Pam Grier has a secret: ”baby’s pee.”
Huh? ”Baby’s pee,” she says. ”That’s why I don’t have wrinkles. It was some juju stuff my grandmother and aunt did when I was a baby. They would wipe my face with my diaper and chant.”
The actress must still have juju on her side: At age 48, Grier is experiencing a miraculous career resurgence. It’s been more than 20 years since she reigned as queen of the blaxploitation films, delivering karate chops to the head without batting a false eyelash. Impressive, yes, but nothing compared with surviving such subsequent roles as a robotic chemistry teacher (1990’s Class of 1999) and a transsexual gang leader (1996’s John Carpenter’s Escape From L.A.), then emerging as Quentin Tarantino’s latest cinematic darling. With the lead role in the eponymous Jackie Brown, the actress may follow the steps of another ’70s who-knew? Tarantino makeover, Pulp Fiction‘s John Travolta.
As Grier extends her manicured hand in greeting, she seems to shine: sparkling white teeth (”All mine,” she says, clacking her pale nail against her incisors), long glossy locks, and a figure swathed in clothes tight enough to show that the assets that helped make her famous are holding up fine.
Grier perches regally on a couch, still retaining the bearing of the beauty queen she was before she fled Denver at 18, her heart broken by a boyfriend who’d dumped her because she ”wouldn’t give him any.” The daughter of an Air Force mechanic, Grier headed for L.A., where she enrolled in film-school classes, interned for the raffish B-movie director Roger Corman, and answered telephones for American International Pictures, the now-defunct production company that spearheaded the blaxploitation movement. ”I’d walk in and say ‘Who’s that gorgeous person?”’ recalls director Larry Cohen, who worked with Grier years later in the 1996 blaxploiters’ reunion, Original Gangstas.
Cohen wasn’t the only one to take note: By 1971, Grier was working for AIP as an actress. Whether it was in 1972’s Hit Man, 1973’s Coffy and Black Mama, White Mama, or 1974’s Foxy Brown, Grier became not only the first African-American action heroine but the hyperbolic symbol of the women’s liberation movement and the sexual revolution, able to bed a man or shoot him with equal flair.
At first, Grier says, ”I didn’t know how to be an actress. I didn’t want to. They said, ‘Pam, you’re an actress now.’ I thought, ‘I am? I don’t think I’m a very good one, because I don’t think the movies are good.”’
It wasn’t until 1977’s Greased Lightning that Grier, who had been taking acting classes, realized she might have the knack for playing serious dramatic roles. By then, however, audiences had tired of the blaxploitation genre, and filmmakers weren’t knocking down the doors of African-American actresses with a penchant for punishing bad guys. ”You can be on top of everything,” Grier says with a shrug, ”and the next minute, you’re going to be on the bottom.” Of her graceful adjustment from star to civilian, Mario Van Peebles—who cast Grier in a small part in 1993’s black Western Posse—says, ”After [Hollywood] shut the doors economically, Pam triumphed because she didn’t get bitter.”