Elmore Leonard passed away this week after delivering dozens of great novels and hundreds of memorable characters. With 45 sharp, vivid mysteries and westerns in his canon, it’s hard to choose a favorite – but I have no such difficulty naming my favorite adaptation of his work (though, yes, Out of Sight is a strong contender). Jackie Brown isn’t just my favorite Elmore Leonard film – it’s also my favorite Quentin Tarantino film. It’s a precise character study of a woman (Pam Grier) who should, by any measure, be made desperate by her circumstances, but who instead never, not even for a moment, loses her cool.
Grier’s performance is the centerpiece of this crisp, moody – and surprisingly sweet – crime thriller, though of course it also boasts brilliant turns by Samuel L. Jackson as crime boss Ordell, Bridget Fonda as his stoned surfer girl Melanie, Robert de Niro as his ex-con pal Louis, Michael Keaton as Jackie’s ATF connection Ray and especially the great Robert Forster as her bail bondsman, accomplice and gentleman caller, Max Cherry. But Jackie Brown is, well, it’s the story of Jackie Brown, and twenty seconds into the film, as we watch Jackie travel down an airport conveyor belt to Bobby Womack’s “Across 110th Street,” poised and gorgeous and inscrutable, Jackie’s already a legend.
And isn’t Jackie Brown a badass handle for a legend?
Well, the character – a 44-year-old flight attendant busted for smuggling black-market gun money from Mexico and forced to devise an elaborate plan to keep her ass out of trouble – wasn’t always named Jackie Brown. In fact, Leonard’s Rum Punch protagonist wasn’t brown at all – she was a blonde named Jackie Burke. The differences pretty much end at the surface level, as both versions of the character are steely as a blade, fearless knockouts doing whatever it takes to survive after being dealt a whole deck’s worth of shitty hands and looking awfully fine as they do it.
Tarantino renamed the character and the title of the book because Jackie Brown just sounds cooler, and he cast Pam Grier because she’s Pam damn Grier. (On a Jackie Brown DVD special feature, Grier says, “When I walked in [to Tarantino’s office to read for Jackie Brown], there were all my posters from 20 years ago, when I was a little piss and vinegar kid, and I said ‘Did you put these up because I was coming over?’ and he said ‘No, I was going to take them down because you were coming over.’…He has been a big fan, he’s had posters in his office forever. He’s been collecting them. I didn’t know I was a cult figure. He informed me.”)
But the change in skin color does add a level of crisis to Jackie's situation, a middle-aged woman already forced to work for the crummiest airline in the skies and facing prison and poverty. When she sits down with Ray and Dargus (Michael Bowen) to discuss her options and Dargus sneers at her, “You’re a 44-year-old black woman,” the implication is clear. She can work with them, or her life is over. She makes sixteen thousand dollars a year and she already has a record. What choice does she have but to cooperate with these pricks who act like she should be weeping with gratitude that they haven’t thrown her in jail already?
Well, Jackie makes herself a choice – one outside of what the feds tell her to do and outside of what Ordell tells her to do. In fact, after Ordell tries to threaten her and she points a gun at his dick, he never tries to tell her what to do again. It’s a scene that should be menacing, as Ordell turns off the lights and places his hands slowly around her throat, but Jackie never acts menaced. I don’t even know how to picture a menaced Pam Grier. As Leonard said in a 1998 interview, “Quentin needed a woman strong enough to stand up to Sam Jackson, and he thought of Pam Grier.”
You might wonder how Leonard felt seeing his creation transformed on the big screen, and the fact is he was thrilled with it. Leonard often said that Jackie Brown was his favorite adaptation of his own work – not only that, but the best screenplay he’d ever read.
In an interview with Martin Amis published as an addendum to Rum Punch, Leonard said,
I’m not concerned with how closely [one of my books] is adapted. I just hope it’s a good movie. For example, Rum Punch to Jackie Brown. Quentin Tarantino, just before he started to shoot, said, ‘I’ve been afraid to call you for the last year.’ I said, ‘Why? Because you changed the title of my book? And you’re casting a black woman in the lead?’ And he said, ‘Yeah.’ And I said, ‘You’re a filmmaker. You can do whatever you want.’ I said, ‘I think Pam Grier is a terrific idea. Go ahead.’ I was very pleased with the results, too.
I love that, an author who doesn’t care for slavish adaptations. He just wants a good movie. (I wish fans could be so wise.) And with Jackie Brown, he got one – a great one, actually. Tarantino is often rightfully called a master of dialogue, but much of the best dialogue in Jackie Brown is lifted verbatim from Rum Punch, because even he can’t improve on Leonard’s sly tongue. But I think Pam Grier actually did improve on his character. I first read Rum Punch before seeing Jackie Brown, and having reread it this week in anticipation of this piece, I realized that I can’t imagine anyone but Pam Grier playing the character of Jackie Burke. I don't even read the name as Jackie Burke anymore. Elmore Leonard crafted a brilliant heroine, one with infinite self-possession, an assured sense of self-preservation and a mighty slick manner of speaking, but Pam Grier took that character and made her a legend.