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.
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.
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.
Click on the title links below to read my posts about these unforgettable Karen Black films: