“I loved the old Boris Karloff films,” the actress said on Friday night before a midnight screening of SCREAM BLACULA SCREAM (1973) at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Francesca Beale Theater, part of an eleven-film retrospective of her work.
“Those films back in the day – black and white films – those scared the shit out of me,” she laughed.
Coincidentally, Grier carved her place in pop culture history in a film genre that scared many moviegoers in the early 1970s, but for entirely different reasons: the so-called “Blaxploitation” action films. With a tone and sensibility unimaginable during the Studio Era, these envelope-pushing, post-Civil Rights Act parables of African American empowerment capitalized on the new creative freedoms enabled by the collapse of the Motion Picture Production Code in 1968. Opportunistic producers quickly cashed in, and the result was a torrent of low budget, independent productions that shocked older audiences with sex, profanity, and “anti-establishment” violence and were irresistible (at least for a while) to young viewers.
“SCREAM BLACULA SCREAM was, I think, $500,000 and it made something like $8 million. COFFY was $650,000 and it made $20-some million. And FOXY BROWN was $800,000 and it made another $30 or $40 million,” Grier told the Film Society’s Josh Strauss, programmer of the series. “I didn’t understand an ‘A’ movie or a ‘B’ movie, I just did the work. And that’s what, I think, has allowed me to work for 45 years. My approach was to be authentic and original.”
Still sexy and sassy at 63, Grier is one of the most memorably original actresses of the modern era. And, with her outsized Afro, aggressively liberated sexuality, and unapologetic propensity for ass kicking, Grier’s characters from her best-known films remain iconic a generation (or more) later. Hip hop artist Foxy Brown borrowed her nom de rap from Grier’s most successful movie of the ‘70s, Quentin Tarantino paid homage to her in 1997’s JACKIE BROWN (which also screened on Friday), and director Larry Cohen placed her on equal footing with the male heroes of the black action genre in his 1996 “reunion” film ORIGINAL GANGSTAS (which, sadly, was not part of this series.)
Grier shows no sign of slowing down as her career approaches the half-century mark. She recently wrapped a six-season run on the Showtime original series The L Word, spent four years writing a memoir (Foxy: My Life in Three Acts, which she signed for fans over the weekend), and continues to work in features (her last major studio release was Tom Hanks’ LARRY CROWNE in 2011). She’s also developing a biopic based on her book.
But for many longtime Pam Grier fans (like me), her rough-hewn early films will always hold the greatest charm. In that regard, the Film Society of Lincoln Center did not disappoint, with presentations of many rarely screened titles – most in 35 mm. And a few of the prints were delightfully battered, providing the closest thing to a grindhouse experience I’m likely to see in the Disneyfied New York City of 2013.
The festival kicked off on Friday afternoon with the women-in-prison epic THE BIG BIRD CAGE (1972), Grier’s first real starring role. Set in an unnamed banana republic (but filmed in the Philippines), BIRD CAGE was produced by Roger Corman’s New World Pictures (always a good sign) and written and directed by Jack Hill, who provided the print (the Film Society said it was the only extant 35 mm copy). Pam plays Blossom, a gun-toting revolutionary who infiltrates an island work camp where the inmates’ only crime appears to be their penchant for toplessness. Charismatic exploitation film mainstay Sid Haig is Blossom’s boyfriend Django (no relation to the recent iteration). And Vic Cheng, a character actor known as “the Peter Lorre of the Philippines,” is a flamboyantly gay prison guard who ends up humorously (?) ravaged by the sex-starved inmates.
Next up was Jack Hill’s FOXY BROWN (1974), the second film in Grier’s career-making three-picture deal with American International Pictures. Originally conceived as a sequel to COFFY (1973), FOXY BROWN again finds Grier battling drug dealers who peddle the “new slavery of hard dope.” When Foxy’s D.E.A. agent boyfriend is rubbed out by thugs, she goes undercover as a hooker and vows revenge.
“Vigilante justice? It’s as American as apple pie,” she says.
The occasionally campy tone of the film is offset by some relatively shocking violence, including the apparent off-camera rape of Grier’s character, the immolation of her rapist and the castration of the blow-dried, medallion-wearing male villain (Peter Brown).
“It looks like a pickle jar,” remains one of the great climatic lines in film history.
Eddie Romero’s BLACK MAMA, WHITE MAMA (1973) followed, with Grier once again frequently disrobed in an island prison, this time with a gay female matron who likes to peek in on the proceedings in the shower room. Like THE BIG BIRD CAGE, BLACK MAMA was shot in the Philippines, and features many returning cast members, including Haig and Cheng. The film is perhaps best remembered for an extended sequence in which Grier and co-star Margaret Markov evade capture while shackled together, like Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis in THE DEFIANT ONES (1958). Unlike Potier and Curtis, however, Grier and Markov are in panties.
