Arts: A Star Is; Reborn

Pam Grier was massive in Seventies blaxploitation movies. And now, she's massive again - as Quentin Tarantino's 'Jackie Brown'.
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The Independent Culture
LONG BEFORE MAGAZINES started drawing up lists of the most powerful women in Hollywood, and 20-odd years before stars like Jodie Foster began to translate their pulling power at the box office into directing jobs and $12m salaries, there were only three actresses who could be relied upon to open a movie on their own. Two of those were white singers, Barbra Streisand and Liza Minnelli. And the other was Pam Grier. Twenty years on, Minnelli has disappeared from films. Streisand - thankfully - restricts her appearances to one every five years or so. And now it's Grier who gets to play the title role in Jackie Brown, Quentin Tarantino's new film.

Between 1971 and 1976, when she made 17 films, Grier established herself as the queen of "blaxploitation", the Seventies movie genre that took the urban crime thriller and made it funky. Aimed squarely at an African- American audience, the films were fast-paced, had superb soundtracks, and were laced with sex and violence. They spawned a whole generation of black acting heroes and soon crossed over to find white fans.

Looking back on films with titles like Sheba Baby and Friday Foster, it's not hard to see why Grier's fans included the likes of Roman Polanski and Maximilian Schell. She was always better than the dialogue, which tended to run along the lines of "We're here to free the brothers from the slavery of hard dope, you dig?" And when it came to the frequent action sequences, she was quite simply awesome. She could dispatch any no-good honky with her hands or feet - but often chose more dramatic means. In her biggest hit, Coffy (1973), she blew a drug dealer's head clean off, before stabbing a hit-man and taking a shotgun to three different sets of genitals. In Foxy Brown (1974) she went one step further, castrating a drug dealer and presenting the remains to his girlfriend.

"I embodied the grassroots avenger," says Grier with a flash of her perfect teeth. "You kind of expected me to come in and win." She is sitting in a suite at the Regent Beverly Wilshire hotel. The Afro she sported in the old days has gone, but in all other respects the 5'8" Grier - a former beauty queen with a long, distinctive nose - looks much the same as she did in the mid-Seventies. Dressed all in black, she's both effusive and elusive, not keen to dwell in the past, but comfortable enough with it to smile at the excesses. "The movies I did then were more violent but in a kind of, not a camp way, but a less realistic way. In this one [Jackie Brown] I use the wisdom and common sense I've learnt over the years, and which Jackie would have picked up over the years."

Jackie Brown is a 44-year-old air hostess who gets caught up in a money- laundering scheme and ends up playing off the villains against the cops. And Grier is magnificent in the role. There's a real sense of someone who's lived life, of a woman who's seen it all, and who has one last chance to grab some of it for herself. Despite the high-voltage supporting cast, she dominates the film . She was cheated out of an Oscar nomination for Best Actress.

"Quentin needed a woman who could be assertive and could stand up to Samuel L Jackson, Michael Keaton and Robert De Niro, but who could be sensitive enough to convince Robert Forster that she needed him. All of that was based on Quentin's infinite attraction to what I did in the Seventies," says Grier. "I basically exemplify my mom, my grandmother, my aunts, some of my friends and professors who were women in a man's job." Although Jackie is in some ways similar to characters she played in the Seventies, Grier is adamant that she couldn't have played the part until now. "I hadn't survived and failed and gotten up and struggled and cried and bled, all those things that make Jackie. I hadn't done that when I was 19 or 25, or even 30 or 35. My sister, I'm telling you, she can't walk and chew gum at the same time, and she's 35."

NOW 48 YEARS OLD, Pam Grier has survived the death of her first love in Vietnam, cancer, and more than a decade of dispiriting auditions for jobs she didn't get. So she had a lot to draw on for the part of Jackie Brown. "It needed a lot of me and a lot of where I had been. Often you don't have to do that. Actors become actors to hide and escape their own life; I become an actor, and so in Jackie, I get punished, and reveal myself, and get my feelings stepped on. You try that."

