Queen of Pop Shock Struts Into the ‘90s : Before Madonna and Annie Lennox, Grace Jones paved the way. Now the multi-media artist sets her sights on ‘softer’
“Grace, do the next take with the tongues in the mouth.”
Director Greg Gorman is anxiously calling up from behind his poolside camera to the sunny deck where a showily passionate tete-a-tete between singer Grace Jones and her burly beau is taking place. These kissing shots for her current “Love on Top of Love” video have been going on for some minutes now, and so far, it seems safe to assume that the “killer kiss” referred to in the lyrics is French in origin.
“Does the tongue look too pornographic? " hollers down Jones in her faintly Jamaican accent, teasing her director. This is mild stuff by her own notoriously lurid on-stage standards, but he’s thinking of television standards and practices.
“No,” says Gorman, reassuringly, “I just want some shots without it.”
Grace and her cigar-smoking, blond-haired, gray-bearded boyfriend, European power-lifting champ Sven Thorson, are obliging on the next take, doing some basic, reasonably chaste mouth-to-mouth. But within a couple of minutes they’re back to their old tricks, and Gorman--a well-regarded photographer who has been hired by the flamboyant singer for this, his first pop video assignment--simply gives in. Somewhere down the line, perhaps in the editing process, someone may have to convince her that this sort of behavior won’t pass muster on MTV, but for now it’s best to let Grace be Grace.
It often seems that--as the title of a recent album by the group Jane’s Addiction announced--"Nothing’s Shocking,” any more. Not even most of shocker Grace Jones’ often shameless and salacious act.
True, her manic French kissing scene for her “Love on Top of Love” video may not yet be ready for prime-time MTV, and the lyrics to the song proffer unapologetic promiscuity in an age when even George Michael is pressured into promoting the joys of monogamy. But the aspects of her persona that were most startling to a wary musical public during her disco years of the late ‘70s and new-wave reggae years of the early ‘80s have now been well-integrated into the culture. Her butch-cut androgyny, the flagrant sexual aggression, the threatening iciness, the uncoy dominatrix stance are a part of the culture. Madonna made it OK to look and act like a tramp and Annie Lennox made it OK to look like a pretty boy, well after Jones nervily and shamelessly paved the way for both of them.
“I’ve done that,” Jones says, lounging poolside later at the Sunset Marquis. “What Madonna’s doing, I did 10 years ago. They’ve caught up with me. They’re 10 years behind. But it’s cool. At least they got it.” She chuckles. “I don’t mind. At least enough people took that ball and ran with it, you know what I mean? So we’re making some touchdowns, which is cool. And I just start a whole new game now, that’s all. I’ve played that one out.”
The new game is not to further shock the music community, for even Jones knows that it’s impossible to shock a shockproof culture. Her infrequent concerts--one is scheduled for Wednesday at the Hollywood Palladium--still garner sellout crowds and good reviews, and the new “Killer Kiss” single recently reached No. 1 on Billboard’s dance club charts. But probably nothing she could do musically could ever regain her the kind of slavish, fascinated attention she once garnered--and if Jones’ standoffish image doesn’t exactly project rampant neediness, attention is one thing she does require.
This hardball player’s favored current arena: the movies.
Her film career got off to a good start in the early ‘80s with a sword-and-sorcery role in “Conan the Destroyer,” which starred Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose weightlifting trainer is the same Sven Thorson with whom she’d been tangling tongues. That was followed by a plum part as a memorable Bond villainess in “A View to a Kill.” Big things were predicted, but since then, the celluloid side has languished--she’s had only one subsequent starring role, as a vampiress in the independent 1986 horror/comedy “Vamp,” while taking cameo roles in such failed artsy features as “Siesta” and “Straight to Hell.”
Seems that the movies haven’t known quite what ballgame to have her playing in. If good roles aren’t already few and far between for actresses, Jones is not just Anywoman but a somewhat inherently threatening black woman--a type not exactly rampant in Hollywood.
“She is totally in a category by herself,” says producer-director Rob Cohen, who auditioned Jones for a part while running Motown Pictures in the ‘70s and has remained an admirer since. “And whenever anyone is that unique--and this goes for Brando and people of that caliber--they either find a receptivity, like Jack Nicholson has, or they are so unique people don’t know what to do with them.
“Grace Jones will go down in both black culture and disco demimonde culture as a unique character. There’s no one so special. But special is a double-edged sword. She’s so vivid that, used in the right way, you might see her becoming a real character lead, a (famous) villainess,” Cohen believes. “She certainly can’t play the girl next door.”
