The actress made ''The Silence of the Lambs'' a smash

It’s not easy to find Jodie Foster. Most of the time, she’s enfolded deep within her characters, plumbing their hearts and minds. But in The Silence of the Lambs, there’s a brief scene — really no more than an air pocket between the film’s gale-force gusts of dread and terror — in which the actress lays herself bare. Foster’s Clarice Starling and her boss, Jack Crawford, are driving away from a West Virginia autopsy at which he had offhandedly shunted her to a corner. ”Starling,” he says amiably, ”when I told that sheriff we shouldn’t talk in front of a woman, it really burned you, didn’t it? It was just smoke.”

Starling looks at him, and, with a soft voice and a level gaze, she detonates.

”It matters, Mr. Crawford,” she says. ”Cops look at you to see how to act. It matters.”

That moment alone, with its hairline calibrations of anger, frustration, and caution, should earn Foster an Oscar nomination next February. It could also serve as her motto. Jodie Foster has always known that it matters. The parts you play, the words you say, the choices you make that affect your career and your conscience. And in 1991, her two decades of work culminated in a pair of films — Lambs and her directorial debut, Little Man Tate — that began to redraw the roles of women in Hollywood, on-screen and off.

It sounds like a steep accomplishment, but Foster has always worn her precocity well. The 9-year-old’s startlingly husky voice, the 13-year-old’s utterly unsentimental portrayal of a prostitute in Taxi Driver, and the 18-year-old’s desire to pursue an adult career and a Yale honors degree (she got both) have all looked good on her. When she recently took home a lifetime achievement award from the Boston Film Festival at 28, it was no surprise. Overachievement becomes her.

In 1989, when Foster’s wrenching work in The Accused won her an Oscar, her faltering film career was revitalized, and doors opened. This year, she walked through all of them. Her furiously focused performance as an FBI trainee in The Silence of the Lambs helped turn what could have been a standard woman-in-jeopardy role into an antidote to distressed-heroine clichés that impressed filmgoers to the tune of $130 million. And with Little Man Tate, a touching drama about a 7-year-old genius, Foster became one of the youngest actresses ever to use on-screen clout to win a directing assignment. The result is a minor hit that heralds a major talent. In Tate, Foster’s graceful visual style and assured touch with actors are already evident. If her next film isn’t made by cash-strapped Orion Pictures (where she has a production deal), there isn’t a studio that won’t jump to employ her on either side of the lens.

Whatever role she chooses next is likely to challenge the audience as well as the actress. Foster has often spoken of her love for the films made during the explosion of European cinema in the 1960s, and it’s easy to understand why those movies, with their dark hues of character and rich layers of morality and rhetoric, fascinate her. Foster’s engagement with social politics and feminist thought shines through in her work, and clarifies her choice to portray so many abused characters — including, several times, rape victims. ”Truth is what I look for in a film,” she has said, ”and the truth in female history is that a lot of it includes victimization.”

It’s a grievance Foster wants to redress, and in 1991, she walked it like she talked it. Her work in Silence and Tate is politically correct in the most honorable, least doctrinaire sense of the phrase: The introspection and intelligence of Clarice Starling and the evolving personal and maternal instincts of single mom Dede Tate are powerful counterstrikes against the flat, unshaded roles that Hollywood reserves for women. Industry watchers have called 1991 the year of the tough babe — and indeed, the miniskirted pinup femme Nikita, Terminator 2‘s streamlined Linda Hamilton, and Sleeping With the Enemy‘s damsel-with-ammo Julia Roberts spent enough shells to open a Hollywood branch of the NRA. But Foster was there first: She was tough before it was a trend, and when she held a gun on-screen this year, it had nothing to do with old cliches about frail women or new ones about how liberating weaponry can be. When Clarice fires her pistol, Foster’s face is suffused with the full horror of what bullets do. That’s acting of an integrity that overrides the merely faddish.

A generation of moviegoers has already watched Foster shape a powerful and idiosyncratic body of work in a field where women still struggle against sexism and skepticism. This year, they got to see the film business make room for her prodigious talent and ambition. ”The best way to reverse stereotypes in movies,” she said this year, ”is…to get out there and be better than everyone.” In 1991, Jodie Foster did more than that. She mattered.