Gary Thompson: Jodie Foster tries to salvage Mel Gibson's career

Posted: May 13, 2011

ABOUT a minute into my interview with Jodie Foster, it became apparent there were few questions, even sneaky ones, that would get the best of her big Yale brain.

Foster was taking calls for her new movie, "The Beaver," speaking candidly and bravely about notorious co-star/friend Mel Gibson, the guy with the unique movie baggage - he's won an Oscar, and also pleaded no contest to misdemeanor spousal abuse.

She'd been talking Gibson all day, so I thought I'd throw a curve by asking about her next project, one she's making with an equally notorious fellow, Roman Polanski.

How does the Oscar-winning star of the rape drama "The Accused" end up in a movie ("Carnage") directed by Polanski, still a U.S. fugitive for skipping his sentence for having unlawful sex with a minor?

"You know, that movie doesn't come out for another year, and I don't foresee talking about that even when it does come out."

Uncomfortable silence.

I turned to my tried and true method of jump-starting stalled conversations with Hollywood celebrities, making a naked appeal to their vanity.

I asked, given her deserved reputation for intellect, whether the Polanski job was an ingenious ploy, calling attention to the nettlesome contradictions that Polanski and Gibson have evinced in Hollywood.

Polanski pleaded guilty to unlawful sex with a 13-year-old girl, then fled the country to avoid sentencing. He's ducked the law, and yet his career thrives ("The Ghost Writer" was annoyingly good) and enjoys widespread support in Hollywood, where folks circulate petitions on his behalf.

Gibson, who faced a judge and accepted his sentence, remains an outcast and pariah.

Isn't that inconsistent?

"That's something you can write about, but it's not something I'm going to talk about," said Foster.

Drat.

That left the looming subject of Gibson, though on that score she was more forthcoming, sounding like a loving friend, eager collaborator and enthusiastic press agent.

Hardly anybody likes Gibson, but everybody likes a loyal friend, and Foster's steadfast support for her troubled, disgraced pal (they became friends on the set of "Maverick" many years ago) has won admiration.

Foster said there wasn't a moment when she felt like abandoning her buddy.

"When you love someone, and they're struggling, you don't turn and run in the other direction," Foster said.

Gibson, she said, invites loyalty. Their personal/creative interaction has been ideal, and she reiterated her oft-quoted opinion that Gibson is the most popular on-set actor she's ever known. He's not just good to her, she said: he's that way with every member of the crew.

"He's the most beloved actor I've ever worked with. You can pretty much ask anyone else who's worked with him. They all say the same thing."

Foster also repeated her belief that Gibson's problems are magnified by his fame.

"I don't think the things that Mel is going through are all that different from what other people go through. The difference is that he's forced to go through them in public," she said.

There are strong echoes of Gibson's recent troubles in "The Beaver," starring Gibson as a disturbed man driven to the point of suicide by his depression who learns to face the world by speaking to it through an animal puppet.

It's a strange movie, obviously, but made from a highly regarded script. "The Beaver" was long considered one of Hollywood's most intriguing unproduced screenplays.

"There's a reason why it was unproduced," she said. "It's difficult to categorize, and those kinds of scripts are very hard to get off the ground. So I don't know that there was an incredibly long line of people trying to make it. But that's what I love about it. It takes a different approach."

Everything, she said, rested on finding the right actor to play the guy with the stuffed animal on the end of his arm.

"I really don't know anybody else who would be able to capture the lightness and the wit the role requires, and then be able to begin the more important transition the movie makes into the complex story about a man who's struggling to understand the really deep recesses of himself," she said.

The movie gets a modest release here in the U.S. this month. It's also an official selection at the Cannes International Film Festival in France, where Foster expects a receptive audience. She's screened the movie in Europe, where Gibson's exploits are not as widely scrutinized, and gotten a good response.

"It does have somewhat of a European style. It's interesting. They really embrace the fact that the movie wasn't quote, unquote typically American - it didn't have to live in the comedy realm, or the dramatic realm. It can just be itself," she said.

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