Only four of the 24 films in competition at the Cannes Film Festival this year were directed by women. Statistically speaking, the odds that one will join Jane Campion as the lone woman to win a Palme d’Or are slim — and this in a year when Venice winner Chloé Zhao’s “Nomadland” went on to win three Oscars.
What better moment for the festival to honor one of the industry’s most respected female artists with an honorary Palme d’Or: Jodie Foster, viewed back home
in the U.S. as a talented director and star who’s taken the high road her entire career — and by French as that rare American who speaks their language and deserves their respect.
Foster was 12 the first time one of her films played Cannes. She’d been acting for half a decade on American television by that point, but for many festivalgoers, their first impression of Foster was her brief appearance, as a Tom Sawyer-like influence on Ellen Burstyn’s impressionable young son, in Martin Scorsese’s “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.”
It wasn’t until the following year, 1975, when Foster actually made the trip to Cannes. She had two films in competition at the time, Scorsese’s controversial “Taxi Driver,” which was booed after Robert De Niro rescued Foster’s teenage prostitute character in the film’s bloody climax, and the more comical junior-gangster send-up “Bugsy Malone.”
Tennessee Williams was president of the Cannes jury that year and spoke out against the level of violence in the films he was seeing, swearing that “Taxi Driver” would go home without a prize. His fellow jurors overruled him and gave it the Palme d’Or.
“Taxi Driver” earned Foster her first Oscar nomination as well, but what may have impressed Cannes attendees as much as her performance was a trick she pulled at the press conference. When a journalist posed a question toward the young actor, she waved aside the translator and responded in French.
Turns out, her mom was a Francophile and had enrolled her daughter in a French high school in Los Angeles. The following year, the Fosters moved for nine months to France, where Jodie shot a film, “Moi, fleur bleue,” in her second language.
Foster’s credits are familiar enough to most that they don’t require repeating, though it’s worth reminding that she carved out time to attend Yale, carefully selecting the roles of her adult career.
She won an Oscar for playing a rape survivor who takes on the system in 1988’s “The Accused,” and that the fragile exterior and hidden inner strength she displays in 1991’s “The Silence of the Lambs” are every bit as essential to that film’s success as Anthony Hopkins’ iconic performance.
That same year, Foster made her feature directing debut with “Little Man Tate,” which some read as an inversion of her own experience: Here, she played the single mom trying to clear the path for her gifted but misunderstood young son, when, of course, Foster had been a kind of prodigy herself.
Decades after her two Scorsese projects played Cannes, Foster would return to the festival to present out-of-competition premieres of two films she’d directed, “The Beaver” and “Money Monster.” She hadn’t come full circle so much as evolved to a different tier of accomplishment altogether.
No matter what excuses the Cannes programmers make as to why they select so few women filmmakers, it doesn’t take a sociologist to recognize that the festival curates a kind of exclusive club of artists: Once a director is in, he — because it’s almost always a “he” — is almost always welcome back.
But to be accepted in the first place is the challenge, and Foster pierced that ceiling.
These days, she doesn’t act or direct nearly enough — though she’s helmed episodes of “House of Cards” and “Tales From the Loop,” and delivered the kind of unwavering Jodie Foster conviction that defines her in last year’s “The Mauritanian.”
Fiercely private about her personal life, Foster tends to abhor superficial questions — but she’ll get them. After all, Cannes has positioned her as a symbolic counterexample to any criticisms of sexism this year. It’s as if the festival is saying, “If there were more Jodie Fosters in the world, our lineup might look different.” But alas, she’s sui generis, which is why such a prize exists.