Thursday, August 8, 2013

THE FACE OF THE 70S: A TRIBUTE TO KAREN BLACK

It’s with great sadness that I write that one of my all-time favorite actresses, Karen Black, died of cancer today, August 8th, 2013, at the age of 74. This is an actress I first fell in love with when I saw her on TV - I couldn't have been more than 12 or so - in Francis Ford Coppola’s You’re a Big Boy Now (1966), her motion picture debut.

I always think of Karen Black as the face of the 70s because she appeared to me to have been one of the most prolific actresses of the decade. During the bulk of the 1970s she seemed to be in all places at once-  movies, TV, etc. (I recall seeing her sing "You Ain't Nothin' But A Hound Dog" on some late night talk show), and it was near-impossible to avoid her. Which was fine by me. She was a colorful, eccentric, quotable personality, but she wasn't a starlet or fame junkie. She was very serious actor, passionate about her work, and she appeared in an impressive number of films, both high-profile and low, giving attention-getting performances that by 1975, made her into one of the biggest and most sought-after stars in Hollywood.
My first time seeing Karen Black on the big screen was in Peter Fonda’s counterculture hit, Easy Rider (1969) in which she played the first in a long line of what critics came to identify as her trademark “All-American Trollop” roles. It was eventually Black’s close association with playing ladies of easy virtue that brought about my not being able to see her in another film until 1974’s The Great Gatsby, as my mother thought that Karen Black films were full of “nakedness,” as she called it, and forbid me to go to any of them. Thus, I missed out on seeing Black’s Oscar-nominated turn in Five Easy Pieces (1970);  the drug-addiction drama Born to Win (1971); the confused college-kid angst of  Drive, He Said (a Jack Nicholson directed/penned film whose somewhat desperate print ad campaign focused on whether a particular sex scene was sodomy or not); and the I-really-didn't-think-I-stood-a-chance-with-this-one, Portnoy’s Complaint (1972). All films I would later have the opportunity to see as an adult and would greatly enjoy…sometimes exclusively due to Karen Black’s performances.
Happily, as I grew to M-rated movie age, the caliber and quality of Karen Black's films began to get more mainstream. Highlights of this period in her career are that unforgettable “The Stewardess is flying the plane!” opus, Airport 1975; the horror cult-classic 1975 TV-movie, Trilogy of Terror; and Robert Altman's Nashville, where Black got the opportunity to showcase her singing and songwriting skills (she had earlier supplied the songs and sang on the soundtrack of The Pyx - 1973, a little-seen devil worship thriller). In 1976 she appeared in Alfred Hitchcock's last film, Family Plot and re-teamed with Trilogy of Terror director, Dan Curtis, for Burnt Offerings. But it was in 1975 that Karen Black (in a controversial bit of casting) starred in my personal favorite of all of her films: The Day of the Locust. She went on record as being not particularly fond of her experience making the film, but her work in it is among her best.
If you went to a movies at all during the 70s, it's unlikely that you hadn't seen at least one Karen Black film. And, in having done so, it’s even more unlikely that you ever forgot it.

Karen Black was far too much of an original to be everybody’s cup of tea. People either loved her or hated her. Critics like Rex Reed and John Simon could never get past her unconventional beauty to ever evaluate her acting fairly. Yet she consistently turned in bold, risk-taking, emotionally committed performances typified by a naked vulnerability and sensuality many found to be either uncomfortably raw or deeply engrossing. She never seemed to do anything halfway, and in putting so much of herself into her roles and taking so many chances with her characterizations, she was sometimes apt to miss the mark or shoot way over the top. But through it all she was never less than authentic to her own vision of a character she played. She was such a surprising, inventive kind of actress that she remained eminently watchable even when she was failing spectacularly.

