Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Book Review: 'Foxy: My Life in Three Acts'

New York Post
April 18, 2010

Foxy: My Life in Three Acts
by Pam Grier with Andrea Cagan
Springboard Press

During a routine doctor visit, actress Pam Grier was stunned when her physician sat her down for a serious talk about a bizarre and dangerous epidemic that was rocking the nether regions of women in Hollywood — a buildup of cocaine residue.

The doc asked if she was doing drugs, and she said no. Then perhaps her partner might be sneaking off for a quick pre-coitus snort?

“That’s a possibility,” she said. “I am dating Richard Pryor.”

Of all the surprises in “Foxy,” a memoir from the Afro’d goddess of blaxploitation, “a chick with drive who don’t take no jive!” as one tagline put it, the biggest is that Grier is endearingly innocent. Surrounded by drugs, sex and abuse, Grier, by her telling, was the straight one, trying to hold her life together through a string of broken men and stereotyped roles.

With a father in the Air Force, she moved constantly, spending time during her childhood in Columbus, Denver, San Jose, even England. Growing up with a large extended family, Grier’s mother worked hard as a nurse, while her Aunt Mennon served as a different sort of role model — shoving a woman’s head in the toilet for even looking at her man. Later, these two women would inspire two of Grier’s most important roles: respectively, the title characters in “Coffy” and “Foxy Brown.”

A festive child at first, Grier was gang-raped by a cousin and his friends at age six, only to be rescued by a telephone repairman who chased off her attackers, then went about repairing the phone. The rape left her a quiet child, scared of people and afflicted with a stutter. Her salvation was the horses on her grandparents’ Wyoming farm. As she learned to ride, her stutter would mysteriously disappear — preparing her for a life of both acting and action.

Grier got her start in show business by winning beauty pageants, which led to singing back-up for Bobby Womack, Stevie Wonder, and Sly Stone, who she got to watch jam in the studio with Jimi Hendrix. She was soon sent to audition for a producer named Roger Corman, who was making films on the cheap in the Philippines.

She asked her agent what the movie would be about.

“Women in prison in the jungle,” he replied. “Bondage, torture, attempted escape, punishment, drug addiction, machine guns, sex. The usual.”

Despite having never read a script or acted, she was cast in “The Big Doll House,” and was soon off to Manila to play a “tough-talking bisexual prostitute named Grear” whose wardrobe consisted of one long T-shirt.

“The Big Doll House” led to “Women in Cages,” which was filmed in a mountain city called Baguio where “leeches, protozoa, and parasites feasted on our naked flesh.” Grier’s career in the genre that would come to be known as “blaxploitation” was off to a creepy, crawly, and rapidly successful start.

Meanwhile, back in Los Angeles, Grier had caught the eye of a gangly, 7-foot-2 UCLA basketball star named Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor Jr. Bonding over martial arts, they watched “The Seven Samurai” together over a dozen times, and fell in love.

But the relationship hit a snag when Alcindor suddenly asked Grier to begin calling him by his new name — Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

He initially assured Grier that she wouldn’t have to convert to Islam, but that message soon changed to, “I can only marry a woman of the same religion.” Grier studied Islam, and was horrified by its attitude toward women. When she asked Abdul-Jabbar why women had to walk behind men, he would simply reply, “that’s what Allah wants.”

When his friends, who were also converting, came to visit, Grier found that men she used to hug hello and share laughs with now regarded her as cattle, avoiding her touch “as if I had bad breath or a contagious skin disease.” In their presence, she was not to speak until spoken to or enter the room until called — although she was allowed to make them sandwiches.

The relationship finally ended when Abdul-Jabbar called Grier on her 21st birthday and, after wishing her a happy birthday, asked her if she was planning to convert so they could be married.

“If you don’t commit to me today, I’m getting married at 2 this afternoon. She’s a converted Muslim, and she’s been prepared for me,” he said, adding, “once you become Muslim, you might appreciate another wife.”

A stunned Grier turned him down, and Abdul-Jabbar was married that day while his mother, who was not allowed in the mosque due to her Catholicism, waited in the car.

