CONTACT (1997) – Jodie Foster makes us believe

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After seeing Jodie Foster wasted in piffle such as Sommersby and Maverick, I worried that the gloriously intelligent actress of The Accused and Little Man Tate was gone for good. Happily, she made her triumphant return in a vehicle worthy of her extraordinary gifts: Robert Zemeckis’ Contact.

Based on Carl Sagan’s novel, the movie sports what was then the latest in cutting-edge special effects (including a visit from Pres. Bill Clinton, a la Zemeckis’ Forrest Gump). But it hardly matters, because as Ellie Arroway, Foster is the movie’s best special effect. Whether she’s in a love scene or on a trip to outer space, there’s not a moment where you don’t believe Foster is really living it.

Ellie has been sending radio signals into space since she was a kid — first on ham radios, then later on satellite dishes. She’s not sure where or why she’s sending them — she’s just driven to do it. But as an adult astronomer, she’s thwarted at every turn by David Drumlin (Tom Skerritt), her former mentor. When Ellie’s work yields nothing, Drumlin shuts off her funding; when Ellie’s signals start getting replies, he hogs all of the credit.

We’ve read for years about smart females who know the answers in math class but, when they raise their hands, are overlooked in favor of the male students. Those males grow up to be David Drumlin. Drumlin is dashing, knows just enough to get by, and has all of the smart answers (just not the right ones). And for a while, the story appears to be a contest between the outspoken woman and Mr. All-American.

But Contact never gets that cliched — its twists are fresh and entirely plausible. It even takes on some philosophical issues, and happily, it does not cop out on any of them. Suffice to say, the outcome is a refreshing antidote to no-brainers such as Men in Black (which was released shortly before Contact), where anything alien exists only to be zapped.

And for once, Zemeckis’ ensemble work overshadows his effects stunts. Foster, Skerritt, McConaughey, James Woods, and Angela Bassett all shine. Among the movie’s many surprises, one of its nicest was the movie debut of young Jena Malone. As the young Ellie, she makes you see how the ache in this inquisitive child’s heart turns her into the ultimate stargazer.

Contact makes you believe in its miracles — or at least, in the miracle of Jodie Foster’s intuitive acting. Pragmatic Ellie comes to experience a revelation. And thanks to Foster, so do we.

 

LITTLE MAN TATE (1991) – Amazing movie about an amazing child

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In her directorial debut Little Man Tate, Jodie Foster exhibits the same innate, glorious intelligence that she has personified so beautifully as an actress in movies such as The Accused and Contact. In her best movies, she comes across as a no-nonsense woman who is sometimes too blunt because she has no time or patience for social niceties. That approach works perfectly here, particularly in Foster’s supporting role as a single mom who is clueless about how to handle her prodigy-son.

The title character is played by Adam Hann-Byrd, who is one of those Hollywood rarities: a child actor who doesn’t give off the slightest sense that he’s acting. Fred, the child prodigy, is a genius, and of course, he is branded as a freak by his more average classmates because of this. Dianne Wiest plays a teacher who wants to encourage Fred by enrolling him in a summer course for such prodigies. Thanks to the teacher’s snooty attitude, Fred’s mom is immediately suspicious of her motives. But both women, through the film’s many trials of Fred, provide what he needs: the teacher provides the means for Fred to express himself with like-minded students; Fred’s mom provides his nurturing and love at all costs.

That includes making Fred unsympathetic at some points. One scene, a conversation between Fred and his mom, shows Fred belittling her for not being as smart as he is. Rather than letting Fred have it with a you-don’t-talk-like-that-to-your-mother speech, his mother sits there and takes it — not because she’s a wimp by any means, but because she knows that Fred is lashing out at not being accepted by his peers and she is, unhappily, his closest target. Their reconciliation scene is touchingly directed by Foster, too — the teacher tries to nose into their business one more time, realizes what’s happening, and backs off.

Those scenes, and many others, are so refreshing because they treat everyone in the movie, from Fred on down, like real people. Harry Connick Jr. plays a college-age student who sympathizes with and befriends Fred, and yet he and Fred also have a confrontation. Nobody in the movie is spared from being human (read: losing his/her temper, even with someone he/she loves). That alone makes the movie a rarity in mainstream films.

1991 was a beautiful year for female-directed movies, including Barbra Streisand’s The Prince of Tides and this one. In fact, these two would make an ideal double feature. Just keep a generous supply of Kleenex nearby while watching them.

My 5 favorite movie actors

Five Stars Blogathon

The following is my contribution to the third annual Five Stars Blogathon, being hosted by the blog Classic Film & TV Cafe on May 16, 2017. Click on the above banner, and read bloggers’ rapturous reviews of their five all-time favorite movie stars!

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Jodie Foster. Whenever I see Jodie Foster on the screen, I see a fiery woman who is very smart and who is frequently frustrated at having to deal with the less intelligent people in life. Since I often have that same viewpoint of suffering fools non-gladly, I cherish its portrayal on the screen.

Furthermore, she’s so intense that (a) you can’t take your eyes off of her, and (b) you believe every role she plays — whether it’s an underage hooker in over her head in Taxi Driver, the single mother of a brilliant but socially inept child in Little Man Tate, or a starry-eyed astronomer in Contact. In short, Foster makes intelligence sexy.