Labeled by columnists during her heyday as “The Bette Davis of the ‘70s,” it's a testament to her talent and one-of-a-kind appeal that Karen Black was able to distinguish herself during an era that boasted such cinema heavyweights as Glenda Jackson, Julie Christie, Jane Fonda, Faye Dunaway, Liza Minnelli, Ellen Burstyn, Liv Ullman, Shelley Duvall, Diane Keaton, and Sally Field.
After her amazing turn in Robert Altman’s Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1982), I confess to having missed a great deal of her latter, independent film output, preferring to  stay away from the intentional schlock - accepting the risk that I might be missing a few gems along the way. As I look at it now, that leaves me with a vast legacy of films I have yet to explore

In 2007 I had the supreme thrill of seeing her perform onstage in Missouri Waltz, an original play she wrote. To actually see my childhood idol in the flesh was truly surreal and an almost an out-of-body experience for me. (It was at a 99-seat theater here in LA, so the intimacy of the surroundings was heady. It took a good 15 minutes for me to get into the play and forget I was in the same room as Faye Greener and Connie White!) After the show, when she stayed around to talk to members of the audience, I was such a nervous wreck I swear my extended hand was shaking long before she shook it.
She was soft-spoken and very sweet, and I felt I could have almost passed out from joy.
Although I was tempted, I spared telling her the story of how "Memphis," the song she composed and sang in the film Nashville, was my audition song for years during my days as a dancer.
It's always odd to say that one will miss an actor when they pass away, for unlike most, they remain with us always through their films. I consider this to be very true, and it gladdens me...but y'know, I think I'm still gonna miss Karen Black. A lot.

Click on the title links below to read my posts about these unforgettable Karen Black films:
The Day of the Locust
Nashville
Burnt Offerings
You're A Big Boy Now
The Great Gatsby


Karen Black      1939 - 2013
Copyright © Ken Anderson

33 comments:

  1. What a wonderful tribute! And I'm glad you mentioned Day of the Locust. She always brought something special to the screen, even to talk shows! I'm certain I loved her as much as you did -- it's hard to imagine the seventies without her!

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    1. Thank you Thom. Oh, Day of the Locust is like an under-appreciated gem to me. It's flawed, but such a beautiful, powerful film.
      I'm glad to hear you liked her as well. She really was an actress who could be counted on to give you the unexpected. And as you say, 70's cinema is IMPOSSIBLE to imagine without Karen Black!

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  2. Thank you Ken for your tribute to Karen Black. Whatever role she took, she was there, one of the most exciting and magnetic actresses from her times (I always think of her along with Paula Prentiss). I believe she was a fine human being too. I would have loved seeing her on stage. She gave us a great gift playing parts for four decades, she'll live on.

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    1. You're right, she left four decades of memories behind, and a great many iconic performances. A nice way to remember her. Thanks, Tom!

      (And I love your mentioning Paula Prentiss. We have so many interchangeable, cookie-cutter actresses around today. I miss the quirky ones)

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  3. Beautiful tribute to a wonderful and unique actress. I loved her too...just bought a bootleg dvd copy of Come Back to the Five and Dime because I was craving that wonderful film again and couldn't find it any other way...watched it a few days ago and Karen blew me away as usual. Her quirky and eccentric talent blossomed under directors like Altman.
    In later years, I always tuned in to anything she was in, usually horror films, just so I could see her work again. She's a true original.
    I love all the pictures you chose for your tribute--all the wonderful cinematic memories and iconic moments she has left us with. I smiled when seeing her in blond wig and black trench coat from Hitchcock's Family Plot...and of course, as that brave stewardess in Airport 75.
    We've lost a great star!

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    1. Thank very much, Chris
      I envy you your bootleg copy.I haven't seen that Altman Film since the 80s. I used to have it on VHS and watched it many times. Two of my favorites (Karen Black and Sandy Dennis) combined with Cher and a very young Kathy Bates...what cast!

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  4. Really sad news, just heard. RIP

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    1. Hey Mark
      Very sad. I knew she was ill for a very long time, but it still hit as a bit of a surprise.

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  5. Thanks to you, Ken, I got to see Karen in "You're a Big Boy Now" -- she was such a refreshing presence in that film. I remember all those 70s Karen Black films so well -- but it's the Mad Magazine caricature of her more-than-slightly cross-eyed visage in "Airport 1975" that will forever be stuck in my mind: she really did look like nobody else (except maybe Norma Shearer). We could certainly use some Karen Blacks today. RIP...

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    1. Hi Peter
      I'm happy to have worked my subversive influence on Karen Black's behalf. She IS awfully charming in that film.
      I thoroughly remember that Mad magazine parody you refer to ("Airplot '75"!)
      I have never been able to forget Rex Reed's review of the film in which he referred to her as "The wall-eyed Karen Black." She was definitely one-of-a-kind, but my partner always thought she looked like Geraldine Page (and vice versa).

