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Jeff Simon: Jodie Foster and Chekhov come to movie houses

Jeff Simon

Jodie Foster was 10 years old in 1972. She was already a seasoned actress. She started playing roles in commercials and episodic television at the grand old age of 7 ("The Doris Day Show").

Nevertheless, "Napoleon and Samantha" was her first starring role in a theatrical movie. She co-starred with Michael Douglas and Johnny Whitaker in the Disney animal tale of a couple of kids who protect an old pet circus lion from the cruelties of fate.

Foster played Samantha. The lion's name was Napoleon.

I reviewed the thing at the time. You need to understand this was not a matter of preference, but rather the result of the low man on the totem pole always getting the Disney movies to review. (Low-budget horror movies, too, which means that I reviewed Carpenter's "Halloween" when it first came out and virtually invented the modern slasher film.)

So help me, I noticed something interesting about this 10-year old kid onscreen right from the get-go. I'm not a fan of child performers, generally. I knew one at the summer camp I went to and found him to be insufferable. Being 10 and in show business don't really go together well, but even in a Disney fantasy about kids loving an aging circus lion, there was a weird credibility about Foster.

What I sensed, on the fly, in Foster's first movie was evident for the rest of her entire movie career (four years later, you'll remember, she played the pubescent prostitute in Scorsese's "Taxi Driver").

I can truthfully say she is one of the precious few movie actors I cherish because I tend to believe every word that comes out of their mouths. Whatever character she's playing, she seems to be as soon as she delivers a line. With so many other performers -- even ones I like -- my belief in them has to go through an obstacle course (Bette Davis, for instance, whose films I have never once looked forward to seeing, even the classic ones. I'm always sympathetic to Katharine Hepburn, but I always recognize how incredibly stylized an actress she was, which is why she is always the perfect counterfoil to Spencer Tracy, who also had that weird ability to seem credible in movies as soon as he spoke).

Foster is now 55 years old. She has a new film in area theaters called "Hotel Artemis," which she plays a nurse who runs a secret hospital for criminals. The film, to understate, is getting mixed reviews, but it's Foster's first performance in a film in five years. The cast is very juicy any way you look at it -- Jeff Goldblum, Sterling K. Brown, Sofia Boutella, Zachary Quinto, Jenny Slate.

In her publicity interview with the New York Post, she said, in so many words, she liked being 55 years old because she can jolly well make any bloody movie she chooses.

There's something exhilarating about actors at that stage of their careers, even if they sometimes go wrong in flamboyant ways. It's especially fine when the actor, like Foster, is one of those rarities whose struggle for believability is usually successful before she even delivers her first line in the film.

It's an amazing ability that precious few actors seem to have in movies. Tracy, of course, is the most obvious. As the old cliche has it, you can seldom catch him in the act of acting. (Even when you can, in his version of "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," you don't mind.) I've always felt Richard Widmark to be like that in movies, as well as Robert Duvall. I'd feel that way about Barbara Stanwyck, too, if she hadn't made so much soap-sloshed drivel and late-life camp.

It's a quality, in fact, that is so often found among character actors. Look, for instance, at that astonishing cast that Barry Levinson assembled in Buffalo to make "The Natural" -- along with Robert Redford, Duvall, Richard Farnsworth, Wilford Brimley, Robert Prosky, Darren McGavin, Glenn Close, Barbara Hershey, a platoon of automatic credibility every time they walk in front of the camera lens.

I haven't seen Foster's first film in five years. Nor can I say her surrounding cast shares her most salient quality on film (it's Goldblum's self-enthralled artificiality we always respond to first), but here she is making her first film in five years. I'm certainly delighted she's still doing it.

I was, after all, with her from Day One. It's wonderful to know she's still going 45 years later.

Meanwhile, I've seen the truly fine new ensemble film of Anton Chekhov's "The Seagull" which is about the private lives of a Russian theatrical community whose everyday existences and artistic ambitions are by no means mixing at all well.

Annette Bening is marvelous as the impossibly self-regarding grand dame of the theater and Saoirse Ronan plays the tragic young devotee of the grand dame's perennially overwrought son.

Sidney Lumet's 1968 version of Chekhov's dramatic classic starred James Mason and Vanessa Redgrave altogether at home along with David Warner, Kathleen Widdoes, Denholm Elliott and, rather improbably, Simone Signoret.

Whatever Sidney Lumet did at the movies was always worth doing. But this new version directed by David Mayer is a significant improvement.

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