Thursday, August 08, 2013

R.I.P.: Karen Black (1939-2013)

Karen Black was in the right movies at the right time to guarantee herself at least a footnote in film history.

Indeed, you could argue that Black – who lost her long battle with cancer Thursday at age 74 -- earned her iconic status as a screen queen of the New Hollywood era just on the basis of three roles: A skittish prostitute who takes a very bad acid trip (along with Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper) in a New Orleans cemetery in Easy Rider (1969); a coolly glamorous country music star who stokes the paranoia of an unstable rival (Renee Blakely) in Nashville (1975); and, most important, an emotionally clingy waitress who loves not wisely but too well when she falls for a classical pianist turned white-trash rowdy (Jack Nicholson) in Five Easy Pieces (1970).

But wait: There was more.

Black also brought captivating shadings of intelligence and vulnerability to stock-issue “girlfriend” roles opposite George Segal as a hairdresser turned junkie in Born to Win (a flawed but fascinating 1971 drama widely available in DVD editions that emphasize then-unknown co-star Robert DeNiro), and Kris Kristofferson (in his movie starring debut) as a down-on-his-luck musician exploited by a crooked narc (Gene Hackman) in 1972’s Cisco Pike.

And yes, I’ll admit it: As a hormonally inflamed teen-ager, I briefly but intensely nursed a crush on Black way back in the day after seeing her play a sweetly spirited young woman who proves to be Miss Right for a fellow library employee (Peter Kastner) too easily distracted by a crazy/sexy Miss Wrong (Elizabeth Hartman) in You’re a Big Boy Now (1966), a pre-Graduate coming-of-age comedy that hardly anyone – not even its director, Francis Coppola – ever has nice things to say about anymore.

(How much did I – do I – love this flick? I still have an original vinyl LP of the soundtrack album – featuring “Darling, Be Home Soon,” the title tune and other songs by the Lovin’ Spoonful – and a Warner Archive DVD of the film itself.)

Black earned two Golden Globe awards as Best Supporting Actress during her ‘70s heyday, for Five Easy Pieces and the 1974 filmization of The Great Gatsby. (In the latter, she was perfectly cast as the doomed adulteress Myrtle Wilson.) And she made another bid for inclusion in the film history books by playing an ice-cold femme fatale in Alfred Hitchcock’s final film, the deftly seriocomic and criminally under-rated Family Plot (1976).

She also made a lasting impression – though probably not the kind she would have wanted – for her inadvertently campy turn as a frantic stewardess who must take control of a damaged airliner in Airport – 1975. Yep, you guessed it: This is the film that triggered the oft-quoted, much-parodied line: “The stewardess is flying the plane!”

Black remained active in movies and television long after the ‘70s, with credits ranging from neo-grindhouse horror movies (House of 1,000 Corpses) to quality series TV (Law & Order: Criminal Intent) to freewheeling indies (The Independent, in which came off as a very good sport while playing a spoofy version of herself).

She also appeared in The Trust, an excruciatingly maladroit 1993 low-budget drama about the life and death of philanthropist William Marsh Rice, founder of Rice University, which was filmed on location in Houston and Galveston. But to say anything more about that unfortunate career choice would be needlessly unkind.

Suffice it to say that Karen Black was a thoroughgoing professional. And like many other thoroughgoing professionals, she occasionally gave movies much more than they ever gave her. 


Al Tran said...

Well put, Joe(as always). I just have to add TRILOGY OF TERROR to one of my most indelible memories of her work. Then there's THE OUTFIT, which she made the most out of a rather thankless girlfriend role. Thanks to Warner Archive for making that terrific film more widely available.

Joe Leydon said...

I actually have The Outfit somewhere in my closet -- ordered it from Warner Archive quite some time ago -- so now I have all the more reason to watch it.

Ladymia69 said...

She always brought an eager warmth to any movie she was in, even if she was playing a shady lady...I loved her in that Hitchcock film "Family Plot".

Joe Leydon said...

As I wrote: I've always thought Family Plot was under-rated. And you're right: Karen Black was pretty dang good in it.

peter pilgrim said...

She was a great actress. I think Day of the Locust deserves some recognition. Black was fearless and devoid of movie star vanity in her role as a would-be actress who moonlights as a call girl. Her high point was Five Easy Pieces. She turned what could have been a passive long suffering girlfriend role into a dimensional, living and breathing human whose pain we sympathize with.