Recap: Pam Grier Superstar! Q&A at Harvard Film Archive

The iconic actress and trailblazer shares stories of shattering Hollywood expectations at ‘Jackie Brown’ screening

Earlier this month Pam Grier spent a few days at Harvard University to accept the W.E.B. Du Bois Medal from the Hutchins Center for African and African-American Research. She also hung out for a couple of nights at the Harvard Film Archive, where the actress granted us pale, sheltered movie nerds a rare audience with royalty in support of the HFA’s Pam Grier Superstar!, a retrospective of the now-seminal, rotgut classics in which she singlehandedly rebuked received wisdom regarding Hollywood’s conceptions of beauty and power.

Pam Grier introduced to the cinema a new kind of femininity — bold, black and proud. Striding into the HFA auditorium like a goddess in a denim jacket, the sixty-seven-year-old star of The Big Bird Cage, Coffy, Foxy Brown and Sheba, Baby took questions after a screening of Quentin Tarantino’s personal 35mm print of his underappreciated 1997 masterpiece, Jackie Brown.

“I think its Tarantino’s best movie,” said Harvard Film Archive programmer David Pendelton during his introduction. “It is a film about characters, not just cinematic references.” I wrote about this at great length when Jackie Brown played at The Brattle last year, and I love how conventional wisdom has been slowly creeping around in support of a movie that was at the time considered a disappointment — opinions changing roughly at the same, laid-back pace that this wonderful, melancholy picture takes to get where it’s going.

Grier first met Tarantino when she read for a role in Pulp Fiction, but it was a bad visual match because she towered over her would-be onscreen boyfriend, Eric Stoltz. “I said erm, yeah okay. Hi Eric, nice to see you. I’m supposed to be your girlfriend, rest your head on my nipple?” The role eventually went to Rosanna Arquette, yet Grier’s was one of the most fortuitous failed auditions in Hollywood history. “Because of my meeting with him, Quentin decided he could work with me in the future. I fit his family, his dynamic. He felt confident enough to spend two years of his life writing Jackie Brown for me. And I didn’t have to give Quentin any!” Grier giggled. “I didn’t have to be his girlfriend or anything!”

Tarantino is probably most famous for his voracious love of cinema, an area in which the actress insisted she’s got him beat. “I love it more. I’m older and I saw more movies, that’s all I’ll tell you. Quentin would say something and I’d say, Bertolucci! Fellini! Truffaut! I see three or four movies a day. I don’t even do the dishes. I just love movies so much. As a young girl growing up in Jim Crow America, I would see all these movies with fancy costumes and foreign countries and sports cars, you know everything happening — it takes you away. You have a moment to leave your reality and go away somewhere.

“I had thirty-three dollars and a bucket of chicken when I arrived in L.A. I was trying to get into film school but I was an out-of-state student. It was so expensive, oh my god. I was crying in the phone booth telling my mom, I don’t think I’m gonna make it. I might have to come home. Then there was a student crew loading up their van, and they invited me to come along that night while they were making a film. The actresses were changing wigs and costumes and walking on the street and acting and slapping and giggling, and I thought, this is wonderful! I held the boom and my afro got in the way! And I was watching and learning and I said, this is gypsy filmmaking — I love this! This is what I want to do. I’m gonna stay here and be a film student!

“But I never thought I’d be an actress because I didn’t find myself beautiful. Not that Hollywood attractiveness with the makeup and eyelashes and hair. I was a Colorado student. You’re poor. You eat pickles and cheese every night. I didn’t know how to put on makeup. I was wearing Timberland boots that were like $2.99 from JC Penney. I was wearing Levis and a flannel shirt. People said, ‘Where are you from?’ I said Colorado. ‘Really? There’s black people in Colorado?’ I said yeah, I can ride a horse and whup your ass at the same time,” she laughed.

“Last night Henry Louis Gates asked me, when did I realize I was an actor? And it was when I did theatre that I knew I wasn’t an actor for fame or money. I remember, I was doing a play with The Negro Ensemble at Crossroads Theatre, I stayed on the Rutgers campus in an apartment. I had a backpack and I was hiking through the snow to the theatre. All the other actors were taking limousines. I knew then that I was a real actor. I loved my craft.”

Jackie Brown is basically a series of duets — long, alternating dialogue scenes between Grier and her three leading men, Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Keaton and Robert Forster. “Different beats. Different instruments,” she called them, mimicking each actor’s distinctive cadence and pointing out how she, for all intents and purposes, had to give three separate performances, presenting herself differently to each guy Jackie was conning. To keep the deceptions straight, Grier split up the script’s pages according to which character she was acting opposite and hung them on her wall.

All that theatrical training came in especially handy during an early sequence when Jackson’s Ordell shows up at Jackie’s apartment. “It’s a fifteen minute scene. And the minute he comes in the door, it’s a dance,” the actress explained. Ordell talks and stalks her from room to room, shutting off the lights and eventually attempting to strangle Jackie, only to find her pointing a pistol between his legs. Naturally, Tarantino wanted to shoot it in one single, unbroken take.

