a strange relationship with her," she says. "When you are a single parent, it has edges and mixed messages that other people don't have. It's more intimate, and it gets uglier."

Foster is voluble, almost evangelical on this subject – one she has just dealt with intensely as a first-time director. In Little Man Tate, she plays the single mother of a child prodigy. "The single-parent relationship is something people don't understand," she says. "How your son can be your son, but you dance with him. And you get dressed up for him. And sometimes you say mean things to him because you want to hurt him."

It follows, she says, that her relationship with her mother is not perfect: "She pisses me off. We yell at each other. She says something cruel and mean to me, and I say something cruel and mean to her – typical Nancy Friday [My Mother/My Self] stuff." Nonetheless, she cannot imagine life without her mother's nearness. "She's smart and she's lived and she has things to tell me that I couldn't know," she says. "And I have things to tell her. We're partners."

They were alone together from the time Jodie was ten and the older children had moved out. They lived across from the Hollywood Bowl, in a house that stuck out amid the pastel bungalows. Its singularity mortified her at the time. "My mom painted our house terra cotta," Foster says. "She wanted to make believe she lived in Italy or something. It was that time in the late Sixties when you didn't want to be American."

When Jodie wasn't working, Brandy picked her up from school – the French-speaking Lycee Francais – and took her to movies by Truffaut, Chabrol, Blier, Fellini. She drove a Peugeot, stocked the refrigerator with borscht and Korean kimchi, hauled the kids to Thai, Vietnamese and Philippine restaurants. Wonder Bread was unknown. "We were the original sun-dried-tomato family," says Foster.

Though she was frequently on TV – in Crest commercials, My Three Sons episodes and the like – the small black and white set in her mother's bedroom was frequently unplugged and off-limits. She says it was not missed. And if Brandy helped expand her cultural and culinary horizons, she also taught her kids about personal boundaries. "She's an only child, and she doesn't like to be around people that much," Foster says of her mother. "When I was a kid, we had a whole area that we weren't allowed to be in. She'd go there, read her watercolor books, books on architecture." Again, the sensor is going off. "I think that's good. That's cool."

Foster says she finds this need for solitude just as compelling. "One of the things that worked well with my mom was that we left each other alone," she says. "We could be alone together." Often, weekends were spent just wandering around the house with books and magazines, eating takeout, watching old movies. "We were the pajama family," she says.

By all accounts, she was never afflicted with a pushy stage mother. If Brandy prodded her daughter in anything, it was academics, since she had little faith in the actor's life as a sustaining career choice. "I'm always at her," says Brandy. "I want her to go back to school and get her PhD." There's so much downtime on sets and between films. Jodie can be so professorial anyway. She could stand up at a podium and preach. And so what if it took twenty years? She'd have something to fall back on. "I don't want that kind of actor personality and neurosis to set in," her mother says, and laughs. When Jodie was a child, Brandy always knew what she could handle.

Of the labor board's protest over Jodie doing Taxi Driver, Brandy says: "It absolutely infuriated me. I knew morally how strong she was. She had been working years and years. And she's always been taught that what you play is pretend time." Even now, make-believe can get rough, and Brandy still travels with her daughter occasionally if the film location is attractive or the work extra hard. When Brandy read the script for The Accused, she decided that she had better pack for Vancouver. "The violence in that film really worried me," she says. "It was devastating for her. She was bruised."

She stayed with Jodie during the week the rape scenes were shot. After work, the two women would walk a seven-mile loop in a nearby park. A year later, they walked down the aisle together on Oscar night at the Shrine Auditorium, and when Jodie made her acceptance speech, Brandy sat gripping her grandson's arm as her daughter thanked her before a billion people. "I almost lost it," she says.

Family is one of Jodie's happier obsessions, especially her five-year-old niece, Amanda, who lives with her parents outside Paris. "All of a sudden, she'll say, `I just want to see Amanda,' " says Brandy. And Jodie is gone, on a plane across the country, across the Atlantic. She will always go the distance for children. She has always been a caretaker since she was so very small. Jodie always does Thanksgiving. Whenever she's in town, she makes big, gloriously messy dinners for people, picks up restaurant and vacation checks.

Home is a new house "way out in the Valley," not far from her mother's home in Calabasas and a freeway eternity from any studio. It's the kind of drive that often leads Jodie to wait out rush hour in the dark, alone in a movie theater, ordering dinner from the popcorn stand. She sees everything, is still mad for the movies.

Brandy says that if there is one thing she gave all her children, it's a sense of honor. Jodie is very honorable. Brandy has never heard her be vicious or try to hurt anyone. If she can think of one failure with Jodie, it's in not being able to convince her daughter, once and for all, that despite her energetic end runs around star treatment, she's not allowed to be like everyone else. "I don't think she has enough sense of danger," Brandy says. "She can be very cavalier about walking in the street, not realizing that anyone recognizes her or would be any danger to her. And that's frightening to me. She still will open up her front door without looking to see who it is."

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