While Grier’s love life was not exactly taking off, her stardom was, at least partially due to her ability and willingness to perform her own stunts.

“I rode horses and motorcycles and jumped off buildings into nets,” she writes. “If you needed a woman of color to handle a gun, do a wheelie on a chopper, or fall off a cliff into a rice paddie, I was the one to call.”

Corman’s “The Arena,” filmed in Rome, called for Grier to ride a wild black stallion named Donatello. The horse was especially feisty, and Grier knew from experience that he needed to be trotted around the set in order to burn off excess energy.

One clueless crew member, clearly devoid of this knowledge, “popped him on the flank with a towel,” causing the horse to take off with Grier on his back, “like he’d had a kick from Satan himself.”

Grier feared for her life as Donatello galloped onto a neighboring film set, right toward — and then through — a backdrop painted like an ocean liner. The director of that film looked on in amazement, as “he watched a nearly naked black woman with an Afro, wrapped in leopard skin, riding a black stallion. Then he said, ‘Oh, Il mio Dio. My fantasy has come true!’ ”

That director was Federico Fellini, who helped her up, invited her to lunch, and, as he taught her to cook Italian red sauce, unsuccessfully tried to convince her to move to Italy and become his new leading lady.

While promoting her film “Coffy,” Grier met comedian Freddie Prinze and fell instantly in love. Again she considered marriage, but again there was an obstacle — this time, drugs.

“Coke was becoming a daily thing for Freddie and the rest of his friends, but I couldn’t accept it,” she says, describing how Prinze’s language would turn coarse and his behavior rude, and how he would babble and lose track of time. He became paranoid when she wouldn’t do drugs with him, and began “forgetting” condoms, even confessing to her, “I’m trying to get you pregnant. I love you, and I’m afraid you may not marry me.”

Grier eventually broke it off, although the pair remained friends, but drugs were everywhere in Hollywood. In 1974, Grier met John Lennon when, after the Academy Awards, she was invited to accompany the Beatle — who was separated from Yoko Ono at the time — to see the Smothers Brothers at the infamous Los Angeles club the Troubadour.

Lennon knocked back drinks at the packed club as, increasingly slurring and glassy-eyed, he told Grier how much he missed Ono.

As the crowd sensed royalty in its midst, Lennon was persuaded to sing, and by the time the Smothers Brothers hit the stage, he was too drunk to stop. An acquaintance told him to cut it out because it was rude, and Lennon replied, “I don’t give a f - - -.”

When the manager asked Lennon, who had taken to banging on the table, to leave, fists flew. The manager tried to pull him over a railing, and drinks splashed everywhere as a flailing Lennon was “taking people out right and left in a drunken brawl,” with Grier shielding her head from flying chairs.

At least Lennon wasn’t a lecher. After befriending Sammy Davis Jr.’s wife, Altovise, at a charity event, she was invited to the Davis home for an intimate dinner party. After the meal, Sammy approached her and said, “I’d like to show you something.” Leading her forcefully by the arm, his face too close to her’s, it was clear that he was coming on to her — even with his wife in the house.

Grier panicked and escaped to the couch, wedging herself between Elizabeth Taylor and Liza Minnelli.

“Excuse me. Is Sammy always like this with women? In front of his wife?” she asked.

Taylor laughed.

“Oh yes,” she said. “It’s nothing.”

“Don’t take it seriously,” added Minnelli.

But when Sammy returned and angrily requested she follow him, Grier fled to the bathroom. Altovise then distracted him while Minnelli and her husband laid Grier down in the back seat of their Silver Shadow Rolls-Royce, and threw Minnelli’s full-length sable coat over her so Sammy wouldn’t see.

Soon after, Grier met another show biz wild man when Prinze brought her to see a friend of his. As they drove through the private citrus orchard to the gate of the “sprawling Spanish hacienda,” out walked Richard Pryor in a black and white robe and house shoes.

