By Lois Armstrong
May 19, 1980 12:00 PM

The envelopes most Hollywood actresses anxiously waited for last month were at the Oscars. Jodie Foster was watching for another kind of letter. It had nothing to do with her 11th film, Foxes, in which she stars as one of four teenage girls in a California suburb awash with sex and drugs. Nor did it involve her upcoming Carny, in which she plays a reluctant stripper. The news, for that matter, did not concern any of Foster’s string of provocative roles: a 12-year-old hooker in Taxi Driver, a murderess in The Little Girl Who Lives down the Lane or a wine-guzzling tomboy in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. The simple truth is that the most experienced and arguably the best young actress in Hollywood spent April like millions of other high school seniors. Jodie Foster was waiting to see if she had gotten into college.

There wasn’t much doubt. A straight-A student and valedictorian of her 30-member class at L.A.’s rigorous Lycée Français, Jodie had applied to Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Columbia, Berkeley and Stanford. Eventually she found out she had scored a collegiate grand slam. Astonishingly, she was accepted by all of those schools. So this fall, in the most startling movie career decision since Garbo chose exile, Foster will shelve Hollywood to become yet another Yale freshman. “It sounds so pretentious to say, ‘Do I want to go to Harvard or Yale?'” Jodie admits of her final choice. “Maybe I did make a mistake. Boston is so incredible.”

But a major reason for her decision is that Yale’s New Haven, Conn. campus is only 85 miles from New York, and Jodie, a lifelong Angeleno, says, “I’m scared, but I really want to experience it.” She was also particularly impressed by a recent two-day visit to the school, whose notable graduates range from William Howard Taft to William F. Buckley. “I spent the night on a dorm couch,” Jodie recalls. “It was the first time I’ve ever been around only people my own age. They were so brilliant, so special, the crème of American students. And everyone talks so fast! That’s what I want.”

She certainly should feel at home. Unlike, say, Tatum O’Neal or Kristy McNichol, Jodie has never tried to disguise her young intellect. She is a self-starting student who taught herself to read at 3 and devotes spare moments on the set to favorite authors like André Malraux and James Joyce. Bilingual (“I feel like two people—one English and one French”), Jodie can also get by in Italian and Spanish. And what other 17-year-old actress wonders aloud what the recent death of Jean-Paul Sartre will do to the state of French philosophy? Jodie’s Scholastic Aptitude Test scores were in the robust 600s, and her French Achievement Test was a stratospheric 795 out of a possible 800. The $9,000 a year that Yale costs will of course pose no problem—Jodie has been making more than $100,000 per film since Taxi Driver. Paying for college is “what I worked for,” she affirms. “And I think working is one of the best educations you can have.”

She’s been at it for 14 years. She was 3 when her mother took older brother Lucius “Buddy” Foster IV, then 9, to an audition for a commercial and the precocious Jodie toddled away with the job, baring her buns as the first Coppertone kid on TV. Buddy soon was earning some $25,000 a year acting on TV shows like Mayberry R.F.D., while Jodie had completed 45 commercials by the age of 8. Their mother, Brandy, a former press agent, makes no apologies for putting them to work. She had three small children and was four months pregnant with Jodie when her husband, now 58 and an L.A. real estate agent, divorced her in 1962 and dropped out of their lives. “How could I have raised four kids coming home tired every night?” asks the 50ish Brandy, who acts as Jodie’s manager.

Her patrician father and grandfather both attended Yale, but Jodie (her full name is Alicia Christian Foster) says the Eli legacy did not affect her decision. She recalls seeing her father only twice in her life. Her one-parent childhood, she contends, was “the best thing that ever happened to me. I never realized there was any difference between men and women—that I couldn’t be a doctor instead of a nurse.”

Her relationship with her mother is affectionate and intense. “We’re inseparable,” Jodie says. “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. She’s responsible for my education and the security at home. Certain things are expected of me, and that’s important.”

In 1971 Jodie left commercials and began appearing in the likes of My Three Sons and The Courtship of Eddie’s Father. Her first feature was Walt Disney’s 1972 Napoleon and Samantha, which led to more Disney flicks (Freaky Friday, Candleshoe), Kansas City Bomber with Raquel Welch, the short-lived 1974 TV series Paper Moon (a spin-off from the Tatum and Ryan O’Neal movie), and films in Italy and France. She was the first American actress to dub her own voice in French since Jane Fonda. “I don’t know why people think child actresses in particular are screwed up,” says Jodie. “I see kids everywhere who are totally bored. I’ve never been bored a day in my life.”

Indeed, Foster seems almost disconcertingly self-confident and mature beyond her years. She does not drink or smoke and rarely uses makeup, and her mother says Jodie is “violently opposed to drugs. She’s intelligent enough to see what has happened to other people.” Though her class at the Lycée is nearly all-girl, Jodie has no trouble meeting boys (“Where don’t you meet them?” she groans) but will leave behind no special beau next fall. While much more sheltered than her worldly roles would indicate, Jodie does date a couple of times a week. Says Brandy, “She has a weakness for small, dark men. At first we thought she was going to be a big girl, and we used to say, ‘Isn’t that typical? A big blonde attracted to small, dark men.’ But she’s small now.” At 5’4″, Jodie has shed pounds of baby fat and watches her weight but loves Thai food and fiery chili washed down with Perrier.

The Foster family’s three-bedroom Spanish-style house near the Hollywood Bowl is finally emptying out. Both Constance, 25, and Buddy, 22, who is in real estate, are married. Lucinda, 26, lives in France. Now Jodie wants to buy a loft in lower Manhattan’s Tribeca area to house her growing collection of contemporary paintings and sculpture. She has traded in her Jeep for a Volkswagen convertible but will take only her moped to New Haven.

Though she’s going to Yale “basically for writing and literature,” Jodie won’t give up acting. She plans to make movies during Yale’s summer and winter vacations and may skip a semester if the right part comes along. (She’d like to play Candice Bergen’s daughter in Rich and Famous, which will co-star Jacqueline Bisset.) Jodie hopes her interests in acting and writing will eventually merge—she wants to be “a director, the ultimate thing to do.” In the meantime she dreams of working with Woody Allen (“But he never thinks of me. I guess I’m too WASPy”). Surprisingly, she has no plans to attend Yale’s drama school, which has produced Paul Newman, Henry Winkler and Meryl Streep.

Instead Jodie will probably try out for the school newspaper and hopes to blend in with the crowd. Her idea of bliss: “If people would look right through me; if three of us would go to a restaurant and they’d take us to a table for two.” Yale may help with that ambition—if not her embryonic musical career. Her only song in Bugsy Malone was dubbed by another singer, but she has released a ballad single in France. Her musical aspirations face at least one major obstacle in New Haven. The tables down at Mory’s are coed now, but the Whiffenpoofs, Yale’s famed singing group, still do not admit women.