Pam Grier is ultra cool. Always calm and well articulated, with a remarkably positive philosophy of life. Even before I even knew her name, I considered myself a fan. She paved the way to a new generation of actresses that could held their own in any action picture with a fearless manner, all the while remaining feminine and sexy. Furthermore, if I may share a somewhat macho observation, she has the honor of having one of the most beautiful chest ever displayed in the history of motion pictures.
Born on May 26, 1949, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Pamela Suzette Grier is the daughter of an army mechanic and a nurse. Consequently, she followed her dad around many army bases, including stays in England and Germany. Reaching her 18th birthday, when the family was now stationed in Denver, Pam became a contestant in the Miss Colorado Universe Pageant. Are you ready to bet with me that some Hollywood agent would take notice? Bullseye. Her first job in the movie industry, as legends go, seems to be as a switchboard operator for American International Pictures, where she would be considered its Queen in the future. Finally, she found herself cast in a minuscule role for Russ Meyer’s legendary Beyond the Valley of the Dolls in 1970. Then came The Big Doll House the following year, which remains the starting point of a most amazing career for an American actress.
Oddly, who would’ve thought that by working in so many Women In Prison films (like The Big Bird Cage, Black Mama White Mama, Women in Cages), Pam Grier became a respected figure for feminist groups and the black community? She remains to this day an immortal symbol of the Blaxploitation genre, a style of action pictures that were marketed for the African-American moviegoers, with such offerings as Cool Breeze, Hit Man, Coffy, Foxy Brown, Friday Foster, Sheba Baby… Coffy remains a personal favorite, primarily for the scene where our heroine hides some razor blades in her large afro in case of an eventual attack!
Sometimes vulnerable, often unrelenting, Pam’s characters of the era were more often than not good girls in search of justice. All the Blaxploitation series is still enjoyable to watch today, considering its unique and soulful soundtracks and extravagant dress code. Many are released on DVD these days, with a good choice of Pam Grier titles. The majority of prison movies were filmed in the Phillipines, where at one point Pam contracted some mysterious and sometimes fatal tropical disease, which resulted in a total loss of hair and eye vision for a month!
Pam worked on more cult films outside of gangsters movies: we can mention Twilight People (where she can be seen as an alluring cat-woman), Scream Blacula Scream, and The Arena (sadly, the only movie dedicated to female gladiators?). Many more were to come, as Pam also became a sex-symbol, posing nude in Players magazine.
But oddly, as Blaxploitation came to a stop, her work schedule was dramatically reduced. She worked on Greased Lightning with Richard Pryor in 1977, a more serious role that she hoped would open the way for productions of higher quality. No such luck: she would have to wait four years for her next project, Fort Apache: The Bronx with Paul Newman, where she played a murderous prostitute. As reward, the majority of her scenes were cut in the editing room.
Some well-deserved respect finally came her way in 1983 for Something Wicked This Way Comes, based on a Ray Bradbury story. Pam has a silent role as a witch, considered the “world’s most beautiful woman”. She would soon find herself in a Canadian sci-fi production, The Vindicator, directed by Jean-Claude Lord and was even cast in a semi-regular role in TV’s Miami Vice. Then came a supporting role in Steven Seagal’s Above the Law in 1988 and from that point, work came on a more regular basis. But the same year, Pam was diagnosed with cancer and given no more than 18 months to live. A positive attitude remains the reason why the actress is still with us as beautiful as ever.
She played a robot-teacher in Class of 1999 and took part in Ted & Bill’s Bogus Journey. In an homage to Blaxploitation, Pam was united with three other veterans of the genre: Jim Brown, Richard Roundtree and Fred Williamson, for Original Gangstas. A most threatening foursome! In 1996, Pam was in John Carpenter’s mediocre Escape from L.A. and Tim Burton’s misunderstood Mars Attacks! But the best was yet to come.
If Quentin Tarantino ever did something right, it was to give the starring role of Jackie Brown to Pam, like he promised her many months before shooting began (she had actually auditioned for a role in Pulp Fiction). Looking at least 20 years younger than her real age, Pam gave us the performance of her career. I particularly like her character’s first appearance, when we can hear the theme song of Across 110th Street while she stands still on a moving escalator. For this role, she was nominated as Best Actress for the Golden Globes Awards, the Screen Actors Guild Awards, the Image Awards, the Golden Satellite Awards and actually won at the Csapnivalo Awards… but was not even considered for the Academy Awards (?).
What has the future got in store for Pam Grier? Back to B-Movies like Fortress 2? Or more parts in films directed by people who grew up with her seventies’ roles? It remains to be seen. Her talent and enthusiasm should not be wasted. In my eyes, she’s still one of the most fascinating actress of the last 35 years.
1970 Beyond the Valley of the Dolls 1971 The Big Doll House; Women in Cages 1972 Cool Breeze; Hit Man; The Twilight People; Black Mama, White Mama; The Big Bird Cage 1973 Coffy; The Arena; Scream, Blacula, Scream! 1974 Foxy Brown 1975 Sheba, Baby; Friday Foster; Bucktown 1976 Drum 1977 The Night of the High Tide; Greased Lightning 1981 Fort Apache the Bronx 1983 Something Wicked This Way Comes; Tough Enough 1985 Stand Alone; On the Edge 1986 The Vindicator 1987 The Allnighter 1988 Above the Law 1989 The Package 1990 Class of 1999 1991 Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey 1993 Posse 1995 Serial Killer 1996 Original Gangstas; Escape from L.A.; Mars Attacks! 1997 Fakin’ da Funk; Jackie Brown; Strip Search 1998 No Tomorrow 1999 Jawbreaker; In Too Deep; Holy Smoke; Fortress 2 2000 Snow Day; Wilder 2001 3 A.M.; Love the Hard Way; Ghosts of Mars; Bones 2002 Baby of the Family; The Adventures of Pluto Nash 2005 Back in the Day 2010 The Invited; Just Wright 2011 Mafia; Larry Crowne 2012 Woman Thou Art Loosed: On the 7ty Day; The Man with the Iron Fists