The superb actress and director Jodie Foster turns 60 on Nov. 19. She has been acting for 57 of those years. She has sustained her career by consistently challenging herself in front of and behind the camera, and staying out of the tabloids. “If you had been a public figure from the time that you were a toddler, if you'd had to fight for a life that felt real and honest and normal against all odds, then maybe you, too, might value privacy,” she has said.
Her work is real and honest. Here are 10 essential films to celebrate one of Hollywood’s most enduring artists in her seventh decade.
10. The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane (1976)
The role: Rynn
The title sounds like it came from a nursery rhyme, but trust us, this is no nursery rhyme. Foster, at 13, carries this unsettling creep show as Rynn, who lives alone in her seaside Maine house. Where are her parents? Alexis Smith, as Rynn’s landlady, and a particularly unnerving Martin Sheen, as Smith’s predator son, come close to discovering Rynn’s secrets. It does not go well for them. This underseen gem was one of five Foster films released in 1976.
5-star Foster moment: Smith corners Rynn in her home and demands to speak to her father. But no one puts Rynn in a corner!
9. Freaky Friday (1976)
The role: Anabel
“I wish I could switch places with her for just one day,” say both Ellen Andrews and her 13-year-old daughter, Annabel — and presto, they find themselves inhabiting each other’s bodies and spending a chaotic day in each other’s shoes. In Disney’s generation-gap comedy, Foster’s poise and precociousness serve her well in embodying her inner adult, and Barbara Harris is an absolute hoot as the adult who gets to cut loose (as did Jamie Lee Curtis in the 2003 remake).
5-star Foster moment: Annabel’s mother (in her daughter’s body) gamely tries to explain to her daughter’s friends why she is “diametrically different” from the Annabel they all know.
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8. Bugsy Malone (1976)
The role: Tallulah
Alan Parker’s musical (with songs by Paul Williams) pays homage to the classic Hollywood gangster film, but with lip-syncing children as the guys and dolls — guns shoot whip cream instead of bullets. This was Scott Baio’s finest hour as the titular Bugsy, but Foster slinks away with the show as a gangster’s hard-boiled, wise-cracking moll, who never stops trying to compromise our hero. (“C’mon, sugar, how about smearin’ my lipstick?”) Roger Ebert said it best: “Bugsy Malone is like nothing else.”
5-star Foster moment: “When they talk about Tallulah/You know what they say/No one south of heaven's gonna treat you finer/Tallulah had her training/In North Carolina.”
7. Inside Man (2006)
The role: Madeleine White
Spike Lee’s propulsive heist film is a thrilling cat-and-mouse battle of wits between detective Denzel Washington and Clive Owen’s hostage-taking bank robber. But it’s Foster, in a rare dark-shaded role, who steals the show, as a fixer whose job one is to make sure Owen doesn’t get his hands on her benefactor’s safe deposit box.
5-star Foster moment: Foster wants Owen to stop being her problem and start becoming her solution. “Oh, come on,” she coos. “I made you such a sweet offer.”
6. Little Man Tate (1991)
The role: Dede Tate
But what she really wanted to do was direct. Foster was herself a child prodigy, and Scott Frank’s script about the relationship between a working class mother and her preternaturally gifted son clearly resonated with her. Foster also stars as the mother who enters into a battle of wills for her son’s soul with Jane, the more clinical psychologist (Dianne Wiest) who recruits him for her special school.
5-star Foster moment: Dede puts on a brave face while sending her son off to Jane’s school, and then goes all Mama Bear on her with a clearly stated warning on what she will do to her if anything happens to him.
5. Panic Room (2002)
The role: Meg Altman
Foster’s most memorable characters are fierce, but none is more fiercely protective than Meg. When three intruders invade her home, Meg is no damsel in distress. She grabs her daughter (Kristen Stewart) and hightails it into their smart home’s fortified, relatively safe panic room. Like Dede in Little Man Tate, she will do anything to protect her kid, a diabetic whose much-needed medication is located outside their shelter.
5-star Foster moment: Holed up in the panic room, Meg has a message for the intruders who want something in that very room: “We’re not coming out and we’re not letting you in. Get the f--- out of my house!”
4. Contact (1997)
The role: Dr. Eleanor Arroway
Foster’s intense intelligence is key to one of the best science fiction films of the past 25 years. Radio astronomer Arroway has spent her life watching the skies and listening for extraterrestrial signals. Her universe is rocked when one day she receives them, launching a spaced-out odyssey involving the intertangled concepts of science and faith.
5-star Foster moment: [Spoiler!] On an alien landscape, Arroway is reunited with her father, who encouraged her upward and outward gazing and died when she was a child. The look of awe and childlike wonder on Foster’s face is this classic Robert Zemeckis film’s greatest special effect.
3. Taxi Driver (1976)
The role: Iris
The movie that put her on the map and earned her first Oscar nomination as the preteen prostitute, whom Robert De Niro’s mad cabdriver Travis Bickle is determined to rescue from the streets. Like Rynn from Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane, Iris is a girl robbed of her childhood and forced to grow up too fast.
5-star Foster moment: [To De Niro’s Travis Bickle:] “I don’t know who’s weirder, you or me.”
2. The Accused (1988)
The role: Sarah Tobias
Foster earned her first Oscar for her heartbreaking yet empowering performance as a woman whose gang rape in a local bar is only the beginning of her humiliating ordeal. Foster’s Sarah is flawed and fiercely determined to get justice in a system that instead puts her on trial.
5-star Foster moment: Sarah barges into the home of her lawyer (Kelly McGillis) and berates her for a deal that got her attackers a reduced punishment. “I don’t know what you got for sellin’ me out, but I sure as shit hope it’s worth it!”
1. Silence of the Lambs (1991)
The role: Clarice Starling
She earned her second Oscar for her iconic performance as a rookie FBI agent, insecure yet ultracompetent, whose bond with incarcerated serial killer Hannibal Lecter (fellow Oscar winner Anthony Hopkins) takes her to some very dark places.
5-star Foster moment: Time is running out for Clarice to find serial killer Buffalo Bill before he murders his latest captive. But before Lecter — ranked in 2003 by the American Film Institute as the screen’s number 1 villain — will help her, he insists she share her most traumatic childhood memory. Foster nails the scene and perilously confronts Buffalo Bill.
Donald Liebenson has written on film and entertainment for AARP, The Washington Post, Vanity Fair and the Chicago Tribune.