Pretty In The Past: Pam Grier

Pam went to the audition the way she dressed in everyday life, without any makeup. Roger and director Jack Hill hired her on the spot. They needed an actress who could be gorgeous without any artifice and Pam was as natural a beauty as they had seen.

Sep 26, 2012 at 5:00pm | Leave a comment

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Watching the 1973 film Coffy it quickly becomes clear that whoever first coined the term “muthafucka” did so specifically so that Pam Grier could one day speak it. Every time she says those four syllables in the film, they somehow manage to transform themselves into a glorious mini-aria of rage and female fury, and with them she cemented her status as the first female action hero who ever meant a damn.

Pam was a beauty pageant runner-up in Denver, Colorado, when she was approached by two men from Hollywood who told her they believed a film then currently in production called Shaft was going to trigger a new wave of films aimed at black audiences and that she would be smart to go to California and capitalize on it. She took their advice, but made no serious attempt to break into the movies when she got to L.A. Instead, she went to work at six different jobs in order to save up enough money to go to school.

One of these jobs was a receptionist gig at a talent agency. She was busy answering the phone and accepting packages when one of the agents asked her if she had ever considered becoming an actress. She laughed at him, but he told her that the legendary exploitation movie producer, Roger Corman, was making a women in prison movie in the Philippines and was struggling to find the right actress for the part of a tough black inmate.

Dubious, Pam went to the audition the way she dressed in everyday life, without any makeup. Roger and director Jack Hill hired her on the spot. They needed an actress who could be gorgeous without any artifice and Pam was as natural a beauty as they had seen. The fact that she had never acted before didn’t even occur to them as being a problem. It probably didn’t hurt that her photogenic face also happened to sit atop a collection of curves so insanely appealing they seemed almost specifically designed to press down upon the pleasure centre of the human brain.

Her performance (or—perhaps more accurately—presence) in 1971’s The Big Doll House impressed Corman enough that he kept her working in the Philippines for the next 3 years, making 6 movies there in total (including one where she played a character called Ayesa, the Panther Woman). She proved such a hit with audiences that she was given the chance to star as the title character in Coffy—a part Hill wrote with her mind after being told to make a film with a strong black female protagonist that could make it to theaters before the Warner Brothers-produced Cleopatra Jones. He succeeded by a full month and Pam beat out Jones’ Tamara Dobson both historically and at the box office.

Truthfully, Pam was still pretty shaky as an actress when she played Coffy, a quality that especially stood out in some of the film’s longer dialogue scenes, but audiences didn’t care—they were too mesmerized by the sight of her blowing off a dude’s head with a shotgun to care. Playing a nurse who becomes a deadly vigilante following her 11 year-old sister’s descent into heroin abuse, Pam was given the chance to portray a character no one had ever seen in a movie theater before and she became an instant icon in the process. As uneven as her performance was, there was no questioning the ferocity she brought to the film’s violent action scenes. In them, she possessed an anger almost unheard of for any female character up to that time, regardless of race.

It turns out there was a reason for that.

Pam knew what it was like to be a victim of violence. When she was 6 she was raped by a group of boys in her aunt’s home. 12 years later it happened again when a handsome date sexually assaulted her at a party. Though audiences couldn’t have known this at the time, it was her refusal to ever again allow herself to be someone’s victim that gave the characters she played their uniquely compelling intensity. Throughout Coffy, she is battered and beaten (and has her clothes ripped off enough times you could make a potentially dangerous drinking game out of it), but she always keeps going, refusing to be defeated. By the end, every man who has wronged her has paid for his crime with his life.

The success of Coffy made Pam a bankable star, earning her other leading roles in Foxy Brown, ‘Sheba Baby’ and Friday Foster, but the over-production (and often-derisible) quality of the so-called “Blaxploitation” films began to affect their box office returns, with the result that Hollywood decided to stop making them. By the end of the 70s and into the 80s Pam was forced into smaller supporting rolls, where her light didn’t shine quite as bright.

But the fans of Coffy never forgot about her—including an Academy Award winning filmmaker named Quentin Tarantino. It was with her specifically in mind that he changed the white 44 year-old female protagonist of Elmore Leonard’s novel Rum Punch from Jackie Burke to the black 44 year-old Jackie Brown. Given her first leading movie role in 20 years, Pam reminded the world what it was missing and hasn’t let it forget it in the 15 years that have passed since.

In Coffy we’re meant to take it for granted that every man who sees its title character instantly becomes obsessed with her. This is easily the most believable part of a frequently implausible movie. I don’t know a single fan of that era of filmmaking—male or female—who doesn’t consider Pam Grier one of their favourite performers. At the time, she was less an actress (though she would become a fine one in the future) than a true force of nature. She’s completely owned every film she’s appeared in and has more than earned her status as one of the most important and influential icons of the last four decades.

Want to suggest a potential candidate for a future Pretty In the Past post (besides Audrey Hepburn)? Send a tweet over my way at @HouseofGlib and I’ll be happy to take it into consideration!