Monday, September 2, 2013

KAREN BLACK 1939 - 2013: Cinema's Weird Angel

Karen Black in Five Easy Pieces (1970)

She  appeared in some of the most iconic movies of the 1970s.
She worked for some of the top directors in film history, including Alfred Hitchcock and Robert Altman. 
Yet, it was her life and death struggle with a little demonic doll in a quickly made ABC movie of the week that won a place in most of our hearts for Karen Black.

I don't know anyone who grew up in the 1970s who didn't go to school the day after Trilogy of Terror (1975) aired on ABC in a state of absolute euphoria. There was this evil doll, with jagged teeth and wild hair that chased this woman around her apartment, trying to kill her with a little knife. Even when the woman caught the doll in a suitcase, it sawed its way out. Then the woman threw it in the oven and it caught on fire, and then something weird happened, like the doll's evil spirit possessed the woman, and the movie ended with the woman down on her haunches, squatting like a savage, pounding a knife blade into the floor of her apartment, and then she smiled, and now her teeth were sharp like the doll's. Man, it sure beat watching the Waltons again....

It would be a long time before I equated the woman in Trilogy of Terror with Karen Black, the actress who had starred in such movies as Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, Airport 1975, and Nashville. Back before she was tangling with bloodthirsty dolls, she was one of the new breed of Hollywood stars, beautiful but just offbeat enough to make viewers aware that we were no longer in the studio system. She arrived when all kinds of interesting new types were storming our movie screens. That she came roaring into our vision as a prostitute in Dennis Hopper's Easy Rider was fitting, because that was the film that more or less broke the walls down and announced the new breed of stars and directors. The 1970s were upon us, and Karen Black was our new weird angel.

She'd been busy enough prior to Easy Rider. She'd been acting in films and television and on Broadway. She'd even starred in one of Francis Ford Coppola's early films, You're a Big Boy Now (1966), but the time wasn't right for her. Agents and casting directors probably saw her as a Stefanie Powers type, but Black was more  'age of Aquarius' than 'Girl from UNCLE.'  Black, born into an Illinois family of novelists and symphony musicians, was the sort of worldly Bohemian type that bloomed during the heady 1960s. She was as far from Hollywood glamor as one could get. 

"She seemed like a real person," said critic Leonard Maltin at the time of Black's death in August, "and that was exactly what the young filmmakers whose careers were blossoming at the time were looking for."

Her characters in those days were usually good-hearted, smarter than they looked, but often victimized by one thing or another, usually bad men or bad luck.  She had a knack for playing hookers and waitresses, and could make you feel the perspiration of a hard day's work on her neck. One of her best roles came in John Schlesinger's Day of The Locust (1975), an adaptation of Nathanael West's  novel of 1930s Hollywood. Black earned a Golden Globe nomination for playing the trashy Faye Greener, a character she described years later as "a lonely idiot who wanted to be a star."

Black hadn't wanted to do Trilogy of Terror. At various times she told interviewers that her manager talked her into it, and that the only reason she agreed was because her husband at the time was also cast in it.  She would later recall this as a turning point, and not a good one. She was still in demand, appearing in Alfred Hitchcock's final film, Family Plot (1976), Capricorn One, and Burnt Offerings (1976), but things were changing for her. She took time off to have a baby, and when she returned, it was as if the only scripts offered to her were horror scripts. It was, she told Filmfax in 2002, "one of those unexamined moments where you find yourself on a different path and don't remember taking it."

An unhappy marriage to screenwriter L.M. Kit Carson ended abruptly in 1983.  Now a single woman with a child, Black  had to work, even if meant appearing in movies that seemed beneath her. There were some decent ones along the way, though. She gave another fine performance in Robert Altman's Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1982), and Tobe Hooper's  Invaders from Mars (1986) was fun and nostalgic. Gradually, though, she found herself in direct to video titles, and forgettable horror movies. Now and then she'd luck into an artsy independent production, and would even earn accolades at indy film festivals, but then it was back to House of 1,000 Corpses, a script she threw in the garbage before reluctantly agreeing to do it.