“Motherf - - - - -, you do know the b - - - -,” was Pryor’s opening pick-up line, and Prinze responded by pulling out a vial of pure liquid cocaine. Pryor invited the pair inside to party as he quoted dialogue from Grier’s “Foxy Brown,” but she demurred, making Prinze take her home instead.

It wasn’t until they were cast together in “Greased Lightning” in 1977 that Grier and Pryor struck up a friendship, and then began dating several months later.

Pryor confided in Grier, telling her, “I’m afraid if I don’t do drugs, I won’t be funny,” but she helped him face his fears and clean up his act, creating a health regimen for him and also helping him learn to read, as he had been learning the lines to his films phonetically.

But after six months sober, Pryor reverted back to his old druggie ways, and Grier ended the relationship.

After the blaxploitation craze faded, Grier remained active in theater and film, eventually battling cancer and finding television success on Showtime’s “The L Word” and “Smallville.” At 60, she still don’t take no jive.

She also experienced a brief career rejuvenation in the ’90s when, while driving though L.A. with a producer friend, she spotted an odd looking man with long, unruly hair talking with a hot young babe. Grier recognized director Quentin Tarantino, who had just hit paydirt with “Pulp Fiction.”

“Pam Grier,” he said. “I’m writing a movie for you — my version of ‘Foxy Brown.’ ”

Grier, by now a Hollywood veteran, thought he was full of it — until six months later when she received notice that the post office was holding a postage-due package for her, and her 44-cent investment got her the script for “Jackie Brown,” the film that ultimately earned Grier her only Golden Globe nomination.

Through the ups and the downs, the toughness she gained from her harsh well of personal experience never failed to define her career and her life.

To prepare to audition for the role of a murderous junkie hooker in Paul Newman’s “Fort Apache, The Bronx,” Grier bought a blond wig, red stockings, a garter belt, and stilettos from a sex shop, then headed down to 10th Avenue, which was then Manhattan’s Hooker Highway. She talked with the women and over the next few days she didn’t shower, wash her hair or brush her teeth. Stumbling into the audition in a halter top and a stained, satin Mickey Mouse jacket, she blasted out a blunt “Hey motherf - - - - -, wassup?” Newman and his producer watched as the film’s screenwriter attempted to read with her, but was too flustered after Grier squatted over him, and ground her body against his.

She then performed her scene, pretended to shoot up against a wall, slid to the floor, and died. After a moment of silence, Paul Newman stood up and applauded.

She got the part.

Pam Grier’s Collection of Lessons Learned

The New York Times
May 4, 2010

Darren Michaels/Miramax Films

Pam Grier in the title role of Quentin Tarantino’s 1997 film, “Jackie Brown.”

Pam Grier, who manages to exude toughness and sensuality in equal measure, has also managed to embody many of the cultural shifts of the last 40 years.

In her new memoir, “Foxy: My Life in Three Acts” (Hachette Book Group), Ms. Grier, 60, revisits a career that took off in the early 1970s when she became blaxploitation cinema’s first female action hero. She sprang to prominence again in Quentin Tarantino’s 1997 film, “Jackie Brown,” and she popped up in the 21st century in the groundbreaking Showtime television series “The L Word,” about the lives of lesbians.

“Foxy,” however, reveals a darker personal life, including, for the first time, the details of her sexual assault at 6. It also recounts the diagnosis of cervical cancer Ms. Grier received in her late 30s and the untimely deaths and suicides of family members and friends. There is space, too, for her romances with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (who wanted her to convert to Islam), Freddie Prinze (who battled drugs and wanted her to have his baby) and Richard Pryor (who thought she could help save him from drugs).

Why tell her story now? “I’ve had mentors who know of my legacy and family history, along with my career in surviving and falling, crawling and learning, and being very, very open and curious,” she explained. “I said, ‘If I do it, I want it to be a work of lessons learned that I can share with others.’ You seek help. You seek friendship.”

Ms. Grier, who wrote “Foxy” with Andrea Cagan, was sitting in an Upper East Side hotel suite, far from the little Colorado ranch she shares with three dogs and four horses. Her face was unlined, her body curvy rather than Hollywood thin. She laughed easily and often, despite sharing sometimes harrowing details of her life.

