Film Studies: You want a babysitter with brains to burn? Call Jodie

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The Independent Culture

There is a strange sisterhood among movie actresses, not exactly in the mainstream, who surprised the world (and themselves?) by winning the best actress Oscar. And then did it again! Whereupon, they slipped out of contention, leaving their two wins looking all the stranger. The founding member of the select club is Luise Rainer, who took the Oscar twice in a row - for The Great Ziegfeld (1936) and The Good Earth (1937) - and who soon retired from acting. She is a marvel (still living, in London) and an exquisite actress who had trained with Max Reinhardt. Yet neither of her winning pictures is exactly current.

Some will be annoyed if I add Vivien Leigh to the club, but it does seem to me that Gone With the Wind (1939) and A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) are aberrant Southern belles chiming oddly against the Kensingtonian gentility of her work. Olivia de Havilland (still alive and entirely adorable) won for To Each His Own (1946) and The Heiress (1949), and not many people know both films. Come forward a few decades and Glenda Jackson won for Women in Love (1970) and A Touch of Class (1973). If benign conspiracy has not quite settled in yet, what about Sally Field for Norma Rae (1979) and Places in the Heart (1984)?

Don't misunderstand me. I do not mean to dispute the range of those actresses or the merit of their winning performances. At the same time, I have lived long enough so that I am no longer exactly surprised by the award of any Oscar. These things mean very little. Gallantry aside, I am tickled that unexpected or cheerfully cockeyed acts of generosity so often come in pairs. I mean, take Jodie Foster with The Accused (1988) and The Silence of the Lambs (1991), the incumbent chairperson of this rare association for actresses.

Foster was brilliant in both those pictures, and she still (at the age of 43) possesses one of the great threatened faces in screen history. What (just) redeemed The Silence of the Lambs from being a lip-smacking horror show was the essential decency, valour and commitment of Clarice Starling's face and soul standing up to the depraved scrutiny of Hannibal Lecter and the terrible obsessions of the film's serial killer. We have known for some time that Jodie Foster's strengths of character and intelligence register on camera. This is a time-honoured movie tradition, going back to the radiant virtue of Lillian Gish - not that Gish ever suggested a functioning intelligence that could graduate from Yale. So Clarice's ordeal in The Silence of the Lambs, and the testing of the raped woman in The Accused were unmistakably feminist achievements.

But there she was with two Oscars before anyone quite noticed the degree to which Foster had real difficulty (and not a lot of interest) in conveying chemistry with a man on screen. More and more often, she was seen in family groups, in relationships with men where impossible circumstances killed a chance of attraction (that is what encouraged the secret romance with Lecter in Lambs). And she was a defender of those other lambs, children. Panic Room (2002) was a great success because of the immense variety of looks Foster could bring to the monotonous predicament. Her face was carved into expressions of terror and determination by the noir lighting and the remorseless grilling of a very clever plot set-up. So Foster held the screen, drove a whole picture forward and seemed like a sterling actress.

Now comes Flightplan, which is as monotonous in its situation as Panic Room, yet without that fundamental necessity: the suspension of our disbelief. Jodie is a mother who gets on board a trans-Atlantic flight with her daughter. She drifts off to sleep and when she wakes up, it's not just that she can't find her child, but that no one on the aircraft - passengers or flight crew - admits to any memory of the girl. So, the panic room turns into an air-liner (a place that proves to possess many nooks and crannies), and the mother is regarded as crazy by everyone else in the picture. It is the story model from a Hitchcock picture, The Lady Vanishes (and Flightplan uses a story detail straight from the Hitchcock), or a very good thriller, So Long At the Fair (1950), that starred Dirk Bogarde and Jean Simmons.

I won't give away the ending of Flightplan, but the real suspense is killed because we have seen the daughter. We know who is right. So the suspense is deflated. And Jodie Foster is left as a hunted, haunted face - a great face, still - having to overdo desperation. Whereas, in the right role - a tough loner cop, a ruthless Mother Superior, or a middle-aged saint saving Africa from something or other - she might yet win a third Oscar...

d.thomson@independent.co.uk

Flightplan (12a) is released on 25 November

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