In "Coffey" Pam Grier scattered a dope pusher's brains to the wind with a bullwhip, a sawed-off shotgun, and an electrifying come-hither look.
In "Foxy Brown" she gave the villain's girl friend quite a surprise - by presenting her with part of the villain's anatomy in a jar. As the vindictive momma in hot pants, leather boots and tight blouses, Grier epitomized the female thrust of the blaxploitation films of the early '70.
Her heavy reliance on violence and sex in most of her 17 movies to date made her not only a sex symbol but a top box office attraction. In Hollywood her appeal to financial backers is said to be as strong as that of a Streisand, a Ross or a Minnelli.
Well, fans, Pam Grier has traded her magnum for pearls. Blaxploits, for this sister, are a thing of the past. In her latest film, "Greased Lightning," which opens here Wednesday, Grier plays the shirtwaist plain, gently graying, and - brace yourself, Grier groupies - submissive wife of Wendall Scott, the black who broke the color line in stock car racing in the late 1940s.
"I wanted my fans to see me as a real actress," says Grier, her voice throaty yet light with excitement. "I found Mary Scott a challenging role because it said we struggle but we don't give up. This isn't plastic, it's about the economic and social conditions, the racism and hostility, blacks had to face. While Wendell was trying to get on the race track, he had to drive a taxi and bootleg. Mary held the family together because they didn't believe in failing. I don't either."
Pamala Suzette Grier became a star, not because her movies were good, not because she gave the '70s the positive image of black women that Cicely Tyson did, but because she filled movie houses. And she worked hard to improve the talent, and the body. The body first. When she arrived in Hollywood in 1969, she was 19, a chunky 145 pounds on a 5'8" frame, and she recalls, "Everyone had to look like Diahann Carroll. My readings were great but the jobs didn't open up until I was 18." Overweight, she slipped into the cast of "Beyond the Valley of the Dools," - but after slimming down, she blasted her way through a feature role in "Black Mama, White Mama." From that time on, even though the part was vaguely lesbian, she was known as a "sex goddess."
"I really don't know what a sex goddess is," Grier says, laughing. She dismisses the title but indicates later she likes it. "If someone called me that, I mean sincerely, not as a gimmick, I'm sure I knocked the pedestal over on them. It's difficult to live up to that image. I just want to be known as an honest woman. I'm going to tell people what I want to say, not what they want to hear. I'm telling you that T," finishing with a street abbreviation for truth.
The camera has not lied about her looks. Her oval face is not a knockout but it's close enough, with her mink brown eyes deepened with a whisper of violet shadow: he cheekbones only highlighted by the slightest rouge. She never slouches, though her height is feet in her blue stiletto sandals. When the straps break on her flowered sun dress, she tucks them in the bodice, creating an almost bare-breasted look for the taping of a television interview."I like it," she says approvingly of the effect.
What a couple of hours with Grier reveals is an open, thoughtful, and, at times, contradictory, 28-year-old who worked hard to convert the "country square" Pam into someone she doesn't wanted tagged as Hollywood empty and glittery. Luck has got her this far, she admits, but now she wants to move in new directions - toward "longevity" in the business.
"What are you doing in my bathwater?" is her strongest line in "Lightning," compared to "All right, chauvinist hog, on your knees," from "Coffy." She is billed third behind Richard Pryor and Beau Bridges. Off screen, if you read the fan magazines, Grier and Pryor have a relationship that would short-circuit a neon Valentine. It's the first thing a switchboard operator at radion station WOL asks her.
"People will say anything to sell magazines," Grier says impatiently. "We are dear friends, we are together. The rumors about the relationship are just beyond reality. And since he's not here I can't say any more."
Now that she has left the macho for the matron, does this signal the end of the blaxploitation films? "I think the era is over. We don't have to be involved in sex, violence and death to attract the black audience," she says. "I was a vehicle for me, for many blacks. If I continue to be stereo-typed, it's only my fault. Blacks have been successful in Hollywood. Now if we sit back with our stomachs full, picking our teeth, people will think we are content, and we will become passe. Sure, Grade B movies will continue to be made but whoever participates, it's their conscience."
Grier grew up in one of the most conservative environments, the Air Force bases of the 1950s. Her father was an enlisted maintenance mechanic and Grier lived in Winston-Salem, N.C., where she was born on May 26, 1949, England and Germany for nine years, and then Denver, Colo.
"We were poor but I don't overstress it because we had food, we had the military privileges but we didn't have extras," she explains. "What I really missed was the firm hand of a father. He was always busy. I needed a male view of life."
When the family moved to Denver, Grier sang in the gospel choir, participated in drama and debating groups and because she was better at chemistry than languages, she decided to be a doctor. While a student at Metropolitan State College, she entered a beauty contest, she says, to earn money for medical school.
The rest is pure M.G.M., or as it turned out, American International Pictures, and now Warner Brothers. David Baumgarten, an agent, was in the audience and said, "you ought be in pictures." Recalls Grier, "I laughed a lot but he told my mother that the market for black actresses was opening up. She said. 'What have you got to lose," and I packed all my earthly belongings in my Firebird and went off."
She moved in with her second cousin, Roosevelt, and worked as a switchboard operator at a movie studio for $35 a week. She also moonlighted as a record announcer at a disco and as a background singer for Lou Rawls and Sly Stone before the parts opened up.
Since 1972 roles were designed especially for her. And she has used breasts, blood, razor blades, karate chops and voodoo through them all. "But," she cautions, "none of the heroines were just killers. They all had a goal, revenging a relative's death, getting rid of pushers. And the women were strong. They said stand up for your rights. The reactions pleased me."
"Coffy," the film that earned $10 million, has been her favorite up to now; "Drum," the sequel to "Mandingo," the most disappointing. "In 'Coffy' I played a true character. She was a strong woman, determined to whip out drugs, and though my role didn't effect any social changes as far as blacks in films, it did get a reaction," she says."Now the script of 'Drum' was rich and entertaining but it didn't turn out that way."
Grier lives in a house located above the smog in Laurel Hills, where she jogs daily, feeds the bludjays and photographs wild ducks. She's working on a singing career, and doing six months of nightclubs, then another six of films and theater.
"Now I'm working on a script about Mary Fields, who was the first black and the second woman to drive a stagecoach. Now that's waht I call a strong woman," she said.