Thursday, October 05, 2006

Passings: Tamara Dobson, Ass-Kicking Goddess

Blaxploitation Fans, fly your flags at half-mast.

With her amazonian six-foot-two frame, gravity-defying afro, and striking good looks, Tamara Dobson was a natural for a modeling career in the seventies, and her face and figure adorned major magazines throughout the first third of the Me Decade. But that's not what made Dobson--who died October 4, 2006 at age 59--an honest-to-God pop icon.

Movie studios invariably beckoned, and in 1972 Dobson appeared in the Burt Reynolds action programmer Fuzz as Yul Brynner's squeeze. Her big breakthrough--and her legacy to the ages--came one year later, however, when she assumed the title role in one of the hallmarks of the blaxploitation genre, Cleopatra Jones. In Dobson's hands, Cleo--a high-kicking, fashion-forward, sportscar-driving federal agent--offered audiences a distinctive feminine alternative to James Bond.

Cleopatra Jones has inspired awe and worship in this neck of the woods for years: Hell, the one-sheet poster (pictured here) and two CJ lobby cards stare down from the wall at me as I write this. It's one of the great pulp action flicks of the era, packing ninety-odd minutes of run time with 007-style stunts and skullduggery, eye-popping seventies wardrobes, Joe Simon's surging theme song, a homicidal lesbian drug czarina named Mommy (a sublimely over-the-top Shelley Winters), and more great oddball fringe characters than you can level a karate-chop at. It's also veritable one-stop-shopping for character-actor worshippers, with wonderful turns by everyone from Bill "Squeal like a pig!" McKinney (playing--big surprise--a rat-bastard) to Bernie Casey to Paul Koslo to Antonio Fargas, whose masterful bluster and snivel as cocky pimp Doodlebug shoulda made him the Peter Lorre of the seventies. Action vet Jack Starrett directs with just the right balance of bad-assed attitude and lightness of touch.

At the center of it all is Tamara Dobson, larger than life in both a literal and figurative sense. She lends balletic grace and conviction to her action scenes, and owns the role with an unlikely combination of sophistication and street wisdom. Subtle tinges of self-aware humor run through (but never subsume) her intensity: Damned if she doesn't possess enough of an 'it' factor to make you want to follow the character over a whole series of movies. Sadly, a franchise failed to flower. Cleopatra Jones brought in a mint, but 1975's Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold hit theaters just as the massive tide of black action cinema receded, dropping from sight with a thud.

Dobson's work paved the way for the earthier Pam Grier to become an action icon in her own right, but Cleopatra Jones would be the statuesque ex-model's only big role. No filmmaker, black or white, seemed to have a clue as to what to do with Tamara Dobson, and her career gradually faded out over the next ten years.

The huge resurgence of interest in black action cinema in the 1990's led to the resurrection of a lot of careers, and the spotlight was thrown back on many of the genre's key figures. Tamara Dobson remained one of the few genuine recluses amongst those key players, gaining a reputation as sort of a blaxploitation Garbo. The real story was reputedly a bit more down-to-earth. Somewhere around the mid-eighties she gave up show biz for good and lived a perfectly content life by all accounts, dealing in New York property and real estate until she developed multiple sclerosis six years ago. Complications with the disease, and a lethal bout of pneumonia, finally claimed her life.

In the end, The Woman Who Was Cleopatra Jones lived her life the way she damn well pleased, which made her a lot more like the iconic character she created than she probably ever realized. You go, Ms. Dobson.

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