Jones’ new manager, Steve Newman, agrees that Jones’ parts will “always have to be a little larger than life, because she is larger than life. I don’t think you’ll see her playing a demure little wallflower. But she wants to do comedy. She’s a very funny woman, and she can do more than just play the bad girl. A lot of people try to stereotype her, so that all the scripts that come to her are for these action-adventure or sword-and-sorcery genre films where the producers want to exploit her.
“But there’s something about her personality that’s extreme that can work as well in a comedy as in a horror movie. It’s a matter of opening people’s eyes in this town and showing that she can do more than just throw a sword around her head or do some karate kicks.”
Newman is trotting Jones--who usually prefers to traverse the New York/Paris/Jamaica triangle--around Los Angeles, trying to reintroduce her to the Hollywood folk who may have stereotyped her. Under former management, he says, she was up for, but didn’t pursue, such more offbeat parts as that of the mischievous black girlfriend in “Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills,” a role Newman thinks would have been perfect for her.
Grace Jones as a romantic lead, perhaps?
“Well, I think I have played romantic leads before,” Jones says. “It all depends on to what extreme. You can be so in love that you’ll kill anyone who threatens your lover--I mean, that’s extremely romantic. . . . But I don’t want to get too mushy. I think it’s nice to have a little mystery, a little devil there somewhere.”
A little too much devil for some in Hollywood, maybe. Part of Newman’s new function as manager is to introduce the film community to Grace Jones the fascinating, laughing party girl, the utterly charming schmoozer, the hilarious storyteller, the Andy Warhol-circuit confidante--and help get out of their minds the image of the ice queen who created such a distant, untouchable, androgynous persona in her critically acclaimed “One-Man Show” on stage and video, or of the macho gal famous for once decking an English TV talk-show host whose persistent line of questioning bothered her.
“People do have such a preconceived idea of what Grace is about,” Newman admits. “It creates with some people a negativity because they anticipate they’re gonna be meeting this tough, difficult person. They get so intimidated by that image she’s projected that they don’t separate in their minds between who she really is and who that image is. It’s an amazing credit to what she created, that people even in the industry feel that.
“However, then there are a lot of people who are so excited about meeting her because of that phenomenal image she’s created for herself, akin to the older movie stars who created an image that was completely apart from the person. Definitely those two camps. But you can always tell when people get really nervous when they meet her, because they expect her to beat them up if they say the wrong thing.”
Cohen recalls his run-in with her back in his Motown Pictures days, when he was sitting in with director Sidney Lumet on auditions for “The Wiz” at a hotel ballroom in New York.
“I had seen her on the disco circuit at Studio 54 and those places,” he remembers. “Suddenly the doors swept open in this ballroom and this bare-chested Nubian with a boom box came in and put on a tape. She made an incredible entrance wearing nothing but a red scarf and a white scarf around her breasts and down between her legs, sang a song--one of her own, I think--taking control of the full scale of that ballroom. And then she left. I thought Lumet’s glasses were going to melt.”
Jones is in the editing room of a cramped facility off Santa Monica Boulevard, with her video director, Gorman, shaping up what will become “Love on Top of Love (Killer Kiss).” Scenes of Jones bobbing in and out of the pool or making whoopee with Thorson are being alternated with shots of Jones being pawed and mauled by a pack of beefcakey male models in skin-tone bodysuits.
“I really want these guys on top of her,” Gorman tells the editor. There aren’t too many of those shots that turned out well; it seems that the young men were a little, well, awed in the presence of Grace.
Jones says: “If these guys wonder why they aren’t in the video, tell ‘em it’s ‘cause they were too scared to get up into the frame!”
The pawing sequence properly in place for the climax of the chorus, Gorman wants to cut back to something less intense.
“I think we need to go to the pool (shots) and cool off,” he says.
“You can’t cool off during an orgasm!” she protests.
It’s a slightly difficult situation: Gorman is directing his first video, for which Jones hired him on the basis of his excellent still photography work--and, no doubt, because it’s easier to keep a tight rein on a first-time director than a veteran.
Jones admits she’d prefer to have her hands on every aspect of her music and video career--producing, directing, what have you--if it were at all feasible. This desire for control probably has something to do with proving she can make it on her own, since some commentators have assumed that the real Svengali behind her most accomplished artistry was her former lover and mentor, the French fashion designer Jean-Paul Goude, who directed the “One-Man Show” video production and was her “artistic adviser” during what many see as her most adventurous days, around the time of the “Warm Leatherette” and “Nightclubbing” albums in 1980-81.
