Of course the Farrelly brothers would make a split personality movie. It’s autobiographical: these filmmaking provocateurs are divided between sweet and sour, between the romance of classic screwball comedy and Mad magazine on acid.
So we get Me, Myself & Irene, a comedy about a Rhode Island cop who suffers from split personality disorder. In the gratifyingly wacky opening minutes of the film we meet Charlie (Jim Carrey), a nice guy stretched thin over thirty years of being a doormat. In a sequence that deliberately tramples taboos, Charlie melts down (in a line in a supermarket—perfect) and mutates into Hank, a belligerent jerk with no social boundaries.
Quentin Tarantino developed a reputation not simply for unconventional storytelling and inventive writing, but for inspired casting. Reservoir Dogs introduced Lawrence Tierney to a new generation of crime movie fans. Pulp Fiction revived the faltering career of John Travolta. And Jackie Brown, his first film based on someone else’s story, he cast as his leads two veterans of the seventies drive-in and exploitation cinema: Pam Grier and Robert Forster.
Last week I published my interview with Ms. Grier. This week, I present my conversation with Mr. Forster, one of the most underrated performers of his time and an actor we almost lost to neglect before Tarantino gave him a showcase. Again, limited to twenty minutes, I had very little time to really dig into his career, but I was able to touch on some of my favorite films of his, and discover that they are his favorites as well.
Sean Axmaker: Let’s talk about Jackie Brown. Quentin Tarantino was a fan of your films. Were you a fan of his when you were cast?
Robert Forster: Well, sure. This guy made great movies. I had auditioned for one of his movies, for Reservoir Dogs. I thought I was going to get it until I realized that he had dedicated the film to the guy to did the part that I wanted, Lawrence Tierney. So it came as a big surprise when I walked out of that audition thinking that I had just hit it out of the park, and then Quentin comes out after me and says, “Look, this isn’t going to work. I’m going to give this part to the guy I dedicated the script to, but I won’t forget you.” And I thought, “Okay, good.” And then he did Pulp Fiction and became a huge filmmaker and years had gone by and I ran into him in a coffee shop. By then my career was really, really dead and we blah-blahed for a few minutes and then six months later he showed up at the same coffee shop with a script in his hands and handed it to me. I by then had been reduced to hoping some young guy who liked me growing up would turn into a moviemaker and give me a good part and here comes the guy and what a script! When I read it I could hardly believe that he had me in mind for Max Cherry except that nothing else made any sense, so when I asked him about it he said, “Yes, it’s Max Cherry that I wrote for you,” and that’s when I said to him, “I’m sure they’re not going to let you hire me.” Because I’ve had the experience of getting close to good parts and realizing the distributors wanted something else. So when I said that too him, he said, “I hire anybody I want.” And that’s when I realized I was going to get another shot at a career and this guy gave me what I’d been hoping for: a good part from someone who liked me growing up.
[Expanded from a feature originally published in 1997 in Seattle Weekly]
“Amateurs borrow, professionals steal,” goes the maxim. Quentin Tarantino steals like a pro. Where directors of the previous generation peppered their films with classic cinematic quotes, Tarantino plunders the films of his formative years for ideas – mostly B-movies and exploitation films about cars and capers and criminals – and riffs on them with a mix of reverence and sly playfulness.
Tarantino’s films aren’t so much stories as strings of anecdotes: movie moments, urban myths, conversations strewn with pop culture references. His challenge with Jackie Brown is how make someone else’s story—Elmore Leonard’s Rum Punch, to be specific—his own. His solution: set it in his own reference riddled world. From the film’s opening shot—a quote from The Graduate overlaid with early seventies movie lettering and set to a Motown tune—we know we’re in Tarantino territory.
Pam Grier’s entrance in her retro stewardess outfit introduces the kick-ass star of Foxy Brown and Friday Foster gracefully aging into the modern world. Robert Forster, the almost star of the late 60s turned exploitation film stalwart (see Alligator and Vigilante), brings the understated authority that marked his genre pictures to the lived-in ease age brings. That’s the genius of Tarantino’s casting. Jackie Brown is not some stand-in for Foxy Brown but a projection of where she might be 25 years later. Grier’s persona is intertwined with the role, a middle aged woman with her back to wall who turns her situation around: from victim to player. With the weight of her career as an action star, Grier makes Jackie her own and dominates the screen with her energy and charisma.