Film

Grace Jones’s Eighties Movies Showcase a Performer Hollywood Couldn’t Handle

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When I was a kid, Grace Jones scared the shit out of me.

Imagine a fresh-faced black boy growing up in the Eighties, getting exposed to this creature in all her fashionable freakiness. It’s his first whiff of androgyny — African-American androgyny, at that! Whenever he sees her on television, it’s always in the same getup: skintight business suit; flattop haircut; no shirt, exposing her firm chest. Her name is Grace, but the boy constantly asks himself, Is she really a woman? If she is, why is she dressed like a boy? Does she like boys? (According to my mother and grandmother, who claim they heard some reliable shit at the time, not bloody likely.) But it’s not just the way she dresses that startles him. The expressions on her jet-black face, often covered with heavy amounts of rouge makeup, usually range from scowling and angry to alien-like indifference or plain-ol’ resting bitch face. She rarely smiles. Is she even happy, the boy wonders, followed by, Is she like this all the time?

In short, Grace Jones made me uncomfortable in my formative years. Now I think that’s just how she rolls in general. In the late Seventies and early Eighties, this Jamaican-born actress/singer/model turned herself into a fashion-plated disco diva, dropping reggae-tinged club hits like “Pull Up to the Bumper,” “My Jamaican Guy,” and “Slave to the Rhythm.” Jones’s antics, received giddily in Europe, baffled many a Stateside folk — including those in the movie industry, as evidenced by the handful of films Metrograph is showing as part of its weeklong retrospective. (The series coincides with the release next week of the new documentary Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami.) Her screen career technically started in the early Seventies, when she had a bit part in the Ossie Davis–directed blaxploitation flick Gordon’s War (1973), a film whose producer Jones recently claimed sexually harassed her. But the Metrograph titles all come from the Eighties, a time when it seemed like filmmakers were trying to figure out just what to do with this chick.

During that period, she delivered a snarling splash in Conan the Destroyer, the campy, PG-rated 1984 sequel to Conan the Barbarian. In a movie that’s already kinda nutty (Wilt Chamberlain is in the cast, for Chrissakes!), Jones makes the most of her appearance, turning it up to eleven as gung-ho bandit warrior Zula, who tags along with Arnold Schwarzenegger’s flock of adventurers. It’s a performance so wild, manic, and over-the-top — there’s rarely a moment where she’s not chewing up the scenery, figuratively and literally — that it’s obviously the basis for that cuckoo-bananas impression Kim Wayans used to do of her on In Living Color.

She followed up Conan a year later with A View to a Kill, perhaps the most unintentionally wacky studio film in Jones’s filmography. The last of the James Bond movies headlined by an aging Roger Moore, it co-stars Jones as May Day, the mannish henchwoman/lover to Christopher Walken’s batshit KGB agent–turned–tycoon Max Zorin. I must say, Walken and Jones do make a watchable, weirdo couple: The two crackle with off-the-wall unpredictability whenever they show up together. But the movie, fucking stupid as it is (the plot involves race horses, microchips, and a plan to destroy all of Silicon Valley), doesn’t know whether to have Jones serve as an object of desire or a force to be reckoned with. Even when she ends up in bed with Moore’s Bond, dude looks like he doesn’t know whether to strangle her or get it on.

If Conan and Kill witness Jones trying to break into the Hollywood mainstream, Vamp and Straight to Hell — two low-budget flicks with a Quentin Tarantino–ish air about them — showed she was also available to the realm of B movies. The 1986 tongue-in-cheek thriller Vamp, in which she has significant screen time as the mute, bloodsucking star of a strip club, may leave people wondering if Tarantino ripped this off while writing the script for his pulpy vampire flick From Dusk Till Dawn. As for Alex Cox’s punky, neo-western Hell, released in 1987 (this program will show a recut, restored version from 2010, called Straight to Hell Returns), Jones briefly shows up in it as the main squeeze of Dennis Hopper’s firearm-carrying land baron. Again, Hell seems like a movie Tarantino has visited to strip it for parts, from the nihilistic, madcap violence to its use of a cool-ass, pistol-wielding black dude (Sy Richardson, acting like a wayward cousin of Samuel L. Jackson’s Jules from Pulp Fiction) as its lead character. It must be said, though, that Hell does see Jones, with long hair and taut figure, doing her most naturalistic acting. She’s not mugging or scowling for the camera — just playing it straight.

A nice benefit to the Metrograph docket would have been the 1992 Eddie Murphy comedy Boomerang. After all, the movie has, if not her best performance, then the one in which she’s having the most fun. She basically plays a crude, crass version of herself called Helen Strange (pronounced “Stran-jey”). Rocking a ridiculous French accent and wardrobe that seems picked right from Jones’s very closet, Strange lives to unsettle in a spectacular way. Whether she’s trying to convince Murphy’s playboy adman that a night in bed would be spectacular (“No man can turn down this pussy!”) or taking off her panties and wrapping them around a perfumer’s face to show him “the essence of sex,” the performance finds Jones basically, playfully, making fun of herself.

Perhaps the inclusion that features her most in her element is the mixed program on April 11. The evening includes A One Man Show, the performance art–heavy concert film she did in 1982 with graphic-designer/photographer/former-lover Jean-Paul Goude, as well as clips of her music videos and TV appearances throughout the years. (I wonder if they’ll show the infamous clip of her smacking a Brit talk-show host upside the head.) It’s here where you may realize that, say, the gender-bending androgyny that’s made Tilda Swinton an oddball icon, or the extravagant style choices that have catapulted Lady Gaga (who has tried to collaborate with a disapproving Jones in the past) to the status of pop queen, can all be traced back to Jones. She basically got the outré ball rolling, unnerving the fuck out of white people, black people, and little boys during the know-your-place Eighties, so future artists — black or white, male or female — could take more unorthodox, uninhibited, creative chances.

Now that I am an adult, I no longer fear Grace Jones. I champion her. More people should do the same.

‘Grace Jones’
Metrograph
Through April 12

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