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Icon of the '70s shifts into 2nd phase of career

LOS ANGELES -- I walked in to talk to Pam Grier with these words of Quentin Tarantino fresh in my mind:

"In the 1970s they talked about Jim Brown being the black Burt Reynolds, or Shaft being the black James Bond, but Pam Grier wasn't the black anybody, because there was nobody else, black or white, who was like her. And there still isn't. She founded her own genre."

She did. In more than a dozen movies like "Coffy," "Foxy Brown" and "Sheba, Baby," she played a tough chick who could handle a gun and her fists, and not only beat up drug dealers but do things to them even their worst (male) enemies wouldn't have dreamed of. Some of those movies weren't very good, but Grier's presence and personality stood above them; like Jackie Chan or Bruce Lee, she was the movie, and such trifles as plot and direction were irrelevant to her fans.

After the blaxploitation movies ran out of steam, she moved back to Denver to be near her family, but continued to work in two or three pictures a year - some of them good roles like the cop- killer in "Fort Apache, the Bronx" (1981), some of them throwaways like "Mars Attacks!" (1996). For those who remembered her early work, however, there was always something incomplete about her career; she made such a strong impression that somehow she should still be playing the title roles.

She wasn't just a strong, dynamic woman, but a great-looking one, with those high cheekbones and full breasts and hurdler's legs and . . . shoulders. Yes, a movie critic this week was actually complaining in print that Tarantino's new film doesn't show off Grier's shoulders, which he has apparently treasured in his memory for more than 20 years.

Tarantino, who used to clerk in a video store and is famous for having absorbed all of modern film history more or less as an uninterrupted download, was one of the countless fans who had not forgotten Pam Grier. He decided to film the Elmore Leonard novel Rum Punch, and in his screenplay changed a blond named Jackie Burke into an African American named Jackie Brown, and renamed the movie for her.

Grier remembers how it happened: "He says, `Pam, I'm writing something about you.' Then I bumped into him a year later, and I thought, he's not gonna; he's so big, everybody's gonna come to him and pay him big bucks to write for them. And he says, `No, I got something for you. I've been writin' on it.' `OK,' I say, `but before my teeth fall out and my breasts sag? Quentin, when is this gonna happen?' And he says, `No, I'm gonna . . .'

"So he calls me at my boyfriend's house, who says, `Hey, there's some black guy on the phone named Quentin.' 'Cause I know Quentin probably said, `Yo! Whassup?' And he says he's sending me something. It comes a week later, by mule train, and I'm reading it and I'm going `Oh, my God, you can tell who's been reading Elmore Leonard.' I aspire to write like Elmore Leonard. He writes so well, you can smell his characters.

"I didn't call Quentin back right away. I loved it and I'm like, it's not gonna get done and I'll be so disappointed. Kevin, my boyfriend, says, `You better call him before he hires somebody else.' So I called him and said, `Quentin, you did an excellent job, you really did, because Elmore Leonard writes so well and it's your style.' He says, `Well, I'm glad you like it because you're Jackie Brown.' I say, `I am?' He says, `Yeah. I wrote it for you. No one else could do it but you.' I say, `You mean no one's crazy enough to do it but me.' He says, `No one could do it but you.' I say, `Watch my back and I'll watch yours and don't let me fall.' He says, `Don't you let me fall.' And we did it."

Pam Grier is telling me this in one dramatic monologue, playing the parts, doing the dialogue, and it's not like she's providing information, it's like she's acting it out in case you weren't there at the time. While she talks, I'm checking her out, and I'm remembering a line from the movie, where Max Cherry the bail bondsman (Robert Forster) tells her, "I'll bet that except for the Afro you used to have, you look about the same now as when you were 29." And she does. She looks gorgeous, which is important to note, because there are times in "Jackie Brown" when she plays someone who just got out of jail after 48 hours.

"I was raised with very little vanity," she told me, when I said something about how good she looked. "One person is not prettier than the other. That's how I was brought up. If your eyes work and your mouth, you know, if everything works - that's fine. Hollywood told me, you're prettier with makeup. Be on screen with all the makeup and look great because that's how you get your next role. Now in `Jackie,' with maturity and confidence, when I come outta jail, I have on no makeup and I got a kitchen - you know, the naps. My hair has gone home and there I am on screen before the world, raw, because everything's been stripped away and I'm down to . . . this is it. It's me. Am I gonna let them get me? Am I gonna be victimized? The survivor in the mature woman is so evident and, oh, so much a part of me."