“It took three days just to light that scene,” she sighed. “There were pen lights behind books, plants, baskets — there were lights all over. We had to rehearse it and hit our marks just right, because Sam would turn off the light,” Grier rolled her eyes. “I said, why would he turn off the light in my apartment? Quentin said, ‘Pam!’ I said okay, it’s your movie, you wrote it.”

“When rehearsing we didn’t have the gun, so Quentin said to use my hand. Put my hand in Sam’s crotch? I don’t know if Sam wore underwear but I kind of became very friendly with his family jewels. The first time I stuck my hand between his legs we both went ‘WOOO!’ This was a moment when you’re very intimate as an actor and you protect one another and you don’t comment on the size. And I didn’t. But I must say, if I did…” Grier cackled and let the sentence hang in the air. “These are the intimacies you get to enjoy and you keep to yourself. Thank you, Quentin!”

“And then you have Michael Keaton. Michael is rapid-fire, he’s kinetic. Not everybody can work with Michael. They’ll slow him down and it frustrates him. If you saw Beetlejuice, he should have won an Oscar for that. In the interrogation room I wanted to make sure I had this tension, so I wouldn’t go pee for eight hours. When I have to pee my neck hurts, so I had the stress up here. Michael would get in my face. He can be scary. I wanted to hit him with a lamp but it wasn’t in the scene.” Fans of the film may recall that all this intensity is abruptly ruptured when Keaton, lost in thought, absent-mindedly scratches his balls.

“Did you see him grab himself?” Grier asked us, incredulously. “I said, I saw that! Tryin’ to steal my scene! We had a wonderful time. But then after eight hours I said, I have to go to the bathroom.”

She did cop to blowing a take when it came time to work with Robert De Niro. In particular, the moment when his zonked ex-con gets tangled up in a telephone cord. “I started laughing. I was enjoying his performance so much!” she confessed. “I wish I could do every movie with Robert De Niro. There was a time when I was going to do Monster’s Ball. Before Halle Berry, it was gonna be Robert De Niro and myself. At the time, in the early ’80s, a lot of sisters didn’t feel comfortable doing nude scenes. I had already done nude scenes in Coffy and Foxy Brown, so the producers felt comfortable that I would do a nude scene with Robert De Niro. OF COURSE I’LL DO A NUDE SCENE WITH ROBERT DE NIRO! And I woulda won an Oscar!”

Grier has certainly never shied away from breaking onscreen taboos, from her early women-in-prison pictures to a six-season stint on Showtime’s The L Word. “Gloria Steinem gave me the courage. She said, ‘Pam, you’re doing great. You’re not using your sexuality for men, you’re using it for yourself.’ That’s femininity. That’s wo-manity.”

But it was her performance in Jackie Brown that earned Pam Grier an unexpected fan. “Marlon Brando called me up. He left a message: ‘Hi, this is Bran Flakes.’ My boyfriend at the time heard it and said, ‘Who was that?’” She beamed at the memory while our shocked moderators asked her to repeat the sentence. Wait, what? Marlon Brando called you up? Grier giggled again.

“Marlon said, ‘I saw Jackie Brown and I like how you talk out of the side of your mouth.’ He was impressed with that. He really loved Jackie Brown. He really wanted to work with me. And then my boyfriend started getting jealous and thought I was having some kind of affair. I said, have you seen him lately? I mean he’s Marlon Brando, but I don’t know if I can give him any right now!”

“But back in the day, on that motorcycle in the leather?” Grier’s gaze drifted upward as she mimed clutching her heart, “Marlon in leather, lord have mercy!”

Everyone who loves Jackie Brown also loves Max Cherry. It’s her never-meant-to be, middle-aged love affair with Robert Forster’s stalwart strip-mall bail-bondsman that provides the film’s emotional ballast, and the bittersweet ending breaks your heart. But not Pam Grier’s.

“I had a chat with everyone regarding the ending again tonight. What if Max Cherry — after they kissed and she walks out and he’s watching her and the phone rings — he needs a vacation. She’s hot. Look at that ass. Should I go? Go ahead. What the hell, you know she’s gonna pay for everything. So he goes and turns off the lights, puts on the answering machine, takes the key, locks up, runs out there and she says come on in, let’s go!

“And he gets in the car, and she turns on the radio, and all of the sudden they’re driving and Max Cherry starts to chatter. Annoyingly. ‘What do you think, do we need a reservation?’ Blah-blah-blah. She’s like: Oh no, shut the fuck up. And he continues. Now he’s all like, ‘I need to stop by my apartment I need underwear and a shirt and a toothbrush.’ And she drives around the block, comes to a screeching halt in front of his office and says GET THE FUCK OUT!”

“He gets out of the car and she drives off. I wanted to do something like that with Max just to show that it wasn’t gonna work, but Quentin wanted it to be ambiguous. Whatever. Can you see Jackie and Max in bed? In his boxer shorts and socks? I don’t think so.”

Pam Grier, Superstar! wraps up at the Harvard Film Archive with Greased Lightning on Monday, October 31st at 7pm and Friday Foster on Friday, November 11th at 9pm.