Larry Busacca/Getty
May 12, 2016 12:10 PM

Here’s one from the what-if files: What if Jodie Foster‘s star-making turn never happened? The double Oscar winner, who’s celebrating half a century in show business, almost never got the chance to make Taxi Driver, the movie that cemented her place in Hollywood history.

Sure, we think of Foster as Hollywood royalty now. But the actress, whose fourth film as a director, Money Monster, comes out Friday, might just be yet another anonymous Yale grad if it weren’t for fate.

The 53-year-old first got into the business by a stroke of luck. Her mother, Evelyn “Brandy” Almond, toted 3-year-old Jodie along on an audition for Coppertone meant for Foster’s brother Buddy, then 9. But the toddler stole the show, and the gig was hers. Foster made more commercials and guest appearances in TV shows, then went on to smaller parts in movies.

Foster became especially close to her mom at the time, as Almond managed her daughter’s career. “We’re inseparable,” Foster told PEOPLE in a 1980 interview. “We’re a team. If it weren’t for me, she wouldn’t have anything. And if it weren’t for her, I would be nothing.”

Foster’s career steadily advanced, as she played Becky Thatcher in Tom Sawyer, and even snagged a small part in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, directed by Martin Scorsese. But nothing came along that would give Foster the push she needed out of child stardom.

Nothing, that is, until Taxi Driver.

Jodie Foster
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In 1974, any young actress who was anybody wanted to be in Taxi Driver – or did until they learned how controversial the film would be.

Carrie Fisher, Linda Blair, Debra Winger, Michelle Pfeiffer, Kristy McNichol, Kim Cattrall, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Heather Locklear, Mariel Hemingway and Bo Derek were reportedly considered for the role of Iris, the young prostitute who captivates Robert De Niro‘s psychotic Travis Bickle. Melanie Griffith passed when her mother, Tippi Hedren, expressed concern.

Finally, Foster was allowed to audition. “In came this little girl with a Lauren Bacall voice,” Scorsese told Time magazine in 1976. “She cracked us up.”

The movie-obsessed 12-year-old found a kinship with her new director, telling Time: “Before, I would never listen to the directors – they always wanted you to act the same way. But with Marty I saw acting as something creative.”

Harvey Keitel and Jodie Foster
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The only downside, as far as Foster was concerned, was the wardrobe. “At the fitting, I was sniffing back tears because I had to wear those dumb shorts, platform shoes and halter tops,” she told The Hollywood Reporter in a recent interview. “It was everything I hated. I was a tomboy who wore knee socks. But I got over it.”

But even though she had the part, Foster still wasn’t a sure thing to actually appear in Taxi Driver. Because of the film’s racy content, the Los Angeles Welfare Board threw legal hurdles in the way. In more sexually explicit scenes, Foster had to be replaced by a double, her older sister Connie.

RELATED: Jess Cagle Chats with Money Monster‘s Julia Roberts, George Clooney and Jodie Foster

Foster, herself, also had to pass a psychological exam proving she could handle the material. “I suppose they figured that if I was willing to play a part like that, I had to be insane,” she told Time in 1976. “For me, it was just a part.”

Ah, but what a part it was. The film, now celebrating its 40th anniversary, is heralded as one of history’s best, with four Oscar nominations, including one for Foster. It’s also the film that established Foster’s career, as she went on to win Academy Awards in 1989 for The Accused and in 1992 for The Silence of the Lambs.

Not for nothing, the film also won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, where Foster returns to introduce Money Monster. If this time in Cannes is anything like her first time, she should be a hit. She charmed her French hosts as a teenager by answering their questions in fluent French. Now, 40 years after Taxi, she’s the one in the driver’s seat.

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