Jodie Foster and the stalker who shot the president ‘to win her heart’

Forty years ago, John Hinckley Jr attempted to assassinate Ronald Reagan in Jodie Foster’s name. It is a testament to Foster that it did not come to define her, writes Alexandra Pollard

Wednesday 31 March 2021 06:32
<p>Jodie Foster in 1976’s ‘Taxi Driver’</p>

Jodie Foster in 1976’s ‘Taxi Driver’

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Oh God, oh seriously, this is really starting to bother me,” said an 18-year-old Jodie Foster in 1981, on the phone with the man who had been stalking her. “Do you mind if I hang up?” A few months later, in a twisted attempt to win her love, that man would shoot the president of the United States.

Ask someone what comes to mind when they think of Jodie Foster, and they might mention her role as a prickly rape survivor in The Accused, for which she won her first Oscar, or as FBI trainee Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs, for which she won her second. Maybe they’ll say the home-invasion thriller Panic Room, or Bugsy Malone, or Freaky Friday. It is a testament to Foster that John Hinckley Jr did not come to define her.

It all began with Taxi Driver. In 1975, at the age of 12, Foster played a teenage sex worker called Iris in Martin Scorsese’s unflinching exploration of urban decay. Iris catches the attention of Robert De Niro’s alienated Vietnam vet Travis Bickle, who, after failing to assassinate a presidential candidate, shoots Iris’s pimp and is hailed a hero. Foster hated the halter tops and platform shoes she had to wear – “I was a tomboy who wore knee socks,” she told Vanity Fair – but it was worth it. Taxi Driver was acclaimed, frequently appearing on lists of the best films of all time and launching Foster’s career. But it was also the unwitting catalyst for a bizarre and traumatic series of events.

In Hollywood, a young man called John Hinckley Jr would watch Taxi Driver for the first time. Estranged from his family, hooked on Valium and recently expelled from a neo-Nazi group for being too extremist, he would see a reflection of himself in Taxi Driver’s disturbed, discontented protagonist. In the character of Iris, and by a warped extension Jodie Foster, he would see his salvation. He began to dress like Travis Bickle, wearing army clothes and boots and keeping a diary just like Travis did. He became obsessed with Foster.

Foster, meanwhile, left school and began studying at Yale in 1980. At a time when the public’s sense of entitlement towards celebrities was starting to swell, she was resolutely uninterested in being known. She wanted to be normal. “It wasn’t that I’d lost my childhood or become jaded; I just didn’t have a clue as to how it felt to be out of control, completely lost, without prior experience,” she would later explain. She adopted a “screw-the-world dress code”, hung out with nonconformists, enrolled in the college play – all the while unaware that Hinckley Jr had followed her to Connecticut.

Foster didn’t even know that John Hinckley existed until he started hand-delivering letters to her doorstep. She ignored them – he was far from the only person who sent her intense fan mail. He wrote more. He left her dozens of poems, letters, messages, all professing his “love” for her. When they went unanswered, he started to call her. “Who is this?” she asked on their first telephone conversation, which he recorded. “This is the person that’s been leaving notes in your box for two days.” Eventually, Foster handed Hinckley’s letters over to the dean.

Women are told that if they take no notice of men’s unwanted advances, they will be left alone. Most of us know that the opposite can be true. The more Foster ignored Hinckley, the more his obsession grew. In a recording on New Year’s Eve 1981, he said: “Jodie is the only thing that matters now. Anything I might do in 1981 would be solely for Jodie Foster’s sake.” He added: “I think I’d rather just see her not on earth than being with other guys.”

In March of 1981, Hinckley wrote Foster one final letter. In it, he outlined his plan for a “historical deed” that echoed the plot of the film with which he was so besotted. He was going to try and kill the president. “As you well know by now, I love you very much,” he began. “Jodie, I would abandon this idea of getting Reagan in a second if I could only win your heart and live out the rest of my life with you, whether it be in total obscurity or whatever. I will admit to you that the reason I’m going ahead with this attempt now is because I just cannot wait any longer to impress you. I’ve got to do something now to make you understand in no uncertain terms that I am doing all of this for your sake.”