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Jane Russell. Jane Russell’s brash persona was of its time. She’d have never become a star in our sexually-explicit-yet-politically-correct era, where actresses can show off all the skin they want and then punch out any guy who looks at them as a sex object. Jane was what she was — built, brassy, and non-apologetic about all of it.

(One story goes that, on the set of the movie His Kind of Woman [1951], Russell, Vincent Price, and Robert Mitchum were being interviewed by a sob-sister reporter. As it happened, the trio were all sitting inside a room on the ledge of a second-story window, trying to catch a breeze. When the reporter asked how Russell could reconcile her Christianity with her worldly movie roles, Jane countered with, “Can’t I be a Christian and still have big tits?” Mitchum laughed so hard that Price had to grab hold of him to keep him from falling out the window.)

These days, any guy who deigns to admit that anything turns him on is branded a pervert. But I’ll be glad to say it — Russell’s take-it-or-leave-it attitude, combined with her fulsome physique, get me roiled up every time. Try watching the very first shot of her in the Bob Hope comedy Son of Paleface (1952) — with the camera panning up her long, glorious legs as va-va-voom music plays on the soundtrack — and see how nonchalant you remain.

Russell was also a decent actress, and even a good comedienne, when given the opportunity in gems such as SOP and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. At the risk of sounding completely sexist, they don’t make ‘em like Russell anymore — so let’s be grateful that some people had a camera pointed at her when they did.

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John Goodman. I first saw John Goodman in David Byrne’s offbeat comedy True Stories (1986). Goodman played Louis Fyne, a shy, overweight cleanroom technician who does a video advertising for a mate. The first thing that struck me was how stereotypical the role seemed. The second thing to strike me was how Goodman quietly transcended the role’s hoariness and really made you feel for this poor schmuck.

Right after that movie, Goodman went balls-out as a nutso escaped convict in the Coen Bros.’ comedy Raising Arizona (1987), and that cemented my love for the guy. After that, he had a huge string of roles where he could seemingly do no wrong — a former high-school quarterback in Everybody’s All-American, a cop who partnered with Al Pacino in Sea of Love, and of course, lovable working-class stiff Dan Connor on the sitcom “Roseanne.” It seemed as though Goodman began all of these roles by planting a tiny seed of truth within his character — so that, no matter how outrageous the situation got, you really believed in and felt for this guy.

Unfortunately, Goodman’s turn from mild-mannered character actor to major star resulted in him starring in some really embarrassing movies — King Ralph, The Babe, and the truly painful The Flintstones. But still, when Goodman is really into a worthy role, he still feels like someone you want to give a big bear-hug and buy him a beer.

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Charles Durning. In his earlier movies, Durning seemed intent on playing the man you love to hate — whether he was a corrupt cop in The Sting (1973), or the owner of a frog-leg fast-food chain who set his sights on Kermit the Frog as his chain’s spokesperson in The Muppet Movie (1979).

Then, in the 1980’s, it was as though a weight lifted off Durning’s shoulders, and he was suddenly doing roles that couldn’t help but endear him to you — the wily senator in the “Sidestep” number of Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1982), the widower won over by Dustin Hoffman’s man-disguised-as-a-woman in Tootsie (1982), and the laconic small-town doctor in Burt Reynolds’ late-80’s sitcom “Evening Shade.” He seemed to bask in his own charm, and the joy spread to his audience. I smiled every time he came on the screen.

But his biggest role, because it was real life, was as a deservedly decorated World War II veteran. For many years, he served as a spokesman on PBS’ Memorial Day concerts, recounting stories of fellow soldiers who never made it back home. With each passing year, you could see the toll it took on Durning to perform this task, but he carried on with it grandly. This culminated in what I think was his finest hour — his Emmy-nominated guest turn on “CSI,” where he played a WWII veteran who was, after several decades, still wracked with guilt over the death of a fellow soldier.

Like John Goodman at his best, Durning had such an authentic Everyman quality that you couldn’t help but be won over by him.

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Stan Laurel. I am a classic-comedy buff, and I mulled over this final choice for ages. There are many comedians from that era who transcended their low-comedy origins and became larger than life — Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Groucho Marx, and W.C. Fields, to name a few. I picked Stan Laurel out of this group because he developed such an endearing characterization in partnership with Oliver Hardy, you felt you could believe in simple-but-charming Stanley even if Ollie wasn’t there with him.

(Witness the minute or so at the end of the Laurel & Hardy comedy The Flying Deuces [1939], where Stanley is a lonely vagabond traversing the countryside. It’s just enough of a solo turn that you wish he could have done an entire movie of that character by himself.)

Laurel started out in vaudeville with Charlie Chaplin, and his early movie work consisted of Chaplin-like gags minus Chaplin’s plausibility or heart. When Laurel was first teamed with Hardy, he was hesitant about it, because he had established himself as a writer-director and preferred to work behind the camera. But then he created the character that endeared him to generations of movie fans.

Stanley’s likable dumbness is probably his saving grace as well. When Ollie lords it over him, he seems to convince himself that it’s his friend’s way of looking out for him. And if you doubt Laurel’s depth of performance, watch the final 10 minutes of the L&H comedy A Chump at Oxford (1940), where he becomes a completely different person: a condescending British genius who turns the tables on Ollie and makes him feel like the dummy for a change.

Laurel & Hardy buffs will tell you there’s a reason they continue watching those movies long after they’ve memorized the gags. It’s that extra touch of movie magic, much of it provided by Laurel as the uncredited writer-director-editor of those movies. What’s not to love?