Pam Grier was turned down for a role in “Pulp Fiction,” not because she wasn’t talented enough. More along the lines of no one would believe that Pam Grier, a legendary action star known for wielding large guns, would take shit. She auditioned for the role of Jody, the wife of Vincent Vega’s heroin dealer Lance. In the film, when Vega brings his boss’s wife — unconscious due to an overdose — over to Lance’s house, Jody gets screamed at to fetch an adrenaline needle. Quentin Tarantino, a critical thinker about homages and legacy, didn’t think the audience would buy Grier getting yelled at.
“I have a presence,” Grier told Variety in 2017, referring to why she didn’t fit into the role. “Not only in physicality with my height but in my attitude.”
The story goes that when Grier came in to read for “Pulp Fiction,” Tarantino had old posters of her hanging up — not to impress her, just because he was a fan, and he didn’t feel like taking the posters down. When he told her that she wasn’t right for the role of Jody, he also promised they would work together in the future. And that came to fruition in his next movie, “Jackie Brown,” a thriller about a stewardess turned smuggler who’s walking a dangerous line between cops and criminals. Based on the Elmore Leonard novel “Rum Punch,” Jackie Brown blends the style of two writers that churn out gritty, artful stories about the underground.
Grier’s career wasn’t dead in the couple of years leading up to the release of “Jackie Brown” in 1997, but it wasn’t at its peak either. Although Tarantino didn’t see her in some resurrection side role. He saw her as the title character, a cool-as-ice schemer who’s always two steps ahead. And she thrived in it.
There are two scenes that she shares with the also-excellent Samuel L. Jackson — who plays the murderous gun dealer Ordell — that perfectly encapsulates her fit in the movie. The first is when Ordell tries to kill Jackie. She’s just been shaken down by the police after they caught her transporting some money and cocaine for Odell through a commercial flight via her job as a stewardess. Ordell, obsessed with getting his half a million dollars from Mexico to California, and as paranoid as ever, plans to take Jackie out so she can’t talk to the police. The scene is a game of cat and mouse, but we’re never quite sure who the predator is and who’s the prey. Ordell’s in Jackie’s apartment, trying to find out what she knows, and he keeps dimming the lights, giving the scene a noir vibe. Each time, Jackie turns the lights back on, verbally sparring with Ordell. And when he goes for the kill, she gets the drop on him, pressing a gun into his dick. Grier plays the scene in such a collected, magnetic, believable way. It’s hard to imagine anyone else playing Jackie Brown.
The second is during one of the film’s final scenes. Jackie is luring Ordell back to the office of Max Cherry, the aging, criminally-ambivalent bail bondsman played expertly by Robert Forster. There’s the motif of light again, with Jackie flipping it on and off, trying to find the best way to get the jump on Ordell. She’s smoking a cigarette, a stark contrast to the darkness, practicing grabbing a revolver from a drawer, and pointing it as quickly as possible at the door. It’s the only time her character is actually shook, and she radiates a mixture of confidence and vulnerability — an “I might die, but I’m going to go down with a fight” sensibility, that simultaneously streamlines and adds depth to Jackie Brown; It’s hard to imagine anyone else playing the character.
Like Tarantino’s first two movies, “Jackie Brown” is a stylistic wonder, with vibrant cinematography, a killer soundtrack, a pop-culture historian’s eye, from a mind who can turn an inspiration board into something strikingly original. But, the acting, casting and character direction is what makes “Jackie Brown” a feat. Samuel L. Jackson carries over his intensity from “Pulp Fiction.” Robert De Niro as Louis plays the static sidekick turned wildcard hothead with poise. Bridget Fonda as Melanie sells the stoner surfer with buried contempt and ambition with convincing prowess. Robert Forster was tailor made to be Max Cherry.
But, Pam Grier as Jackie Brown. That’s what solidifies this movie’s greatness.
“Do I scare you?” Jackie Brown asks Max Cherry, close to the credits.
“A little bit,” he replies.
Because she has presence.