Hinckley never posted the letter. He left it in his hotel room, walked to the Washington Hilton Hotel where President Reagan had just finished a speaking engagement, and lay in wait. When Reagan emerged, Hinckley opened fire. He fired six times in 1.7 seconds – but he was not a good shot. The first bullet hit the White House press secretary, James Brady, who would become permanently disabled and eventually die from his injuries 33 years later. Police officer Thomas Delahanty was the next victim, followed by Secret Service agent Tim McCarthy, who threw himself in the line of fire. Hinckley was wrestled to the ground and arrested, but not before the sixth and final bullet ricocheted off the president’s limousine and hit him under his arm. In all the chaos, Reagan didn’t even notice he had been shot – until he started coughing up blood. When he arrived at George Washington University Hospital, he was minutes from death.

That same afternoon, Foster was skipping hand in hand across campus with her best friend. Someone yelled to them: Reagan had been shot. She continued about her day, her broken radio preventing any further updates. It wasn’t until later that evening – when she arrived back at her dorm room and the first word out of her roommate’s mouth was “John” – that she learnt who the assailant was. Her bubble of normality was shattered.

John Hinckley Jr is tackled to the ground by Secret Service agents after attempting to assassinate Ronald Reagan

In a 1982 piece for Esquire, in which Foster recounted the experience in depth for the first and last time, she cut to the quick of the delusion around celebrity. “A man can buy a poster, pin it on his locker, and imagine the most minute details about a slinky starlet,” she wrote. “He’ll know her through and through. He’ll possess her external reality. So of course Hinkley ‘knew’ me. That woman on the screen was digging in her bag of tricks and representing herself for everyone to assess, to get to know, to take home.”

After the shooting, there followed press conferences, meetings with Yale bigwigs, conversations with lawyers and the FBI, a run-in with a copycat stalker who only abandoned his plans to shoot Foster because she was “too pretty”. Reporters followed her everywhere. “They scooped up headlines and swarmed through the campus like a cavalry invasion,” she recalled in Esquire. “I couldn’t protect myself from being trampled.” She didn’t speak to the press, except to say that she planned to “resume my normal life”. At trial, Hinckley yelled “I’ll get you Foster!” when she told the court she had no relationship with him. He was found not guilty of 13 charges by reason of insanity and detained in a psychiatric hospital. (He was released in 2016, under the condition that he not contact Foster.)

In an interview with Foster in 2018, The Guardian’s Hadley Freeman observed: “Imagine how much self-control you would need to survive a life like Foster’s and still be functional.” Foster is not just functional, she is thriving. In the 40 years since Hinckley nearly torpedoed her life, she has won Oscars, Golden Globes, Emmys, the Cecil B DeMille Award – all the while avoiding easy labels. None of the women she has played could be put in a box – and nor could she. To this day, she is uninterested in being known.

Accepting the Cecil B DeMille Award at the 2013 Golden Globes, as the tabloids waited with bated breath for her to say that she was gay, Foster announced that she was... “single”. Without denying herself – she had lived privately but not secretly with her ex-partner Cydney Bernard for many years – she denied the press an easy headline. “I already did my coming out about a thousand years ago back in the Stone Age,” she continued, “in those very quaint days when a fragile young girl would open up to trusted friends and family and co-workers and then gradually, proudly, to everyone who knew her, to everyone she actually met.” Those last few words were pointed and precise.

Later, she added: “If you had been a public figure from the time that you were a toddler, if you’d had to fight for a life that felt real and honest and normal against all odds, then maybe you too might value privacy above all else. Privacy. Some day, in the future, people will look back and remember how beautiful it once was.”

We will never know whether Foster’s mantra of “privacy above all else” was caused by Hinckley, or if he was simply a violent confirmation of it. In that Esquire piece, she spoke of him with a mix of anger, sympathy and disgust. “I am sorry for people who confuse love with obsession and hurt by those who have inflicted their confusion on me,” she said. “Obsession is pain and a longing for something that does not exist. John Hinkley’s greatest crime was the confusion of love and obsession. The trivialisation of love is something I will never forgive him. His ignorance only prods me to say that he’s missing a great deal. Love is blissful. Obsession is pitiful, self-indulgent. This is a lesson I’ve learnt. I’ll always be wary of people who proclaim their love for me.

“I know what love is. Do they?”

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