Acting is an art form, and behind every iconic character is an artist expressing themselves. Welcome to The Great Performances, a bi-weekly column exploring the art behind some of cinema’s best roles.
To the untrained eye, Pam Grier just doesn’t give a fuck. Case in point: the headstrong power move she made during her quasi-audition for the light-hearted sitcom, Bless This Mess: “I said to them, ‘Out here as country women, we take our Spanx off.’ I took my Spanx off and I did some chores before I came in to see them for the role. I was a little dusty and I smelled of barn and John Deere fuel. I smelled the part, so that helped!”
Here’s a legendary actress, in the twilight of her career, going above and beyond at an audition that most likely was just a precasting formality. She didn’t need to root around in the mud to book a show about a tiny Nebraska town, but she did. With over 50 years of experience, she still prepares just as hard as when her career began, playing the femme fatale in some of the most iconic Blaxploitation films.
It’s this commitment to an acting method, with her ingrained authenticity, that gives Pam Grier such a powerful presence. When we see her on screen, we’re not seeing an actress playing a part: she simply is Sheba Shayne, Foxy Brown, Coffy, or her greatest role of all, Jackie Brown.
But what exactly is this presence that Pam Grier has? In the abstract, it’s the quality that makes certain actors exude a kind of magnetism, an “it factor” that helps them pop off the screen. But while every actor has some sense of presence — this can be improved through methodologies like those of Michael Chekhov — what Pam Grier has feels inherent to her. She has a natural allure that doesn’t require her to do much for the audience to understand a character like Jackie Brown. The opening and closing shots of Jackie Brown exemplify this brand of presence.
As Bobby Womack’s “Across 110th Street” begins playing, we watch Grier on a moving walkway, gliding into the frame. While the music and overall design help establish Jackie Brown’s specific mood, it’s Grier’s willingness to ”just be” that grabs our attention. We watch her serenely in profile, not trying to play an emotion, but rather existing in the moment.
It’s something many actors, even those with extensive training, have trouble with. If you are psychologically invested in your character but lack confidence in trusting your own instincts, you try to overcompensate to convey your emotions. You begin pushing, just to be sure that what you’re feeling is coming across to the audience. But this then opens the audience up to seeing the actor working — rather than the character being — in the moment.
As Jackie makes her way through the airport, Grier gives no hint she’s smuggling money and cocaine in from Mexico, which we won’t find out until a few scenes later. In less confident hands we would see her sweating, stealing glances over her shoulder, playing the nerves. But she doesn’t want us to see Jackie sweat. So she chooses to exist in the present moment and let the audience make conclusions about who her character is and what she’ll endure over the next two and a half hours.
Even after we’ve watched Jackie’s complex arc through the film, we still don’t need to see a physical breakdown to understand the trauma she just experienced. She can just trust her instincts, stare into the camera and let the audience take her in. It’s this kind of quiet realism, devoid of anything performative, that allows the audience to draw their own interpretations of the moment. Jackie Brown begins and ends with sequences of quiet resignation, filled with heartache and freedom, and it’s made all the more powerful by how understated Grier plays it.
Many actors can skate by purely on their charismatic presence, but while Pam Grier’s acting may feel effortless, that doesn’t mean she isn’t doing the work. Before Grier made her film debut, filmmaker Roger Corman gave her a copy of Konstantin Stanislavski’s An Actor Prepares, which has helped her bring a real method to her decades-spanning career that she still uses to this day.
That dedicated quasi-audition she had for Bless This Mess? It’s exactly what she was doing almost 40 years before in her audition for 1981’s Fort Apache, The Bronx. “I looked worse the day I went in for the audition, Grier told Bright Lights Film Journal, “They cleaned me up for the film; what I wore at the audition was much more gaudy and tacky. I cut up a skirt and wore red stockings with a red garter belt.”
Pam Grier’s performances feel so real that it brings almost a sense of danger to the screen. Like we’re watching a live wire, unsure of when it’s going to inevitably shock us. She taps into a raw, lived-in emotional realness that is undeniably unique, drawing you into a story in ways other actors just can’t. Pam Grier doesn’t have to do any heavy lifting to become a character like Jackie Brown. All she has to do is be present and the camera will do the rest.