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  6. I knew you'd be writing a tribute to Karen Black, and this doesn't disappoint. Funny: last night was at a boozy screening of camp classic Mommie Dearest with friends, starring Black's exact contemporary Faye Dunaway -- another strange, wayward, fragile and intense actress who blurred distinctions between "good" and "bad" acting, when I got the text from my friend Kevin in New Orleans that Karen Black had died. It wasn't unexpected as her long illness was well documented. What an intense, totally original and idiosyncratic actress Black was. Like you argue, she was one of THE essential faces and presences of 1970s cinema.

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    1. I appreciate that, Graham. And what a wonderfully ideal way to hear the sad news of Black's passing. I agree and appreciate the connection you make between Dunaway and Black. I love especially how you describe them and the quality they shares that(terrific line): "blurred distinctions between 'good' and 'bad' acting."
      That's a pretty terrific tribute in and of itself. Thanks.

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  7. I immediately thought of you when I heard this sad news yesterday. This is as loving and as respectful a tribute as you'll read anywhere, and I know she'd appreciate it! I'm watching Airport '75 this weekend in her honor.

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    1. Thanks, Chris
      And here's a tip for watching "Airport 1975": don't play a drinking game wherein everybody takes a shot every time Charlton Heston calls Karen Black, "Honey"...you'll be drunk on your ass in the first hour. Also, don't play a similar game by taking a shot every time Gloria Swanson talks about herself. You'll be seeing pink elephants before that plane gets off the ground. :-)

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  8. I loved her in "Family Plot"-the Hitchcock Blonde who was so cool because she kept her hair in the freezer!

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    1. Now THAT is a delicious little detail I don't remember! Now I've got to revisit that film. What a terrific observation! :-)

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  9. I've been sharing the link to this on Facebook, by the way. Thought you might be interested in The Guardian's obituary.. It's the sensitive and appreciative obituary she merits. It praises her for her "woozy and unapologetic sexual energy" and gift for "conveying her characters' rich and troubled inner lives, their cramped or thwarted dreams." I especially loved reading Pauline Kael's assessment of Black's performance as the post-op transsexual in Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean.

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  10. This is a great, lyrical tribute to Black, too.

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    1. Those are some great links, Russell!Thanks for sharing them.
      It's nice to read so many thoughtful, articulate tributes.
      It if course is the nature of the beast that all this appreciation comes after her death, rather than when she was languishing in some of those questionable horror films and obscure indies far on the fringes of mainstream Hollywood. Still, its nice to read so many glowing comments about her. For the longest time I felt like a majority of one.
      And a really big thanks to you for sharing this link on FB. Much appreciated!

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  11. RIP to this lady. I think anyone who loves cinema was saddened by her death. Was she over-the-top in some of her work? Of course! And that's just one of the many things that endeared her to people. Still and all, a great actress, and to me, a great FACE. The beauty of individual faces is almost gone from movies now as we move toward a more homogenized, plastic surgeried countenance. Karen's face was everything. A true individual. The "Bette Davis of the '70s" line is perfect. And a high compliment that is most deserved.

    PS: For my friends and I, it is Trilogy of Terror that is most discussed around the watercooler. If you're a true child of the '70s, you can't forget it!

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    1. You're so right about the loss of original, distinctive beauty in faces today. Male and female have botoxed and face lifted themselves into the same, inoffensively bland visage.
      Your words are a great tribute to a great actress.
      And the movie that put Karen Black on the map among my schoolmates who heretofore never knew who I was talking about, was indeed, "Trilogy of Terror". As you say, unforgettable! Thanks!

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  12. A lovely and moving tribute, Ken. She certainly was one of the predominant faces of the '70s - and one of a kind. I haven't seen everything she did then or in more recent years, but I've always loved Day of the Locust.

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    1. Thanks very much, Eve. Yes, one of a kind pretty much covers it. She really left her mark.

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  13. Love all the different takes on Karen Black!
    As a child of the 70s, she indeed seemed everywhere...

