Saturday, August 31, 2013

GOSFORD PARK 2001

Adapting Robert Altman’s trademark, multi-character, freeform narrative style to the formalized structure of a classic Agatha Christie murder mystery is such an inspired concept, I’m rather surprised it took until nearly the end of Altman’s 50-plus years in film for someone to think of it. But after tackling musicals (Popeye), westerns (McCabe & Mrs. Miller), farce (Beyond Therapy), romantic comedy (A Perfect Couple), film noir (The Long Goodbye), the psychological thriller (Images), and satire (The Player); a good, old-fashioned whodunit was just about the only genre left for one of the more resilient and versatile filmmakers to come out of the New Hollywood.
Robert Altman has been one of my favorite directors since first discovering him in the early 1970s. But following the rather (for me) dismal back-to-back entries of Cookie’s Fortune (1999) and Dr. T and the Women (2000), I really thought Altman had gone the way of that other '70s favorite, Peter Bogdanovich; i.e., dried-up creatively, his best work behind him. I was wrong. Like Roman Polanski, Woody Allen, and Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman proved himself to be one of those directors capable of delivering surprisingly fresh and innovative work well into their seventies. Indeed, at the ripe old age of 75, Altman’s Gosford Park revealed the director in his finest form since 3 Women (1977), delivering not only one of his most solid and fully realized films, but his biggest boxoffice hit since M.A.S.H. (1970).
Maggie Smith as Lady Constance Trentham
Clive Owen as Robert Parks
Kristen Scott Thomas as Lady Sylvia McCordle
Jeremy Northam as Ivor Novello
With Gosford Park, the collaborative efforts of Robert Altman, producer Bob Balaban, and screenwriter Julian Fellowes combined to create a marvelously layered re-creation of a traditional English-style crime mystery with a decidedly Altman-esque twist. The twist being that the mystery—a murder taking place during a weekend shooting party at English country estate in 1932— is not seen from the point of view of the aristocratic set of relatives and guests, but rather, from the perspective of the servant class, below stairs. It’s a simple yet ingenious device allowing for the filmmakers to cleverly intermingle the crosscutting stories of some 35 characters while making shrewd observations on everything from the class system, changing times, sexual mores, social conventions, personal relationships, and cultural differences.
Helen Mirren as Mrs. Wilson
Alan Bates as Jennings
Emily Watson as Elsie
Kelly Macdonald as Mary Maceachran
In detailing a strained weekend in the country in which virtually all in attendance have something to hide or something they’re after, Altman’s legendary virtuosity behind the camera serves the misleadingly conventional setup exceptionally well. In fact, not since Nashville has Altman’s celebrated “bag of tricks” (overlapping dialogue, peripheral activity, cross-cutting storylines, ensemble cast of  characters harboring secrets) seemed so organic to the material. Ostensibly hemmed in by the rigid constraints of the religiously adhered-to rules of the British social class structure, Altman actually comes off as more liberated than ever. There’s something in Julian Fellowes’ (Downton Abbey) surprisingly witty, culturally-perceptive script that presses most of Robert Altman’s best qualities to the forefront (I can’t think of a single director capable of getting us to keep track of, let alone care about, so many characters), while suppressing a great many of his weaknesses (the English locale spares us Altman’s fondness for the easy laugh of hayseed southern accents).
Michael Gambon as William McCordle
Eileen Atkins as Mrs. Croft
Bob Balaban as Morris Weissman
I saw Gosford Park when it opened in 2001, and, clocking in at a little over two hours, it's a film I was nevertheless sorry to see come to an end (a problem happily remedied by the DVD which contains loads of deleted scenes!). In a world where I find myself feeling grateful if the film I'm watching at least chooses to rely on smart clich├ęs instead of stupid ones; Gosford Park is an endangered species: a film that feels like it's shedding the rote and predictable with the introduction of each new character. Somehow, while still adhering to the genre conventions of an Agatha Christie crime drama (or, as is referenced in the film itself, a Charlie Chan thriller) Gosford Park manages to confound expectations. The comedy is sharp, the drama is well-played and frequently moving, the characters are dimensional, the mystery element engrossing, and its subthemes on class distinctions are poignant and eye-opening.
Of course, the biggest surprise of all is that after all these years, Altman is in the best form of his career.
A particular favorite of mine is Camilla Rutherford as Isabel McCordle.  She and Mabel Nesbitt are characters with story arcs I'd describe as classically Altman-esque.


WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
Perhaps the right word here is “grateful.” What I’m grateful for about Gosford Park is the depth of its intricacy. It's an entertaining film that breezes along, providing both character-based humor and genuinely affecting dramatic moments, yet Gosford Park has a great deal more on its mind than just providing a solid mystery and a houseful of suspects. It's a very smart, observant look at the kinds of surface behaviors and rituals that people engage in order to mask who and what they really are. And all this is layered atop a social satire and comedy of manners contrasting self-imposed hierarchies of status against those that are socially-imposed. It's a film just brilliant in it's complexity, chiefly because all of these layers play out subtly beneath an outrageously entertaining mystery that is fun to watch in and of itself.
From every conceivable angle Gosford Park is a marvel of logistics. So many stories to tell, so many characters, so much information to impart...and yet, the film feels light and effortless. That Altman is able to deliver to us so many interesting characters in so brief a time is a skill he has demonstrated several times before; his being able to do so while simultaneously enlightening us as to the myriad duties and rituals that go into the running of an English manor house is something else again.
Gosford Park is a great film for repeat viewings. It's staggering the amount of subtle details one misses when first just trying to figure out "whodunit." The interwoven lives of all the characters become much clearer.
For me, it's such a delight to see a film that asks something of you. That requires your attention, mental involvement, and active participation in following along and picking up on all the pieces provided. It’s great not to have everything spelled out for you, or to have a camera continually directing your gaze towards where you should be looking and why. Gosford Park assumes an alertness from its audience and rewards you with a story that pays off as terribly sharp mystery, crisp comedy, taut character drama, and biting social commentary.
Stephen Fry as Inspector Thompson

PERFORMANCES
The nearly all-British cast assembled for Gosford Park is an eye-popper (Knights! Dames! The inexplicable presence of Ryan Phillippe!), a fact made all the more impressive by having some of the most distinguished actors  democratically blended and divided between the upstairs and downstairs characters. Dame Maggie Smith steals scenes and looks quite at home as the snobbish  dowager Countess (a role that is essentially a dry-run for the one she would assume 9 years later in Downton Abbey); but it's great fun seeing Sir Alan Bates as the butler of the household, silently occupying scenes like an overqualified extra; or Dame Helen Mirren, makeup-less and relegated to below stairs quarters. And as Gosford Park is a murder mystery, such egalitarian casting works much to the film's benefit, as it is impossible to play the "billing" game here - attempting to guess the victims and guilty parties based on star rank.
Geraldine Sommerville as Louisa Stockbridge (younger sister of Lady Sylvia)
Altman films have a reputation for being well-cast, and Gosford Park is no exception. As was the case with A Wedding, Altman makes it easier for us to tell who's-who by casting actors who look as if they could plausibly be related

The performances in Gosford Park are so uniformly excellent that it's both pointless and futile to try to single out a particular actor. I confess to finding Ryan Phillippe to be the weakest link, although even in this instance his blank screen persona works well within the film's context. Nor am I too fond of Stephen Fry's Inspector Thom...(above stairs, no one lets him complete his introduction), which feels like another of Altman's risky forays into needlessly broad farce (think Opal in Nashville). Certainly individual characters and their storylines stand out more than others, but if you're like me, you'll wind up having a different "favorite" each time you view the film.
Claudie Blakley as Mabel Nesbitt, serenaded by Ivor Novello

THE STUFF OF FANTASY
There's no escaping the feeling when watching Gosford Park, that one is watching the most elegant, life-sized game of CLUE ever! The insular, bygone world depicted is meticulously recreated in the seamless blending of locations and sets, outrageously gorgeous clothing, and an attention to period detail in makeup and hairstyles that fittingly recall the very sort of films from Britain's past that Gosford Park pays homage to.
Derk Jacobi as Probert, Sir William's valet
All this lavish period-detail fetishism would be off-putting were it not used in service of dramatizing the huge difference in the lives of the "haves" and "have-nots" of Gosford Park. And this is precisely why Robert Altman has always remained one of my all-time favorites; for while the average director would be content to have us ooh and ahh over the jewels, gowns, and luxury of the life depicted, Altman matches every loving close-up and perfectly framed shot of upstairs opulence with a similar shot in the tight and privacy-free servant's quarters. He never preaches or tells us what we should feel about it all, but unlike, say, the inappropriately worshipful depiction of wealth in 1974s The Great Gatsby, Gosford Park captures it all, but with a conscience.