Friday’s program also included a sold-out screening of JACKIE BROWN (1997), and the late show of SCREAM BLACULA SCREAM (1973). In this sequel to A.I.P.’s BLACULA (1972), Grier plays a Voodoo practitioner who falls under the thrall of the revived African prince Mamulwalde, and seeks to cure him of his centuries old vampire curse. William Marshall is memorably creepy in the title role, and the film is far more serious than the jokey title implies. It’s also the rare sequel that’s better than the original – much better, in fact.
Grier demonstrated genuine affection for the film and her co-star during her introductory remarks on Friday night.
“It was an honor to work with Professor William Marshall, a Shakespearean actor,” she said, playfully mimicking his deep voice. “I loved him. And the cape looked good on him, too.”
Marshall had struggled to maintain the dignity of the character during production of the first film, and both he and Grier pursued their work in the sequel with with the same level of dedication.
“I did do research on Voodoo and Ju-ju. And shit started to happen. It scared me,” Grier confessed. “With William Marshall, we both loved the fact that we prepared, we studied. But we didn’t want to mess with it. We wanted to respect it, just in case it worked.”
On Saturday, the festival moved across the street to the larger Walter Reade Theater for Andrew Davis’ ABOVE THE LAW (1988), in which Grier plays good cop to Steven Seagal’s bad in his (unintentionally hilarious) feature film debut. Next was Michael Schultz’s GREASED LIGHTNING (1977), featuring Richard Pryor as Wendell Scott, the first African American NASCAR driver. Pryor is charming in the film, and he and Grier have genuine chemistry – not surprising, considering that they were a couple for more than a year.
“Richard Pryor said I was crazier than he was,” Grier reminisced after the rarely seen film unspooled.
According to Grier, Melvin Van Peebles was originally slated to direct GREASED LIGHTNING, but was replaced by COOLEY HIGH (1975) helmer Michael Schultz, who had directed Pryor in CAR WASH (1976). She didn’t offer details of Van Peebles’ exit from the project, other than to say she was “brokenhearted when he left.”
Similarities abound between COFFY and FOXY BROWN. Both films were written and directed by Hill, both feature Grier as a vigilante posing as a hooker in pursuit of drug pushers, and both conclude with a male character being “relieved” of his masculinity (this time by a shotgun). But unlike in FOXY BROWN, Grier’s heroine in COFFY is more based in reality (relatively speaking). Early in the film we see her toiling at her nursing job, and her scenes with her strung out younger sister are grim. “Coffy” Coffin also spends the first few minutes of the film trying to talk herself (and the audience?) into the justness of her actions. In FOXY BROWN, she doesn’t waste time with such nuances. She just takes care of business.
Sunday kicked of with Arthur Marks’ BUCKTOWN (1975), a Fred “The Hammer” Williamson vehicle that completely wastes Grier in a supporting role (and also features Thalmus Rasulala and Carl “Apollo Creed” Weathers). The Hammer has his charms, and the “good guys turn bad” plot is inventive, but it’s difficult to watch Pam sit on the sidelines while the men fight it out, particularly when she was at the height of her badass renown. BUCKTOWN is also extremely sloppily directed by Marks, who ironically went on to direct Grier’s most polished action film of this period, 1975’s FRIDAY FOSTER (which was not included in the series, but is available via Amazon Instant).
Next was William Girdler’s SHEBA, BABY (1975), which features Grier as an ex-cop turned private eye out to once again avenge the death of a loved one (this time it’s her father). The decision to make Sheba Shayne a professional law enforcer removes the “average citizen forced into heroism” angle, and the film suffers for it. Grier also mostly keeps her increasingly stylish clothes on which, for better or worse, removes a key component from the, um, visuals. Plus, the water-based climax (Sheba’s on a jet ski! Now she’s shooting the bad guy with a spear gun!) comes off like a low-rent Bond knockoff.
John Carpenter’s ESCAPE FROM L.A. (1996) followed, with Kurt Russell returning as Snake Plissken from ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (1981) and Pam in a supporting role as a transsexual. The festival concluded with A Conversation with Pam Grier, an hour-long, on-stage interview with clips from her most famous films.
It was a great weekend, a unique opportunity to witness the trajectory of a career with the artist present to share intimate, behind-the-scenes details. All of it was done with style and the curatorial excellence New York City movie buffs have come to expect from the Film Society. But Grier herself summed it up best:
“They brought some funk to Lincoln Center.”