    I always thought Black picked up where Shelley Winters left off in the 50s and early 60s, with that hyper emotional, kinda hot mess quality! Which in turn was picked up by Juliette Lewis in the 90s (who also looks a bit like Black!)

    Trivia: Does anyone remember Karen Black had a sister who acted? Don't remember her name, but she played good hearted floozy Clarice on the NBC soap Another World!

    I love this blog, fyi! Great work!

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    1. Hi Rico
      That's a wonderfully intriguing observation you make about Karen Black, Shelly Winters, and Juliette Lewis (who I always thought picked up the "All American Trollop" mantle from Black). I could easily have imagined a young Karen Black in a remake of "The Night of the Hunter" or "A Place in the Sun."
      And this is the first time I ever heard of Karen Black having a sister!
      Thank you very much for a terrific comment and your compliments!

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  14. Wonderful tribute, Ken!
    We don't have eccentric star actresses like this anymore and it is our loss.
    One of the best things about the movies of the 1960s and 1970s was that Hollywood finally starting using women who looked REAL - Sandy Dennis and Glenda Jackson and Karen Black and many others.
    I just caught up with "Born to Win" a few months ago and was delighted to see that Black was in it, delivering another strong performance (I wasn't so crazy about the movie).
    I once saw a still of Black in a pre-movie career Florida stage performance, playing the female lead in Arthur Miller's "After the Fall" and I just sat there thinking - Boy, I wish I could have seen that!
    Thank goodness the movie industry opened its doors to her so that we have so many performances captured on film.

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    1. Thanks Joe
      Yes, Much in the way that TV shows like "American Idol" promote a normalizing of pop talent that all sounds and looks the same (K.D. Lang once said she hates the show because, had it been around in the 60s, people like Bob Dylan or Joni Mitchell would have been voted off the first week); Holly wood embraces a bland sameness in its actors, and I agree...it's our loss.
      I only recently saw "Born to Win" as well, and loved her init. But Karen Black in "After the Fall"- I'm with you, I would have loved to have seen that.
      I like what you say, that we should be grateful Black came along at a time when Hollywood opened its doors to her and we're forever blessed with so many of her terrific performances.

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  15. Saddened to learn about the passing of Karen Black, a most prolific actress--according to IMDB, she amassed 194 titles to her credit! This doesn't even begin to count the number of stageplays in which she appeared. What a joy her life must have been, doing what she so obviously loved (and getting paid for it). Karen Black was, and is, truly blessed to have such loyal fans like yourself, Ken, and the others who have commented here, sharing the legacy of her work with fellow film fanatics--and how fortunate you were to meet her, Ken!

    (By the way, you're much more modest than I am, Ken--if I were in your dancing shoes, I definitely would've told Ms Karen Black about using her song as my audition music!)

    Last week I searched for anything on Karen Black around the local libraries. I know that one branch has a copy of a film called "Bad Manners", which I have on reservation (it's was at a library branch that was in the midst of moving to another location). The only other Karen Black DVD I could turn up was "Burnt Offerings", which I promptly borrowed and have just got arond to watching!(See my comments below your review of the film). Oh yes, "The Great Gatsby" (which I've seen before) is available through my local library group--but very hard to get a copy due to the recent remake and all these folks curious to see what the 1970s version is like!

    A great tribute, Ken--I know that I have a whole lot of Karen Black films to explore!

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    1. Hi Mark
      Thanks for the kind comments. Always a shame when someone gets really appreciated after they pass away. Whie alive, people keep looing to "what have you done lately?" - and Karen Black's roster of low buget sci-fi and horror doesn't tell the complete story. Now I read so many glowing articles about the legacy of great performances she left behind, and my mind goes to wondering why mainstream Hollywood found her so persona non grata after "The Day of the Locust."
      Even though a big fan of Karen Black, like you, I have a wealth of films of hers I have never seen. I look forward to it. Hope you enjoy the films you've unearthed, and thanks for writing a pretty nice tribute to the actress yourself.

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  16. I have been reading your blog for a bit now, and when I heard of her passing, this was one of the first places I checked - I knew there would be a great, lovingly rendered remembrance piece on her. I have always been a classic movie fan, but my focus has always been 40s and 50s movies. Thanks to your blog, I have a very long Netflix queue and library request list filled with Karen Black, Julie Christie, Shelley Duvall, etc.

