Happy Birthday to PAM GRIER – Here Are Her Ten Best Films
Article by Jim Batts, Dana Jung, Sam Moffitt, and Tom Stockman
Happy Birthday to one of WAMG’s favorite movie stars! Pam’s iconic movie career began when she moved to Los Angeles in the late ‘60s from her native North Carolina at age 18. After a tiny role in Russ Meyer’s BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS (1970), she landed a job as a receptionist for American International Pictures where she was discovered by Jack Hill, an AIP director who cast her in a pair of women’s prison films: THE BIG DOLL HOUSE (1971) and THE BIG BIRD CAGE (1972). Soon she was known as the “Queen of Blaxploitation” at a time when film roles for African-American women were, as Grier puts it, “practically invisible, or painfully stereotypical”.
Here, according to We Are Movie Geeks, are Pam Grier’s ten best films.
Honorable Mention: GREASED LIGHTNING
GREASED LIGHTNING is a biographical film about Wendell Scott (Richard Pryor) the first African American to drive in Nascar races. As you would expect, especially in a 1970s movie, the Anglo Americans are not too happy about Scott’s ambitions and do everything possible to stop him. Pryor is excellent in a rare dramatic role and Beau Bridges is good as a white mechanic who is open minded enough to help him out. Pam Grier does quite a lot with a role that could have been by the numbers, Scott’s wife Mary. She is nothing less than a tower of strength for Scott when the odds seem impossibly stacked against him. Greased Lightening was not a bit hit when it was released and it is pretty much forgotten these days. I saw it in a theater during my tour of duty in the Navy and showed it on my tv station, it was quite popular with the crew, black and white. It deserves to be better known.
10. MARS ATTACKS
Bouncing back from the lukewarm box office return of ED WOOD, Tim Burton decided to bring another beloved childhood icon to the big screen. But rather than grabbing up another character from comic books, as with his pair of BATMAN films, he turned to trading cards. These adored (by kids) “bubblegum” cards told the grisly story of alien invasion in MARS ATTACKS! Burton filled the movie with well-known names, an all-star cast in the tradition of Irwin Allen’s 70’s disaster epics. The main story locales were Washington D.C. and Las Vegas, and Pam Grier’s character was connected to both. In “sin city” we meet former prizefighter turned greeter/ entertainer Byron Williams (Jim Brown) at an Egyptian-themed casino. As his boss glares, Byron makes a call to DC, where his ex-wife Louise (Grier) is trying to pry their pre-teen boys Cedric and Neville away from a “shooter” video game. He assures her that he will be visiting them soon (still a lot of affection between these two). We next see Louise on the job, driving a public transit bus through the busy streets of the capitol. She spies her sons at a video arcade, and slams on the brakes. She will not tolerate them skipping school, so she drags them out of the arcade and loads them on to the bus as the very understanding passengers applaud and cheer. In this film, the glamorous action icon
gets to show her maternal side. She’s a concerned loving parent, and that love can be of the “tough” variety when crossed. The no-nonsense matriarch will set those two back on the “straight and narrow’, no doubt about it. Unfortunately she’s sidelined during the Martian attack on DC, pleading with Byron long distance while admonishing their sons to take cover (I’m sure she could wipe out a platoon of those bulbous-headed bums). When the invaders are vanquished, Louise enlists the boys in trying to tidy up their apartment (though the building’s missing a wall), just as Byron returns. Later that year Grier and Brown would share the screen more in ORIGINAL GANGSTAS (a nostalgic return to their screen roots), but both are a welcome addition to this sci-fi satire extravaganza.
9. FORT APACHE THE BRONX
As the 1970’s came to a close, Pam Grier entered a new phase of her prolific career. Using an academic metaphor, she graduated from Grindhouse High to Big Budget University. Perhaps the 1980’s was closer to baseball as Ms. Grier was called up to the big leagues AKA major movie studios from the quickie, but very entertaining, exploitation minor leagues. 1981’s FORT APACHE: THE BRONX was an “A-list” prestige picture from Twentieth Century Fox headline by a major movie star, Paul Newman, and a very hot TV star Ed Asner, grabbing big ratings as the lead of “Lou Grant”. Though she shared no scenes with either, Grier was an essential part of Daniel Petrie’s gritty modern-day police drama. She truly sets the tone for the story in the first scene, as drug-addled working girl Charlotte emerges like a tawdry phoenix from the rubble and filth of the Bronx. Sporting a cheap blonde wig and nearly bursting through a fluorescent print cocktail dress, she elicits chuckles from two cops having lunch in a patrol car, as she staggers toward them. Their laughter is soon cut short when their banter (she slurs, “Ahm’ on the job, too”) prompts her to unload her pistol into them. She stumbles back into the city’s squalor while human vultures descend on the squad car. We catch a brief glimpse of her later during a street riot. She returns in the dark of night when a middle-aged “joe’s” car has a flat . Appearing out of the shadows, Charlotte is a modern siren, luring the man to the rocks, actually a nearby rotting tenement, with the promise of free fleshy delights. In one of the film’s most memorable sequences, she begins a teasing dance of temptation, one that ends not in pleasure, but in slashing bloody horror from a razor blade, clenched behind her teeth, glistening as she smiles. Things backfire with her next prey, as Charlotte become yet another discard piled upon the urban trash heap. Grier’s screen time is far too brief, but her “angel of death” is a most compelling, charismatic presence.
