Thursday, November 19, 2015

Birthday Take: Jodie Foster in "Nell" (1994)

Jodie Foster in Nell
Welcome to The Birthday Take, a column dedicated to celebrating Oscar nominees and winners' birthdays by paying tribute to the work that got them noticed. This isn't meant to be an exhaustive retrospective, but more of a highlight of one nominated work that makes them noteworthy. The column will run whenever there is a birthday and will hopefully give a dense exploration of the finest performances and techniques applied to film. So please join me as we blow out the candles and dig into the delicious substance.

The Facts

Recipient: Jodie Foster
Born: November 19, 1962 (53 years old) 
Nomination: Best Actress (nominated) for Nell as Nell

The Take

Over the course of many actors' careers, there's been a need to find a way to stand out. One of the ways is to communicate without directly communicating. While this doesn't make sense, it's what silent film stars did best and what few performers have achieved since. What is required to make this work is that you're supposed to have a sense of character. Whether it's in hand gestures or noisy grunts, they are meant to enrich the way that a character is seen. In director Michael Apted's Nell, Jodie Foster finds a way to do so by giving a performance worthy of a best foreign language award. It's not that she's speaking a language that we know. It's that she's speaking a language broken from what we do know. Speaking as Apted made an impressive career out of the many Up documentaries, it's interesting to see the sociologist director find a way to explore a strange case within a fiction grounds. It doesn't have the same ring as his nonfiction work, but it still is affecting.

All of it is thanks to Foster, who by the film's release in 1994 had already won two Oscars and headlined the Best Picture winner The Silence of the Lambs. She was a well known actress, and one who continued to take on compelling roles almost from the start as a young prostitute in Taxi Driver. Still, there's very little that could prepare one for Nell. It may not be an amazing movie, but it definitely has a lot of great moments from Foster as a woman who was raised by a mother unable to properly communicate. As a result, her English was broken and fractured from what the common people understand. It only takes effort from a researcher who believes in her as not being a lost cause. It's a performance that may seem like Oscar bait, but is essentially just another exploration of the value of language.

In the film's climax, the case is being made that funding for the research isn't possible. However, with help from English-speaking Liam Neeson, she manages to be translated into a unique and powerful case. Having spent most of the film going through a mixture of naivety and raw vulnerability, Nell is a character that doesn't understand the world and barely has a grasp by the end. However, the most powerful part is that she's able to better express herself with the help of a friend than she would have on her own. It is likely that the average viewer will never understand what Nell says even once. However, it's way harder to not admire Foster's ability to make her into the sympathetic being who wants that acceptance. It's sort of cornball in too many ways, but it's by no fault of Foster. She makes it all work beautifully by bringing a certain charisma. We understand that she's learning, which may be enough for her character by the end.

Nell isn't a film that is greatly remembered in Foster's career when compared to her other hits. However, it still has one of her best performances and expresses exactly what makes her among the best of her generation. It's in the small details as she lives in the backwoods, away from the understanding of societal norms. She is both intimidated and curious. She wants to make a difference while also not understanding if anyone will just kill her. It's an innocence that adds to her broken language, and one that creates a perplexing  character. In a career full of strong and unique women, Nell may not be the most compelling, but Foster never ceases to charm. She goes for something unique that hasn't been seen before, and thus brings to life something grander.

It's weird that Foster's last movie was Elysium from 2013. It wasn't a considerably major role. In fact, many would say that the film wasn't that good. However, it seems like a disservice to end a career as a supporting player. Of course, she likely is just on hiatus and will return when the right project comes along. She doesn't do a lot anyways, previously starring in 2011's Carnage. However, it's important to note that when Foster is given a great role, she pretty much gives it her all and produces some of the best female characters of the modern era. Even if Nell doesn't rank among her best technically, it is more proof of her diversity and ability to make us care about someone without ever understanding what they're saying. 

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