It was purely by accident that I was recommended a film the other day which featured the actress Sally Kellerman who sadly passed away on the 24th February at the age of 84.
The film was Adrian Lyne’s Foxes (1980), starring Jodie Foster as 15 year old tearaway Jeanie juggling the unfair demands of adulthood in a hedonistic San Fernando Valley of the late 1970s. Kellerman plays her divorced mother Mary, burdened by overwork and bitter at the cards life has dealt her; seemingly resentful of a responsible role that perhaps came too soon.
Although her breakout role was as Major Margaret ‘Hot Lips’ O’Houlihan in Robert Altman’s M.A.S.H (1970), I remember Kellerman more from the lesser known comedy Back to School (1986) starring oafish, bug-eyed comedian Rodney Dangerfield as a wisecracking wealthy businessman who attends college in order to help his struggling son complete his studies.
Kellerman plays the straight-laced literature professor Diane Turner who tempers Dangerfield’s man-child antics to both tame his charged libido and reveal a gentler side to the buffoon; a role she seemed perfectly fit for as there has always been a mature, motherly edge to her appearance and acting style.
But although she exuded a classic-era leading lady vibe with her haughty demeanour and affected accent, the naughty flip-side to this matron-esqe character – first seen in M.A.S.H – would be exploited in films like Moving Violations (1985) and Meatballs III (1987), drawing on her ability to upend a lofty snobbishness in favour of whip-cracking dominatrix.
In Foxes however, we see the natural ability Kellerman had of commanding the screen and drawing real emotion from small but significant roles. The three or four scenes that she shares with Foster are the anchor points in a film that is all about growing up, facing up to life’s difficulties and being honest while showing a willingness to hurt and, in turn, be hurt.
Kellerman plays a mother still very much in need of mothering herself as she chases love in all the wrong places, and Foster – an actress that has always felt far advanced of her years – is capable of providing that dual role while the world around them both crumbles. It’s their home after all that provides a semblance of safety to Foster’s three other wayward friends Madge (Marilyn Kagan), Annie (Cherie Currie) and Deirdre (Kandice Stroh), all of whom have a hefty dose of parental dysfunction clouding their judgement and forcing a painful transition to adulthood in mostly boozy, drugged delirium.
At one point, following a party organised by the girls which goes horribly wrong, Mary tells Jeanie “You look like kids but you don’t act like them, you’re short 40 year olds and you’re tough ones.” There’s a truth to the sentiment but a seeming naivety in Mary not seeing what part she’s played in forcing her daughter to grow up so fast.
Jeanie in turn plays mother hen to her friends, often able to see the damaging bigger picture at play in each of their clumsy adventures, and it’s perhaps because her own mother Mary is the only parental figure who at least tries to listen to her daughter in matters of the heart. Her father too, a touring roadie – although not a consistent presence in her life – still shows kindness and a desire to make things right by Jeanie, whereas all the other parents are seen as various shades of shit. Annie, the most off-the-rails member of the group has a bully street cop as a father. Bookish Madge is kept chained to a neutered childhood by an over-protective mother and we see nothing of Deirdre’s parents at all.
The film poster’s tagline reads:
“People don’t think we can have any serious emotions, nobody gives a damn. But that’s all right, I’ve got friends.”
This disconnect resulting from a gulf of misunderstanding between teens and grown-ups is an age-old theme endlessly revisited, due in part to the necessity of youth to rebel so as to break away and establish independence. Brat-Pack director John Hughes explored this parental estrangement and mistrust from the enclave of a white suburban perspective while Larry Clark and Harmony Korine stripped the narrative bare to reveal a more brutal and less priveleged teen-angst in their films Kids (1996) and Gummo (1997) respectively. Where Rebel Without A Cause (1955) and The 400 Blows (1959) led, these other films followed and Foxes presents yet another example of what life is like for teenagers who’s parental safety nets are torn or simply non-existent. Who sets the boundaries and provides the template for ‘good behaviour’ when parental anchors are loosened, and what are the consequences when you’re forced into making up the rules on the fly?
Foxes explores the bonds of the tribe beyond family, but is a reminder too of the need to connect with our parents, even if this thread is stretched paper thin at times. The push and pull against a need to fly and a desire to stay grounded is experienced by both mother and daughter, and it’s this tension that provides the most profoundly moving moments of the film. Mary and Jeanie’s relationship is fragile and fractious, as is so often the case with teenagers from broken homes; with the added burden often on mothers to work and parent full time – but they are still able to express their fears, disappointments and desires to each other, and it’s this that will ensure they will be ok.
RIP – Sally Kellerman
2 June 1937 – 24 February 2022