    Colin

    PS - I would love to see a review of Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmie Dean Jimmie Dean. This was the first movie I ever saw her in (thanks to a late night with TCM) and was always greatly intrigued by her as an actress.

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    1. Ho Colin
      What a very nice comment. I feel honored if anything you've read on this blog inspired you to check out a film you might not otherwise have considered.
      As for Karen Black, I guess she was kind of MY movie star. She wasn't of my parent's era, and she wasn't of the Brat-Pack age. She came on the scene at the exact time i fell in love with movies and I fell in love with her. Her uniqueness spoke to my own adolescent angst.
      I guess she'll always be a fave, but I have loved reading about so many others who recall her fondly.

      And how terrific it is that you first saw her in "Come Back to the Five & Dime..."! That's a wonderful film I plan to one day review. In the meantime, perhaps you'll enjoy reading a great review of the film by a friend and fellow Karen Black fan:
      http://angelman.blogspot.com/2013/08/many-thanks-robert-altman-robert-altman.html

      Thanks so much. Your comment made my day!

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  17. It's not easy to add something of interest after so many informative reactions on Black...
    Except that I now might give 'Jimmy Dean' another chance. The movie bored me, overlong blah-blah. I hate theater plays to begin with; the teeth-rattling stomping on wooden floor planks, the too loud voices and over-clear dictions as if we audiences are deaf retards, the sensation that the actor or actress is looking straight at ME. It destroys the magic! So when stage plays are filmed, I have the idea that the theater smell still lingers...
    Fortunately I never had that feeling with 'Virginia Woolf'.

    But I admit, seeing Black is always a delight. I'm not attracted to her at all, and at the same time I'm mesmerized. Those eyes!
    In The Great Gatsby I saw her 'slight insanity' for the first time; when she breaks a window pane, stares at her bloody finger and puts it in her mouth like a child in shock. As a projectionist I saw that movie often and she impressed me every time.
    I read somewhere that Robert Redford also starred, but I may have missed him.

    The pulpy 'Invaders from Mars', omg... Karen looks like a caricature of a school marm, and yet she's the only completely normal, earthy and well acting human in the whole movie.
    Of 'Locust' I only remember her slapping Burgess Meredith and of course the finale scenes with Donald Sutherland's demise. Recently I watched that horrific segment again in YT, but the movie is simply another one I have to see all over again. I'm totally nuts about art deco anyway.

    Airport '75, OMG... Her role was a joke, and what did she do? She set her teeth into it and devoured it!
    'Honey', did Heston really say that all the time? I wouldn't be surprised if it was never in the script. Heston was such a jerk, the self proclaimed Mozes of Hollywood. His galley slave episode in Ben Hur; there he was in virile loincloth and juicy oil, and he didn't even have a well shaped body. His torso was too lumpy and his legs too spindley. Even I as an often odd dreaming 11 year old boy noticed that. Anthony Quinn in Barrabas; now HE was a hunk!

    Karen's hair... Save for some Roaring Twenty's wigs, it always seemed like it was a total mess when she arrived on the set and had to be glued in place with lots of hairspray. But in Airport '75 she was a ravishing sight, I've never seen hair flying about so sexy as when she is sitting in that windowless cockpit. I hoped that she would activate Heston's ejection seat and take her time with landing the damn plane, I wanted to look at her hair for hours on end!

    I feel sorry that she had to suffer so much in her final years. With Karen Black it also feels that the end came too soon.

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    1. Hey Willem
      a fine reflection on Karen black and what she has and hasn't meant to you over the years. I especially like your fascination with her hair in Airport '75! I was less savvy about wigs and such back then, but I thought she looked terrific and at the same time, not quite like herself. I tend to forget that those severe, Toni Tennile-like geometric cuts were the thing in the 70s. Now it looks odd, then she looked glamorous for the first time.
      I loathe looking at the skeletor-like visage of Charlton Heston so much that he nearly spoils the film for me. Like wise the deliciously loopy Earthquake. Heston...he just never did it for me.
      Should you ever get around to watching Jimmy Dean again, let me know what you think. It's a fave of mine.
      By the way, I love your description of that glass breaking scene in Gatsby. her performance in that has grown on me.

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