Friday, April 7

Karen Black

She is probably as identified with the 70s as anyone could be although by the end of the decade there wasn't a lot of steam left. She had a near-genius IQ and a hunger to become noticed and acting was an easy call. While she certainly had moments of delivering heartfelt performances, her rather quirky personality and unusual look found her engaging in a number of unorthodox performances in oddball films. 

I was flabbergasted to find she made 141 movies and while she only truly made 3-4 good films, frankly even those have their eccentricities.  Ultimately, in typical Hollywood fashion, particularly from the 70s on, I suspect she was discarded along with yesterday's copy of The Hollywood Reporter.  It must have killed her to have not become an enduring major player.

Karen Ziegler was born in the Park Ridge suburb of Chicago in 1939.  She came from an artsy background as her mother wrote children's books and her grandfather was first violinist with the Chicago Symphony. Her father was an engineer.  A brother and sister, the latter of whom, Gail Brown, also became an actress, completed the close-knit family. The girls enjoyed performing from a young age and neither much doubted they would one day become actresses.

She enrolled in Northwestern University at only 15. While majoring in theater arts, she was looking for more than the school could apparently offer and she was yearning to fly. She left the university to have a go at the grind in Manhattan and enrolled in Lee Strasberg's acting classes. Acquiring a new last name via her first marriage, she snagged a few roles on and off Broadway. She also began doing a lot of television work.

Francis Ford Coppola provided her with her first, visible movie role in 1966's You're A Big Boy Now opposite acting geniuses Geraldine Page and Julie Harris.  Black's part was small but the story of a young man coming of age in New York City has always had a cult following.

Her breakthrough role came as the LSD-taking hooker in Easy Rider (1969) alongside Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper and Jack Nicholson.  It was a small but memorable part in a film that also more than deserved to be called breakthrough.

One of her most memorable roles and films is clearly Rayette Dipesto in Five Easy Pieces (1970).  She copped an Oscar nomination as a waitress who is emotionally mistreated by her upper-class dropout boyfriend, Nicholson, as they launch a road trip to visit his sick father. In its review The New York Times referred to Rayette as a pathetically appealing vulgarian.   This film is soooo 70s with its antihero, if not antiheroic cast, heavy dose of cynicism and downbeat ending. It could never have been made in the early 60s or before. Nicholson's name was certainly on everyone's lips after this one but so was Black's.

Nicholson directed but did not act in Drive, He Said (1971).  It concerns a troubled basketball star who has an affair with a teacher's wife (Black, of course).  It is so-so and the same could be said about A Gunfight (1971) featuring Kirk Douglas and Johnny Cash as two aging gunfighters who stage a shootout for pay. Black and Jane Alexander had forgettable parts.

The following year Cisco Pike caused some ripples.  Kris Kristofferson has one of his best roles as an ex-rocker just getting his life back together with his pregnant girlfriend (guess who?) when a corrupt cop, Gene Hackman, changes some things around.

Portnoy's Complaint (1972) caused a mini-sensation and I detested it.  I may even have walked out of it to save myself.  It follows a messed-up, sexually-repressed, Jewish dude whose fantasies are sending him off the deep end... the same thing likely happened to anyone who stayed until the end. Black is one of those fantasies. All associated with this piece of excrement should have their SAG cards confiscated.

The Outfit (1973) is a strong crime-thriller concerning a heist at a bank owned by the mob.  Black and Robert Duvall headed a large cast with great supporting performances by frequent film noir actors Robert Ryan, Sheree North, Jane Greer, Marie Windsor and Elisha Cook Jr.

I thought she and Scott Wilson as Myrtle and George Wilson were the best thing about The Great Gatsby (1974).  She was an unfaithful wife and he is the ultimate killer of our title character. Unfortunately, after four versions, this great book has yet to be transformed into a great movie.

I expect that when Black first started out as an actress and envisioned the types of films she would do, it would never have occurred to her that Airport 1975 (1974) would be among them or, frankly, that Charlton Heston would be one of her leading men.  In so many ways, it has to be the most unusual film she ever made... one of those all-star extravaganzas, populated by old-time actors just happy to be sitting in coach.  And yuck, boo, hiss, it was a sequel.