8. SCREAM BLACULA SCREAM
SCREAM BLACULA SCREAM (1973) was a funky and fun, if rushed, sequel to the hit BLACULA, which brought Vampires into Blaxploitation cinema for the first time the year before. The success of BLACULA spawned a bunch of other Blaxploitation/Horror hybrids, such as BLACKENSTEIN, DR. BLACK AND MR. HYDE, and ABBY – THE BLACK EXORCIST. SCREAM BLACULA SCREAM once again delivered a groovy 70s vibe, and the distinguished William Marshall was more than cool in the eponymous role. What makes this film especially worthwhile was the casting of the wonderful Pam Grier as Lisa Fortier who becomes the new voodoo priestess after her elderly predecessor dies, though not before using her skills to resurrect Prince Mamuwalde (aka Blacula). As in the first film, Mamuwalde is not really a villain, but merely a tormented soul who cannot help but satisfy his thirst for human blood in order to survive. Soon after his resurrection, he runs into Lisa, a beautiful young woman who has particularly powerful Voodoo-skills. The whole thing is strange and ridiculous and stupid and clever and terrible and wonderful, a movie that richly deserves its place on a list of Pam Grier’s best.
7. SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES
The writing of Ray Bradbury is notoriously hard to capture on film. Some adaptations are almost complete disasters, Illustrated Man anyone? Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 is one exception and Something Wicked this Way Comes (1983) is another. Bradbury was one of the first authors to realize the basic creepiness of carnivals and circus’s. Along with Jack Finney’s brilliant Circus of Dr Lao, Something Wicked This Way Comes tells of a carnival coming to a small town where in something sinister is happening. Among the attractions at Cooger and Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show (I love that name!) is the Dust Witch, played with such elegance and grace by Pam Grier I found it hard to believe this was the same woman who made whupping ass an everyday activity. The Dust Witch has very dark magic at her command, but Something Wicked is the rare horror movie, especially from the 1980s, where good wins out over evil.
6. THE BIG DOLL HOUSE
In 1971, cinematic history was made with the release of THE BIG DOLL HOUSE, directed by Jack Hill and co-starring Pam Grier in her first feature role. Hill had been recommended to producer Roger Corman by Francis Ford Coppola, Corman’s first choice to direct the film and a friend of Hill’s from UCLA film school. Corman had just formed his New World Pictures studio and wanted proven types of stories with guaranteed box office. He got more than he bargained for with DOLL HOUSE, which not only was a huge financial success, but also established the blueprint for “women in prison” exploitation films for decades to come. Dispensing with the previous melodramatic storylines in such big studio product as CAGED and SNAKE PIT, Hill instead opted for more realistic, sometimes graphic situations. He also determined to put his women characters in roles of power, just as if the film starred Cagney or Bogart. These were real females who swore profusely, had a healthy regard for sex, and weren’t afraid of automatic weapons. Hill also gathered a memorable ensemble of young actresses to surround Pam: Roberta Collins (CAGED HEAT, DEATH RACE 2000), Judy Brown (WILLIE DYNAMITE, SLAUGHTER’S BIG RIPOFF), Brooke Mills (DREAM NO EVIL), and Pat Woodell (miles away from her role as the original Bobbie Jo on TVs PETTICOAT JUNCTION). The film hits all the obligatory exploitation marks (shower scene, torture scenes, girlfights, etc.) and Pam even gets to sing the main title song “Long-time Woman” for the movie. When Corman asked Hill to do a sequel to DOLL HOUSE the following year, there were already cheap imitators and rip-offs flooding the drive-in market (Grier herself had made WOMEN IN CAGES right after DOLL HOUSE), so Hill decided to create a semi-spoof of the genre and wrote THE BIG BIRD CAGE with a starring role for Grier (fun fact: the “cage” of the title was a working sugar mill designed by Hill’s father, who also designed the castle at Disneyland!). Whether seen as feminist manifesto (“All men are filthy!”) or no-holds-barred cult film with kick-ass women, BIG DOLL HOUSE is a blast from start to finish and required viewing of 1970s cinema.