In the film, she's running illegal cash in from Mexico for a gun dealer (Samuel L. Jackson) when the feds bust her. She's smart enough to know that the dealer will kill her before she can testify against him. She's bailed out by the Forster character, and begins an elaborate scam to save her life, and eventually the bondsman starts to help her, because he has a crush on her. ("The biggest crush," Tarantino told me, "is the one you get after you think you've had your last crush.")

For both Grier and Forster, these are life-changing roles, allowing Hollywood to see them anew. But Grier told me she never stopped acting: "I didn't get into the business to become famous or to make a lot of money, to see my face on the screen. That's not my agenda." She began in Hollywood as a secretary at American-International Pictures, was cast at 21 in "The Big Doll House" (1971) more or less because she was standing right there, and didn't consider herself much of an actor until "Greased Lightning" (1977), opposite Richard Pryor and Beau Bridges.

"Every time after I did a film, I went back to work at a daytime job, which drove my agent crazy. He said, `You're an actress. You're supposed to sit by the phone waitin' for me to get your next job. Why are you back working in the accounting department at Thrifty's?' In our family the work ethic is very important. You're never unemployed. You always work. So after I did `The Big Doll House' and `The Big Birdcage,' I went back to work and they said, `What are you doin'? You're an actress.' I am? I didn't think I was a real actress until I started doing theater."

She did a lot of stage work: "Piano Lesson" at the Denver Center for Performing Arts, and "Frankie and Johnnie in the Claire de Lune" in San Diego, and Sam Shepard's "Fool for Love" when it opened in 1986 at the Los Angeles Theater Center. She's written a play called "Heartbreak Row," which she said is "about a religion and how my sister suffered and died because of it and how it made our family go crazy." She said all the theater prepared her for working with Tarantino, "who does a scene that's nine minutes long, and there's no cutting. You keep the energy going, like in theater."

So when the call came from Tarantino, she was ready. But was she willing? "Kevin my boyfriend says, `Forget about how you'll feel about getting your feelings hurt if it doesn't go; you call him back.' "

This is a big romance? You're known for never having married . . .

"Yes, with Kevin Evans. He's a senior VP at RCA Music, and he's also from Denver, and listen to this. You're not going to believe this. He lived in the same house I lived in! His bedroom was my bedroom! Ten years after I moved out, his family moved into my old house in Denver!"

Karma, I said.

"I'm thinking that eventually we'll, you know, marry and have babies and adopt and take care of kids and dogs and birds and trees. I've always wanted to, but you have to be with people in the right situation, right place, right time. You have to wait. I was asked many times, `How come you're not married? Something wrong with you?' No, I'm pretty healthy; I'm fine. `Well, are you gay?' I say, `No, I'm not gay. I'm very straight; I love men and their fuzzy little chests, you know, and mustaches, and it's just that when I'm ready I'll know."

What was it? I asked her. What was it, in the early 1970s, that you tapped into so strongly? What nerve were you striking?

Grier starts answering, and it's like earlier; she isn't just talking, she's performing, evoking, re-creating, in a stream of memory:

"Well, I'm a part of that 1970s movement of women's independence. I just happened to bring it to film. The '70s were basically rewards for the political gains in the '50s and '60s. We had all those freedoms now. Jimi Hendrix was allowed to play rock 'n' roll and not be called an Uncle Tom. Whites could go to black concerts and not be called nigger-lovers. Blacks were becoming Buddhists as opposed to being Baptists, and we were seeing who had the biggest 'fro and running naked through Woodstock, and we were redefining ourselves, experiencing, exploring.

"Women could say, `We wanna be able to work on a construction job because we like construction, we like being outdoors,' and then go home and put on a dress or cook for our children. Fifties women were told, don't pick up tools, women don't do this - women stay home. And we were really tired of people telling us.

"I think there's a Foxy Brown in every woman and a Coffy and a Jackie Brown, and I evolved from all of that. I get my womanhood from talking to them and listening to them in the beauty shop, you know. Or gettin' my nails done and being in the 'hood, goin' home and listening, looking and getting the characterizations.

"In real life, I don't put on makeup. My hair is not this nice, and I have overalls and I'm covered in dog hair and dog slobber, and I'm out there doin' it, you know. Bob Vila was my idol. Thank you for `This Old House' for teaching me skills that I'm not ashamed to do because I'm a woman. And I wanna show all that in my work. Or I'm gonna bore people, and they're not gonna come."

You know what, Pam? I said. I don't think you have to worry about boring people.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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