Grier never planned to be an actress. The daughter of a master sergeant in the US Air Force, she grew up on various bases around the world, with a long spell in Swindon in the early 1960s. "They were always curious about the culture and music," she remembers fondly. "I was the loose American; they were so conservative and rigid with the pleated skirts and blazers. I was like, 'Get a grip'."

Returning to the States with an authentic English accent, she planned to become a doctor. And she did do a year at college, before the death of her boyfriend and a ticket to LA, courtesy of the Miss Colorado Pageant, landed her in Hollywood. At first she worked the switchboard at American International Pictures (AIP), the legendary B-movie operation that produced many of the blaxploitation classics. "I was very good - if you can play the piano you can do it. The myth is that I listened into conversations and learnt about the art of deal-making - and that's not true."

Instead, she appointed herself the AIP cop. "You couldn't steal the office supplies, you couldn't come in late: I'd reprimand you and I would not lie for you. 'I will not lie for you, I will be honest and true to myself, peace.' And they said, 'Get her out of here.' Finally, one of the agents said, 'There's a director looking for an in-your-face actress.' I wasn't an actress, but they were offering $500 a week and I was making $140 at AIP. " Within weeks she found herself in the Philippines making The Big Doll House, the women-in-prison film that would launch her career. The director was Jack Hill, a Tarantino favourite, and the man who would helm Grier's biggest hits.

The impact she made is reflected in the couple of thousand letters she still receives each month from her fans; even if she had stopped acting in 1977, her status as a cultural icon would be secure. She, however, wasn't particularly happy with what she was doing. "I thought I wasn't really pretty enough; I was a tomboy and into hiking boots and flannel shirts," she recalls. "I got pulled into it out of pure necessity and then I started liking it more and more, but I wasn't really comfortable with it until I did Greased Lightning."

Intended as a stepping stone to the mainstream - her co-star was Richard Pryor, to whom she was (briefly) engaged - Greased Lightning (1977) instead marked the end of Grier's reign as a box-office queen. There were a few good roles in the 1980s, as a crackhead hooker opposite Paul Newman in Fort Apache, the Bronx (1981) and as a witch in Something Wicked This Way Comes (1982), but Grier soon decided that there were better parts to be had on stage. "When you do these plays for $500 a week, you're not earning enough for rent, and you don't see me, and you think I've disappeared and that I'm depressed and boozing it; but I was honing my skills so that when that Quentin call came, I'd be ready to say, 'Quentin, what do you need? What can I give you?'"

The call initially came for Pulp Fiction. But plans for Pam to play Eric Stoltz's wife were thwarted by her height. "I'd have had to play the scene on my knees or sitting in a chair." Tarantino didn't forget her. "He'd been telling me for two years that he was going to write something for me. I was like, `Yeah, sure, I'm going to believe that,' but then it turned up," she says with delight. "I told Quentin, 'Watch my back and I'll watch yours, don't let me fall,' and that was our pact."

As a genuine Seventies icon, Grier isn't surprised that the decade is being revisited in films like Boogie Nights, The Ice Storm and the upcoming The Last Days of Disco. "The Seventies were the freedom decade, the years when we got the political gains of the Fifties and Sixties. You want freedom? OK, get the biggest Afro, music, drugs, sexuality, orgies, women's lib. Everything exploded, including the African-American community ... The Eighties I can't remember as much; the Fifties and Sixties were conservative, and very scary to my parents. They couldn't use certain bathrooms, they had to take certain jobs."

Grier - who has never married - is planning to have a child with her record-producer boyfriend. Her only disappointment is that having worked with an all-star cast and Tarantino in one go, she feels she might have lost out. "I'd always wanted to work with them, but not all in one movie. I wanted to make more money, and work with Sam on a movie, De Niro on a movie. Now I'll be working with unknowns for no money. You'll be saying I blew my wad in Jackie Brown."

'Jackie Brown' (18) opens on 20 Mar.