“When I met Jean-Paul, I had already done about four albums,” she says. “Everybody seems to think that he was in my life from the beginning of my career. I had an image already that married with his artistry. His best work was what he did with me and my best work was what I did with him. It happens sometimes. It happened with Marlene Dietrich and Josef von Sternberg. But that doesn’t mean that both of us do not produce great work without each other.
“I always liked to wear my hair very short, and my voice was deep. So even before creating that (androgynous image) for the public, I used to go in to buy bread and they would say ‘Bon jour, monsieur,’ and I would try and say ‘No, I am a mademoiselle ,’ and forget it, they’d say ‘ Bon jour, monsieur’ again. I think I have the features of an African man. I look like my (Nigerian) grandfather. I’m not round. When I put a wig on with long hair, I look like a hooker or a drag queen. So I look actually more feminine when I’m dressed as a man.
“Everybody shocked me so much growing up that I think I just sort of shock back. The men who had authority in my life were always very big--my (Pentecostal minister) father, my brothers. I was sort of frightened by that. In a way I used it to turn it around; I decided I would become tougher than they were. By doing that, I ended up super-macho.”
Finding scripts that Jones can just plug into with all the elusive qualities she envelopes--toughness and glamour all in one--is next to impossible. Her manager is working with scriptwriters to conceive and tailor screenplays for her. And when they do look at pre-existing scripts, they don’t just look at the female roles.
“I think it’s very easy to change a role that was there for a man and give it to me instead,” she says, laughing. “Give it a little twist. I think Zula (her role in “Conan the Destroyer”) was originally a man in the comic strip, a male role. There’s another part that we’re having meetings about that was written for a man in the screenplay.” Another hearty, throaty laugh. “That’s cool, I like that.”
Listening to Jones and her manager, though, you keep hearing about how she is trying to “soften” her image, make herself more “touchable.” Even Annie Lennox, who borrowed so much icy image from Jones, has gone from stay-yonder to come-hither. This no doubt has to do with stretching for the brass ring of a more conventionally varied career in show business than what the former sensationalism would allow, but it’s also an expression of the real woman, she contends.
“The makeup is done softer. The lyrics are a more honest expression of myself in every way. The songs deal with breakups or relationships.”
To most observers, the difference between the old, “guarded” image and the new, open one will seem negligible, but to her, it’s a significant switch and a risk.
“I always thought that feminine, softer side was just too vulnerable to put out there, because then it’s like you’re opening up a door for everybody to come in, and you don’t know who’s going to come in that door. Whereas before, when I was much more visually standoffish, then you create a barrier, the mystique.
“Right now I am definitely some kind of an alien being on this planet to most of my public. In Europe I’m like some kind of a Venus. They sort of get down on their knees when they see me. They can’t believe that I’m appearing in the same room, walking on the same floor, eating at the same table. These are people that are art critics and artists.
“It sort of reminds me of that film that Katharine Hepburn did, ‘The Philadelphia Story,’ where the guy was telling her she was so perfect, like a goddess. And she just wanted to be loved for herself; she didn’t want to be looked at as an image, a combination of elements someone looks up to. And I know that that’s how a lot of people see me--even very good friends.
“I mean, I’ve gone through relationships--with my son’s father, for example--like that.” She is referring to Goude, who wrote a book about his obsession with her and, it’s acknowledged all around, was her foremost worshiper. “For years we were together. It was like I had to be always on , you know? Because he didn’t want to ever see me real. He didn’t want to see me get sick. Do you know what I mean?”
Grace Jones sick? More vulnerable still, Grace Jones sick and saddled with a lover who resents the sickness for how it muddles the all-important image? There’s a palpable sadness in a fairy tale of a princess who builds a gilded castle of illusion around herself that’s the marvel of all the kingdom, then finds there are no doors out.
But Jones is still living the fairy tale and, when it comes down to it, likes the security and attention the cage she’s built provides. This is the woman who, on her “biographical” 1985 album “Slave to the Rhythm,” declared: “Being adored and worshiped are the things that make me blush.”
Does she still feel the craving to be worshipped atop a pedestal?
“Yeah, but then when I step down, I want to be able to step down from it and not be criticized for that.”
Leave it to Grace Jones to want to have it all.