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‘Jackie Brown’ at 20: Pam Grier Has a Better Idea for an Ending

Quentin Tarantino’s acclaimed crime thriller “Jackie Brown,” which celebrates its 20th anniversary on Christmas Day, was the filmmaker’s valentine to stars Pam Grier and Robert Forster.

Grier came to fame as the groundbreaking female action superstar of such Blaxploitation films as 1973’s “Coffy” and 1974’s “Foxy Brown.” Though Grier continued working in film and television, she hadn’t had a meaty leading film role since the demise of the genre.

Forster, who starred in such classics as Haskell Wexler’s 1969’s “Medium Cool,” was primarily doing “B” films and didn’t even have a manager or an agent when “Jackie Brown” came along.

Both veteran actors found their careers revitalized by the film. Grier earned a Golden Globe nomination for “Jackie Brown” and since has appeared in such TV series as Showtime’s acclaimed “The L Word” and films including “Larry Crowne,” and published her autobiography. Forster received a supporting actor nom as bail bondsman Max Cherry and has appeared in such films as “The Descendants” and the reboot of “Twin Peaks.”

“We got a shot at a career again,” Forster said. “It’s nice to have grabbed a warm streak near the end of your career.”

Ironically, both had auditioned previously for Tarantino.

Grier recalled meeting with Tarantino in his office for the role of Jody, the wife of drug dealer Lance for 1994’s “Pulp Fiction.” The part went to Rosanna Arquette.

She wasn’t a good match for Eric Stoltz, who played Lance. “I have a presence,” said Grier, who noted that Tarantino’s office walls were decorated with posters of her films. “Not only in physicality with my height, but in my attitude.”

But the director told her, “I want to work with you. I am gonna find you something.” “He is a man of his honor and his word,” she said.

Forster had auditioned for the part of mob boss Joe Cabot in Tarantino’s first feature, 1992’s “Reservoir Dogs.” The role was eventually played by quintessential movie bad guy Lawrence Tierney.

“I thought I had killed it,” Forster said. “But he came out with me afterwards. He says ‘Look, this is not gonna come your way because this script is dedicated to Lawrence Tierney.’ I had delivered a nice [audition], so I was not unknown to him.”

Tarantino found the perfect vehicle for them in the big-screen adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s 1992 bestseller “Rum Punch” and transformed it into a celebration of Blaxploitation films.

Grier plays Jackie Brown — she was Jackie Burke in the novel — a riff on her old Foxy Brown character. The 44-year-old airline stewardess worked for a cheap Mexican airline and to augment her paltry salary, smuggled money from Mexico in to L.A. for Ordell (Samuel L. Jackson, a black-market gun-runner.)

Michael Keaton portrays the ATF agent and Michael Bowen the L.A. police detective who arrest Jackie with Ordell’s money; Bridget Fonda is Melanie, a stoned surfer girl who is Ordell’s girlfriend; and Robert De Niro plays Louis, Ordell’s hot-tempered cohort.

Forster’s down-to-earth Max is Jackie’s bail bondsman who’s instantly gob-smacked by the strong, beautiful, and dangerous stewardess.

Besides changing her name and her race — Jackie is white in the novel — Tarantino filled “Jackie Brown” with references to Grier’s movies, including mimicking the “Foxy Brown” typeface in the credits; casting Sid Haig, who starred with Grier in several of her films, as a judge in “Jackie Brown;” and utilizing the song “Longtime Woman” over the scene where Grier is put in prison. Grier performed the song in her 1971 film “The Big Doll House.”

Grier started to laugh when she recalled getting Tarantino’s script. “I was so surprised when the script arrived,” she said. “When I read it, I didn’t read the note very well that said, ‘Call me when you read it and we’ll talk.’ I must have waited a couple of weeks.”

The reason?

She thought it was for the smaller role of Melanie. “So, when I called he said, ‘You’re Jackie Brown.'”

Leonard, she said, agreed to all of Tarantino’s changes, including turning her from a white heroine to a black woman.

“He loved me in it,” Grier said of Leonard. “We became, not close friends, but I could call him and we would talk on the phone and talk about things. He was just a doll.”

A few years after losing out on “Reservoir Dogs,” Forster saw Tarantino lunching at the actor’s now-closed former hangout, Silver Spoon. “I yelled at him to come over,” Forster said. “I was sitting with another actor at the time and at a certain point I said, ‘What are you doing?’ and he said, ‘I am adapting an Elmore Leonard book, ‘Rum Punch.’ He said, ‘Why don’t you read it?'”

Forster did.

“Six months later, I walked into the Silver Spoon and he was sitting in my spot with the script. He said, ‘Read this and see if you like it.’ He was most gracious. This is real person stuff. Not Hollywood stuff.”

Forster said he was worried that Miramax wouldn’t want him for the role. “I had that experience before. Somebody wanted me for something specific. Somebody else didn’t. So, I said that to him and he said, ‘I hire anybody I want.’ Which made me realize this guy is a lot bigger than I imagined.”

The actor was impressed with Tarantino’s two-week rehearsal period that took place on the sets and locations in the movie.

“The art department clearly knew what they were doing,” he said. “They’d come to my house at the behest of Quentin, who knew that my father had worked for Ringling Bros. and was an elephant trainer. So, they came and took some of his paraphernalia and put it in a long frame and hung it on the wall of Max Cherry’s office for no better reason than it would add depth to the set.”

“He painted my apartment several colors so my uniform would stand out and [the apartment] would have a certain mood to it,” Grier said.

Tarantino, Grier added, was “lovely to work with and everyone wanted to give him more. We have this wonderful legacy of an artist who wants to share his vision, his breath, his blood, and sweat with us. We hear his beats.”

Both actors acknowledge that Tarantino didn’t know how to end the film, which finds Max taking a phone call from a client as Jackie leaves to start a new life.

“You want to hear my ending?” Grier asked. “In my ending, we have a nice kiss, a second kiss, and embrace, and he lets all the phone calls go to voicemail. He’ll take care of them later. [He] turns out the lights, takes the keys, comes with me, gets in the car. I drive off and all of a sudden, he becomes this chatterbox and annoying. I go around the block, drop him off and peel out of there.”

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