We will just do this final paragraph on Airport 1975... and I really shouldn't but I can't help myself.  The plot concerns a jumbo jet that is struck in the air by a smaller plane and becomes crippled and pilotless.  Black, a flight attendant, most reluctantly assumes the controls while she does a little over-acting.  The actress tended to look a little cross-eyed and here she is, face as big as the movie screen, looking cross-eyed and saying she doesn't know where she's going or what to do.  I just cracked up.  I had the same reaction a few years later watching a wobbly-headed Kate Hepburn looking through binoculars and cooing Norman... the loons... the loons.  I am laughing again as I write this but, oh dear, I fear this will mess with my karma.

Black's best year is likely to be considered by most to be 1975 because she appeared in both The Day of the Locust and Nashville. I was so whacked out over this decade's new type of movie-making and these are two of the films that engendered those feelings.  

Locust is an unflinchingly harsh look at the movie capital.  I loved it, of course, because I love anything about Hollywood.  I saw it first with my wife and couldn't stop talking about it so I rounded up a dozen or so pals and off we went to see it.  One apologized to me about a quarter of the way through as he left. The rest of us went to a restaurant afterwards and several of them said it was just about the worst thing they'd ever seen. The truth is... I got then and I get now their attitudes.  It is not a film for everyone.

It generally has to do with Hollywood's bloodsuckers, parasites, hangers-on and wannabes who do and say anything to aid in their ascent.  Specifically, Black plays a hopeful who dreams of stardom but has little talent while displaying a great deal of counter-charm. Director John Schlesinger draws a rich performance from Black and the rest of his cast. Sadly, there are aspects of Black's career that could have been lifted from this movie.

Nashville is Robert Altman's tribute to country music. I was dragged to it kicking and screaming and ended up liking it a great deal, resulting in Altman and I becoming thisclose. Black and an array of other mainly up-and-coming actors slipped in and out and back in again for the director's mosaic of intersecting lives surrounding a political convention. Black most convincingly plays a country singer desperately seeking fame.  The actress not only sings compositions she wrote for the film but received a Grammy nomination for her efforts.  Altman became very fond of her and would use her again.

After all the beautiful (and usually blonde) leading ladies of Hitchcock's films, I always found it interesting that he chose Black to be his top-billed star of his last film, Family Plot (1976).  She plays a jewel thief in a black comedy caper opus not up to the great master's usual trickery.  And frankly, she was outclassed by costar Barbara Harris, who knew a thing or two about quirky herself.

Burnt Offerings (1976) is a typical horror story in a big ol' house. Black is top-billed over costars Oliver Reed and Bette Davis.  It has a few good moments although I didn't think Black does. Ultimately it's pretty forgettable.

In Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1982), Black reunited with director Altman.  Costarring with Cher and Sandy Dennis, the film concerns Dean fans who hover like hummingbirds around a feeder for the anniversary of his death in Texas, not far from Marfa where Dean filmed his final movie, Giant.  The same cast performed the piece on Broadway as well.  I didn't see the film for years because I didn't think I would like it and I was so surprised when I did. 

Somewhere around this time it became apparent that Black's career had fallen off the grid.  I have always wondered why.  Did she stumble over the tripwire?  Was she difficult to work with?  Did someone step on her dreams?  Who was out to get her?  Had the counter-culture actress of the 70s over-stayed her welcome?Whatever happened she switched for a year to a regular role on series television, ER, in 1984, a sure sign that better days were behind her.  In 1986 she filmed a remake of the 50s Invaders from Mars but the only thing notable about it is her real-life son, Hunter Carson, plays her son in it.

She drifted into low-budget horror films and other ones that few (beyond horror cult devotees) ever heard of.  It's astonishing how small her roles were in some and how far down the cast list she fell. Quite a number of these movies went directly to video.  You can see why with titles such as Teknolust, House of 1000 Corpses, Suffering Man's Charity, The Blue Tooth Virgin, Repo Chick, Some Guy Who Kills People, Mommy's Little Monster, Ooga Booga and A Walk in a Split Mind.

She became a playwright in 2007 with Missouri Waltz, in which she also starred.  It opened (and I believe closed) in Los Angeles.

She continued to work though she was diagnosed with ampullary cancer in 2010 and had a third of her pancreas removed. By 2011 she made it known that she was cancer-free.  If one didn't see her funny little movies, then one never heard anything about her.  She was certainly far from the klieg lights of Hollywood.  In early 2013 there was some news regarding her traveling to Europe... the cancer had returned... and she was seeking some experimental treatment not covered by insurance.  Then the cancer spread to her spine and she became bedridden.

She had been enjoying an apparently happy fourth marriage and the couple was devoted to Scientology.  Karen Black died in Los Angeles in August, 2013, at age 74. 

Next posting:
Behind the Scenes I

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