Karen Black, From 'Easy Rider' and 'Five Easy Pieces' To Cult Movie Siren
Karen Black and Kris Kristofferson in 'Cisco Pike,' 1971. (Photo by John Springer Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)
Fans of cult cinema from the 1960s to the ‘80s and beyond know Karen Black as the multi-talented, sensual actress who naturally fit into quirky films like Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, and Robert Altman’s Nashville just as well as she did horror gems like Trilogy of Terror and Burnt Offerings.
Black was a different kind of actress. She decided that she wanted to do something and went after it with a fervor that’s rarely seen in modern performers. With 194 credits to her name, Black’s icon status has been cemented through her roles as both an anti-hero and performer who plays off of anti-heroes. No matter what kind of character she played, she was willful and distinct. She was always Karen Black.
'Easy Rider 'established Black as a formidable actress
Even though she was a much beloved actress on and off Broadway, it’s her six minutes in Easy Rider that turned her from unknown to must-see actress. She appears as a New Orleans prostitute who goes off on a cemetery based acid trip with Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda.
The scene was cut down from 16 hours of 16mm footage and according to Fonda, Black was so beloved in the film community because she made everything look natural:
She was great at improvisation and always pushing the limits. It was thrilling to see. She had the highest octane… She managed to play kooky, she managed to play sexy, she managed to play crazed. She managed to play all the different ways of human nature.
According to Black, those kinds of off the cuff performances with low stakes were the exactly kinds of films she enjoyed working on:
That's my world - independent features. That's how I started. That's what I like. It's playful and comfortable and not stressful, and it's an individual's way of creating. You're not in the studio system imitating other people and yourself. I'm having a good life.
'Five Easy Pieces' showed that she had range
After working with Jack Nicholson in Easy Rider, Black was hired to co-star with him in Five Easy Pieces, directed Bob Rafelson. She may have played a simple waitress who devotes herself completely to Jack Nicholson’s abusive upper crust drop out, but Rafelson says that because Black was so intelligent, so unlike her character that she had trouble getting into the heart of her role. Rafelson explained:
I have rarely worked with an actress who was as easy, as imaginative, and as unpredictable. Whatever Karen did, she made it unique and original and very often, spontaneous.
Black added that Rafelson told her shut off her brain when he called action. She also says that she sat and studied women in diners in order really learn who her character was:
I went there and stayed there and watched the women and they have the same accent as if they were from Arkansas – a lot of people comin’ from Arkansas to work there. And they have beehive… All old-fashioned hairdos from the sixties almost and... You know if an actor reads a script often enough you start to understand what it’s like to be that person.
Black won the Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress for her performance in Five Easy Pieces.
She made the mid ‘70s her playground
The 1970s were a great time to be a character actor. Films like Airport 1975 and Nashville created a massive playground for a wide swath of actors to throw themselves into multiple roles a few times a year. In 1974, Black gave a celebrated performance as Myrtle Wilson in The Great Gatsby, winning her second Supporting Actress Golden Globe. Black showed off her skills in Nashville where she wrote and performed two songs, earning a Grammy nomination on top of the whole being a beloved character actress thing. That same year saw her star in The Day of the Locust as Faye Greener, an actress flailing through Hollywood in the 1930s. Black was nominated for best supporting actress in the film but her role is still criminally underwatched.
She starred in a ton of horror movies but she wasn't happy about it
Judging from Karen Black’s career, she was someone who loved to work even if she didn’t always enjoy the genre in which she appeared. From Trilogy of Terror to Burnt Offerings and even Children of the Night, Black consistently showed up and absolutely made a meal out of every horror movie that offered her a paycheck even though she felt like it was career misstep. She told the Chicago Tribune:
Scary movies I’ve done -- there have been about 14 out of 175. They are not dominant in any way, shape or form. I can tell you what happened, but it was sort of like a mistake. It’s like I went on a bad path and couldn’t find my way back.
Even later in life, Black was never repentant about her disdain of her horror work. She told Oregon Live:
I guess I'm not that thrilled about the horror thing, because if you think about it, there's a differentiation that's seldom made between horror movies and science-fiction movies. I'm not actually a fan of horror movies - I don't understand blood, and I don' t know what's interesting about wounds. I can't figure that out. I don't know what's going on.
Karen Black couldn't stop herself
Even though she clearly didn’t enjoy making horror movies or even some of the more grindhouse leaning thrillers of the ‘70s, Karen Black loved what she did. Like a carpenter or a sea captain she got in front of the camera and performed because she couldn’t help herself. In 1975, she explained her compulsion to Roger Ebert:
I don't like to work, but I DO like to act, you see. If I had a lot of time off, I would do nothing but sleep and make my house in order. I'm half asleep all the time, as it is. Now it's becoming part of my personality.
Black worked in films up until her death at age 74 from cancer in 2013.
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