Identity

In Film, as in Life, Grace Jones Always Steals the Spotlight

"Bloodlight and Bami" is the first film to put Grace Jones front and center, but the fashion and culture icon has a long legacy of stealing the spotlight, even in supporting roles.
March 29, 2018, 8:09pm
Photo courtesy of MGM

Welcome to "Reel Women," a column highlighting important women in the world of cinema, from on-screen characters to real-life filmmakers.

Even a Grace Jones strip tease is unlike any other.

In her first scene in Vamp, the 1986 vampire stripper horror comedy that capitalizes on the singer’s otherworldly qualities, Jones appears covered in white paint, with turquoise contacts and a bright red shaggy bob that matches her lips, heels, and dress, designed by Keith Haring. It’s the kind of red that would stop anyone in their tracks. She writhes, crawls, drags her long fingernails across her body, and eventually lifts up her sleeves and draws down a zipper, revealing a spiraled metal bra and her whole body painted in recognizable Haring patterns. She gyrates atop a headless mannequin, also patterned with a Keith Haring design. When her dance is over, the camera pans across the room to show the faces of the men in the audience—awe-struck combined with either turned-on or terrified. The silence holds for a beat too long, as if the audio on the film went out.

That’s a pretty good summary of the effect Grace Jones has: She stuns people. Unfortunately, Vamp is a god-awful movie. Perhaps enjoyable in a so-bad-it’s-fun sort of way, the ’80s buddy comedy finds two college dudes on a mission to bring a stripper to their frat. In the process, they meet Queen Katrina (Jones), an Egyptian vampire queen who strips to seduce her victims. Though she barely has any lines, Jones is always the loudest presence in the room—in Vamp and in any other context.

Jones had a couple other memorable supporting roles, most notably opposite Arnold Schwarzenegger in Conan the Destroyer (1984) and as an atypical Bond girl in the Roger Moore-starring 007 flick A View to a Kill (1985). (Both these films will be shown during Metrograph’s Grace Jones series along with Vamp, Alex Cox’s star-studded Spaghetti western Straight to Hell Returns, and the concert film A One Man Show, directed by Jones's ex-lover Jean-Paul Goude, the photographer who shot some of Jones’s most iconic pictures.) Jones isn’t the lead in many of these movies, but she steps front and center in Sophie Fiennes’ upcoming vérité-style documentary, Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami, which opens at Metrograph, Film Society of Lincoln Center, and BAM on April 13.

Photo courtesy of New World Pictures

Jones is the kind of person whose presence invites spectacle. No one looks, walks, or wears clothes quite like Grace Jones. And that’s why she’s often been considered more of a fashion icon than a singer, though her vocal power is equally spectacular. Fiennes’ film rightfully puts Jones front and center at all times, even in more vulnerable moments, like when she’s arguing with someone over the phone or tenderly recalling her past feelings for Goude. Part of the film is a concert doc, and in one scene when she’s bombarded with adoring fans, someone asks if she’ll star in movies again. Jones replies that it would have to be in her own movie.

Jones may not have always played leading characters, but she’s always made her roles memorable. Her first big part was in Conan the Destroyer, playing the warrior Zula in a physically demanding role for which she did most of her own stunts. In A View to a Kill the following year, she looks like she’s just stepped out of a fashion shoot, with boxed shoulders, capes, pillar hats, and a touch of red accenting her eyelids, cheeks, and lips. As the character May Day, she first plays lover to the bleached blonde villain played by Christopher Walken, but later seduces Bond, too.

But Jones never remains a simple love interest to warring sides of this espionage thriller; she gets to play the game, making unpredictable moves that throw off both men. There’s also an incredible Eiffel Tower chase sequence and a scene where Grace Jones, Wonder Woman-like, lifts a man over her head. In her memoir, I’ll Never Write My Memoirs, Jones wrote that Roger Moore was scared of her because of her icy glances, which she’s perfected in this film. "Please stop looking at me like that, with such venom," she recalls Moore saying to her.

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Even if you're unfamiliar with Jones's filmography, you'd probably know the kind of presence she'd bring to the screen. Outside of film, Jones has had a storied life. She was born and raised in Jamaica but became an international sensation, occupying New York’s Studio 54 and the nightclubs of Paris. She dated Dolph Lundgren, roomed with Jessica Lange and Jerry Hall, was buddies with artists like Andy Warhol and Keith Haring, and remains an icon of pop, fashion, film, and the LGBTQ community. But Bloodlight and Bami doesn’t use archival footage to look back on that aspect of her life. It remains decidedly rooted in Jones's present (a present that’s been shot over many years starting around 2008). The lack of footage from Jones’s "heyday" is a rebellion against the notion that Grace Jones is a has-been. At 69 years old, she is ever captivating, even (or especially) when she's shucking oysters—a food she seems to be very fond of—and quipping that she wishes her "pussy was this tight."