"People would offer me these jobs," Black said in 2002, "and I would take them because I needed the money. I was the only working person in the family. I don't have that many regrets, although I'm sorry I ruined my career - but I did, and it's done. I've come to terms with that." She added, "I was very young, and although I took acting seriously, I didn't take myself very seriously. Maybe I should have."

During the 1990s she began writing screenplays and hoped to begin directing. She occasionally performed one-woman shows on stage. Still, the maverick directors who had come of age with her went on with their careers while Black languished in a sort of B-movie limbo. Still, even in bad movies she found a way to shine, and it's no surprise that she became a cult movie icon. Rock bands referenced her in song titles, and she became the go-to actress when someone needed a female character with a peculiar edge. Thanks to her sense of humor, she was able to enjoy this phase of her career, even if she often wondered what could have been had she sidestepped Trilogy of Terror. When that little doll attacked her, it was as if the doll represented the horror genre, and even though Black fought it hard, that little demonic hunk of wood won the battle, after all.

She was usually kind towards the movie in retrospect, laughing at the goofiness of being chased around by a doll, but also giving director Dan Curtis kudos for making the whole thing work. She told interviewer Scott Michael Bosco in 2000 that she was more interested in one of the other segments in Trilogy, where she played a spinster. "I don't like horror because of the blood," she said. "Fear," she said, "just bores me. I like 'longing,' and 'love,' 'despair,' and 'hope.'"
She also admitted that the idea of wearing the sharp teeth at the end of Trilogy was her idea, another example of her dedication to her craft, even if she wasn't especially thrilled by the role.

Consider this: Karen Black had not one but two careers. She started as an A-list star in groundbreaking movies. At least a few of them, including Easy Rider and Nashville, will always be part of any discussion about the history of American cinema. She will be remembered as perhaps the archetypal 1970s American actress.  In some circles, though, Dinosaur Valley Girls and Children of the Corn IV will be discussed as seriously as Nashville. How many actresses can say they had two very distinct and separate careers, and excelled at both? Many  can say they were big in the 1970s, and many can list a bunch of B-movies on their resume,  but not many have done both, to such great extremes. Sure, Diane Keaton is great, but she's not going to enter a Fangoria convention and get a standing ovation.
Still, as much as I like Trilogy of Terror, if I were to recommend one of Black's pictures, I'd go with Five Easy Pieces (1970), where she plays the vivacious, always upbeat Rayette Dipesto. And it's not only because she was remembered at awards time that year - she earned an Oscar nomination for her performance, and took home a Golden Globe and a New York Film Critics Circle award - but because Rayette is a truly great character.  
It's hard not to love her in this movie, warbling her favorite Tammy Wynette songs, doing everything she can to get  the attention of boyfriend Jack Nicholson. She thinks he's just moody. She has no idea that she repulses him.  By the end, Nicholson abandons her at a truck stop. I still think of Rayette, freshening her makeup in the lady's room, humming hillbilly tunes to herself, unaware that she's being left behind.
The film was about Nicholson and his problems, but it could have easily been about Black's character,  a country singing waitress who loved a man who couldn't stand her. Think of it that way, look at it from her point of view, and the movie is a tragedy. The next time you watch it, pay less attention to Nicholson and more to Karen Black. You'll wonder how this talented actress vanished into B-movie obscurity. But you'll also get a glimpse into Black, for  she seemed to have a canny understanding of this good ol' gal. She once told an interviewer about a discussion she had with director Bob Rafelson, who wondered if Black, who entered college at age 15, was simply too intelligent to play Rayette:

"I told him I'm essentially simple, that really everybody is essentially simple, that we are all just beings who, uh, be. Certainly Rayette can just be. Dig her, she's not dumb, she's just not into thinking. I didn't have to know anybody like her to play her. I mean, I'm like her, in ways. Rayette enjoys things as she sees them, she doesn't have to add significances. She can just love the dog, love the cat. See? There are many things she does not know, but that's cool; she doesn't intrude on anybody else's trip. And she's going to survive. Do you understand me?"

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