Todd Heisler/The New York Times

Pam Grier during her visit to New York to promote her new memoir, “Foxy: My Life in Three Acts.”

She grew up in Colorado, the daughter of an Air Force mechanic and a nurse. It was an era of racial segregation; the family (including two siblings) lived abroad for extended stays, but Ms. Grier considers her “rural sensibility” important to who she is. She said she was taught by her family to “sleep in a tent at night in the rain and go fish for your food in the morning.”

Life was forever altered when, left unsupervised at an aunt’s home, she was raped by two boys. After that she describes a lonely, traumatized childhood.

“I was very quiet,” Ms. Grier recalled, and she stuttered when she did talk. As a young woman, she was the victim of a date rape, she wrote, which led to years in which she tried to play down her prettiness.

“My life is probably more interesting and dangerous than some of the movies I’ve done,” she said.

She came by her steel the hard way, Ms. Grier said. And she referred to some of her biggest 1970s hits to explain how. “My aunt was Foxy Brown, and my mom was Coffy, and we were constantly struggling against disrespect,” she said.

In “Coffy” (1973) she played a nurse who turned to vigilante justice to avenge her little sister’s drug addiction. In “Foxy Brown” (1974) she fought against drugs and other ills.

Once derided as formulaic urban morality tales aimed at black audiences and featuring big helpings of white villainy, several of Ms. Grier’s blaxploitation films are now considered groundbreaking for their depictions of powerful black women.

And it took Ms. Grier’s winning combination of sex, sass and talent to pull it off, said Warrington Hudlin, a producer and the president of the Black Filmmaker Foundation. “She exists in the American imagination in a way that is permanent,” Mr. Hudlin said. “She represents a self-reliant, dynamic female figure that doesn’t have to forgo femininity for potency, for militant power.”

FC, top; David Gray/Showtime

Ms. Grier, at top, in “Foxy Brown” and, above, in the television series “The L Word,” with Kelly Lynch.

While the story lines were outlandish, Ms. Grier said some of her early films had their roots in the truth of urban life in that era.

“We had won so many aspects of civil rights, but we didn’t have a large enough community to lose people to gun battles and drugs,” she said. “We had to show we had a positive community, too, which was something that didn’t get on the news.”

When it comes to more personal topics, like men, Ms. Grier also aims to convey a lesson: a woman needs to love herself more than she loves a relationship.

“At some point you have to realize you will be walking away from someone you do love,” she said, describing her failed relationships. “But out of love for yourself, O.K.?” While she has never married or had children, Ms. Grier said she still fantasized about her dream wedding.

After years with few big roles, her fortunes were revived by Mr. Tarantino, an avowed fan of blaxploitation and other less-than-exalted movie genres. He took her talent global with “Jackie Brown,” an adaptation of an Elmore Leonard novel that was tailored for Ms. Grier and includes references to her earlier work.

The film showcased her acting chops and cast her in a more serious light in the film industry. “I owe him at least one child,” she said of her gratitude to Mr. Tarantino.

This year Ms. Grier joined the cast of “Smallville,” the CW science-fiction series, where she plays the brilliant covert agent Amanda Waller.

So now her fans are tweens as well as their grandparents, Ms. Grier said, and they pay attention to what she does. When she played the straight musician and club owner Kit Porter (half-sister of Bette, a lesbian) on “The L Word,” people stopped her in the street to say she helped them connect to gay family members and friends.

Now in the midst of a book tour, Ms. Grier said she felt good, and grateful. Her cancer is in remission. She is shooting a film with Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts.

Staying the course goes back to the book she calls her bible in “Foxy”: “An Actor Prepares” by Constantin Stanislavski.

“He said there’s no such thing as a small role, there’s no such thing as a small heart,” Ms. Grier said. “He said I should approach any role as if it’s my life, and that’s what I did.”

Filmography: Pam Grier
Excerpt: ‘Foxy’ (hachettebookgroup.com)

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