Any movie that finds Pam Grier in bed with Warren Oates has to be considered a must-see 70’s classic. MANDINGO, a 1975 movie about sexual shenanigans between masters and slaves on the Falconhurst slave-breeding plantation, was savaged by critics who saw it as nothing but degrading, big-budget exploitation. Roger Ebert called it “racist trash” and MANDINGO certainly had it all; brutal violence, interracial sex, rape, infanticide, lynchings, and abundant nudity. But of course it was a huge hit and inspired a brief run of “slaverysploitation” films such as PASSION PLANTATION (1976) and SLAVERS (1978). MANDINGO was overwrought melodrama to be sure, but it’s a model of subtlety compared to its official sequel, the more lascivious DRUM, a mean-spirited trash epic from 1976 that would never fly in today’s politically correct climate. DRUM’s tawdry story picks up about 20 years after MANDINGO. Hammond Maxwell (Warren Oates), the son of the late Falconhurst patriarch Warren Maxwell purchases a slave named Drum from bordello hostess Marianna (Isela Vega). Drum turns out to be the son of Mede (killed at the end of MANDIGO), the slave who had murdered Hammond’s father. Hammond uses Mede and his friend Blaise (Yaphet Kotto) to fight in ridiculous gladiator battles as entertainment for the ‘white folk’. Slave Regine (Pam Grier) is Hammond’s favorite ‘bed wench’ but develops a romance with Drum. Hammond’s bratty slut daughter Sophie (Rainbeaux Smith) stirs up trouble between Drum and Blaise by trying to have sex with both of them and then lying to her father that Blaise tried to rape her and a campy gay French slave trader (John Colicos) wants to bed black stud Drum as well. Tensions build, emotions erupt and by the end of the movie, a mansion is on fire, the black slaves have revolted against the ‘mastas’ wielding scythes and knives, while the white men battle it out with their muskets and rifles. Where MANDINGO was at least pretentious and literary (and had a dignified performance by James Mason as Warren Maxwell), DRUM makes no pretense at being anything except cheap thrills exploitation and ups the sleaze quotient by adding lesbianism, incest, castration, and a swishy gay villain to the mix. DRUM is more fast-paced and entertaining than its predecessor.
4. BLACK MAMA WHITE MAMA
Inspired by Stanley Kramer’s THE DEFIANT ONES (starring Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis), BLACK MAMA WHITE MAMA (1973) has no thematic pretensions concerning racism and social inequality. This is first and foremost a women’s prison exploitation film, and contains all the required elements that sub-genre is known for. The first third of the film takes place in the prison, where hot-tempered prostitute Lee (Grier) meets idealistic activist Karen (Margaret Markov), and the women take an immediate dislike to each other. So of course, they end up chained together for most of the film. However, they first have to deal with the usual women’s prison indignities including the wonderful Lynn Borden as a predatory lesbian guard. Soon, the jailbreak is on, and most of the film is Lee and Karen on the run from gangsters, dogs, revolutionaries, corrupt cops, and vile locals. Pam has some wonderful dialogue that she delivers with angry and bitter sassiness, and Markov balances the tone with her luminous political fervor. The inevitable fight between the two is a highlight of the movie, as Pam found with Markov another statuesque and strong woman who could match her physicality (the two actresses would work together again a few years later in THE ARENA, another ‘70s classic). Directed by Eddie Romero (the cult films SAVAGE SISTERS, BEAST OF BLOOD, TWILIGHT PEOPLE), the movie is a lean action treat with a darkly cynical ending.
3. FOXY BROWN
FOXY BROWN (1974) is a wild story of sex, drugs, and vengeance featuring Pam Grier in probably her most iconic role. When drug pusher Link Brown (Antonio Fargas) loses half a kilo of cocaine worth $20k, his suppliers become irate and send two thugs to work him over. Desperately needing help, he calls his sister Foxy (Pam Grier) to rescue him from the two goons. She manages to get to him before they can grab him and puts him up at her place for a few days completely unaware of the exact nature of his predicament. In addition to that, her boyfriend (Terry Carter) is an undercover cop who has just undergone a face-lift and assumed a new identity because the same suppliers have a contract out on his head. Things begin to take a turn for the worse and Foxy Brown suddenly has a score or two to settle with some major league drug dealers. FOXY BROWN was written and shot to be a sequel to director Jack Hill’s previous film, COFFY where Grier played a nurse with a bad attitude and a penchant for taking her aggression out on mother**kers who wronged her. For some reason, the studio forced Hill to make Foxy Brown stand-alone at the last minute, changing… well, nothing really. The opening credits to FOXY BROWN are like a funked-out version of a 007 intro with Foxy dancing around in front of multi-colored backgrounds, all the while rocking her outfits from the film. The title sequence employs almost every trick in the title design book, from image rotoscoping and solarization to multi-layered optical animation and colorization. One of the best scenes in FOXY BROWN has to do with one of Foxy’s friends, who, though she is supposed to be laying low (people need to “lay low” often in Foxy’s world), wanders into a lesbian bar and Foxy has to get her out. This lesbian bar needs to be seen to be believed. All of the women dress like teamsters, only more macho. And in a wonderful endorsement of equal rights, these female bar patrons are just as violent, rude, and prone to fight over nothing as any beer-belching men.
When director Jack Hill was asked by American International Pictures to direct a “black woman’s revenge movie,” he immediately insisted on casting his favorite actress Pam Grier. The resulting cult classic was COFFY (1973), which was a huge hit and helped launch the “blaxploitation” films of the 1970s. It also contains one of Grier’s finest performances. Grier portrays “Coffy” Coffin, nurse by day and angel of vengeance by night. She is out to get anyone who was involved in turning her younger sister into a “smack addict at 11…..her whole life is gone!” And Coffy doesn’t care how high up the junkie food chain she has to go – even to the top dog himself. Along the way, she shoots, stabs, and fights her way on a one-woman rampage to rid the world of drug pushers and avenge her sister. Hill wisely created the role of a woman with no special skills—she’s not a martial arts expert or professional assassin. She is a strong, smart woman who relies on her wiles, intelligence, and, yes, her sexuality to help her achieve her goals. However, she’s not just a killing machine; she wonders throughout the movie if she’s in some kind of dream—an allusion to the “dream state” that ancient warriors achieved before they went into battle. In this early film, as she has her entire career, Grier shows why she’s a true star: her unique blend of physically imposing power with a natural ability to show vulnerability and raw emotion. At the end of the film, when she declares, “I loved you! I loved you so much!” your heart breaks a little bit.
1. JACKIE BROWN
When JACKIE BROWN was released in 1997, expectations were off the charts. It had been three and a half long years since Quentin Tarantino had rocked the movie world with the one-two punch of RESERVOIR DOGS (1992) and PULP FICTION (1994). Tarantino had the clout to cast anyone he wanted for JACKIE BROWN (1997), the film he adapted from Elmore Leonard’s novel Rum Punch, and I’m sure most of Hollywood wanted to work with him, and he put together his usual imaginative ensemble of major players, 70’s comeback stars, and fresh blood. Pam Grier was the now-mature siren of Blaxploitation, the star of many wonderful 70’s urban classics such as COFFY (1973), BLACK MAMMA WHITE MAMMA (1973), FOXY BROWN (1974) and BUCKTOWN (1975). With her distinctive mega-fro, Grier was a statuesque, articulate ass-kicker in these films and Tarantino was a huge fan (she’s mentioned by name in his scripts for both RESERVOIR DOGS and TRUE ROMANCE). He’d originally considered Grier for PULP FICTION in the role ultimately played by Roseanne Arquette (which would have made her the mate of Eric Stoltz, an actor I can see Pam Grier breaking in half with two fingers), and changed the lead character in Leonard’s novel from a blonde Caucasian to an African-American in order to accommodate Grier (in the novel, her name is Jackie Burke. Tarantino renamed her Brown after her character from FOXY BROWN). Pam Grier was 48 when she starred in JACKIE BROWN (though her character claims to be 44) and she gives a strong world-weary performance, tough and believable especially when standing up to Samuel L. Jackson’s Ordell Robey. It’s been noted that JACKIE BROWN did not do for Grier’s career what PULP FICTION did for John Travolta but then, how many parts were there in Hollywood for black women pushing 50? Pam Grier did receive some choice roles after JACKIE BROWN including parts in John Carpenter’s GHOST OF MARS (2001), LARRY CROWNE (2011) as well as roles in the TV shows The L-Word and Smallville. JACKIE BROWN was the perfect mix of pulp fiction, Blaxploitation aesthetic, and film noir.