THE STUFF OF DREAMS
Gosford Park ranks among my top five favorite Robert Altman films. I’m also an avid Downton Abbey fan...a fact that really intrigues me. Not only about myself but about America. American audiences aren’t known for taking British culture to its bosom, but Julian Fellowes’ tales of servants and the social classes seem to have struck a chord with us.
Speaking for myself, I suspect there is something about the distancing effect and “otherness” of British society class struggles that allows me to be entertained by them in ways unthinkable were these tales told about contemporary wealthy American households with maids, nannies and the like. Here in the U.S. we still have yet to come to terms with our own race-based class systems.
Our films and audiences have no trouble humanizing the downtrodden and their plight if they are white; but so much guilt is attached to our ugly slavery/Jim Crow history that Hollywood tends to mostly greenlight movies in which black characters in servitude exist to reassure white audiences or provide them with white "hero" characters who rescue the oppressed from the very racist social structures they created.
No, as far as America is concerned it can take a Downton Abbey to its bosom because it is infinitely easier for us to culturally process stories which feature white characters both above and below stairs. A lot of uncomfortable subtext is avoided. In my own experience, I can can attest to there definitely being a distancing issue here that make Downton and Gosford suitably escapist.
Gosford Park boasts a beautiful musical score
There's an absolutely charming sequence where we're shown the servants hiding in the shadows to listen to the music coming from the drawing room. Ironically, the aristocracy is bored by it, while the lower classes, prohibited from being seen listening to it, are transported by it. 

Were there to ever be a film about slavery in America (or even the recent past of the Jim Crow era or the 1960s) in which slaves or victims of systemic racism are depicted not as they usually are (as a social issue), but as fleshed-out, fully-realized characters with the same level of dimensional humanity as the servants of Gosford Park or Downton Abbey – varied, unique individuals granted their resentments and temperaments, people with their own hopes, personalities, and emotional agonies derived from their life circumstances – I'm pretty sure my heart would never stop breaking.

Copyright © Ken Anderson

Thursday, August 22, 2013

FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION 2006

Although I like to think of myself as having a good sense of humor, I’m afraid I’m not what you might call an “easy laugher.” (My partner would beg to differ. Given my fondness for Peter Sellers, Benny Hill, and particularly Don Adams; I think he ranks my funnybone somewhere in the “easily-amused, lowbrow laugh-whore” zone.)

But be that as it may, I just don’t happen to find many motion picture comedies to be particularly funny. This is especially true of contemporary comedies, a great many of which seem little more than 5-minute skits painfully dragged out to feature-film length. My face turns to stone at just the mention of the names Adam Sandler, Kevin James, Tim Allen, Rob Schneider, or Vince Vaughn; each of whose films (of which I’ve mercifully experienced but a smattering) feels like an eternity spent in the frathouse kegger from hell.
Looking over my DVD collection, I note that a preponderance of what I consider to be my favorite comedies are actually of the unintentional variety: Showgirls, Mommie Dearest, The Oscar, The Poseidon Adventure. But also represented are the '70s comedies of Mel Brooks; Peter Bogdanovich’s What’s Up, Doc? and Paper Moon; the counterculture black comedies of John Waters and Paul Morrissey/Andy Warhol; and, although I haven’t found Woody Allen to be particularly funny since Manhattan Murder Mystery and Bullets over Broadway, I can’t deny that I own virtually all of his early, Diane Keaton-era films.
Jane Lynch and Fred Willard do a terrifyingly spot-on send-up of those vapidly cheerful, vacant-eyed hosts we've all seen on Hollywood news magazine programs like Entertainment Tonight and Access Hollywood.

These days, I find television to be the most satisfying and consistent source of comedy. Or, more accurately, the whole TV/Internet/DVD connection. From the brilliant The Larry Sanders Show to Arrested Development, Lisa Kudrow’s Web Therapy and The Comeback, Parks & Recreation, Ricky Gervais’ The Office and Extras, and Louis C.K.’s Louie…the comedy stuff being made for television nowadays (owing, perhaps, to the briefer format) is head and shoulders above what’s being done in film.
The sole exceptions to the above-stated criticism leveled at motion pictures are the (all-too infrequent) ensemble comedies of Christopher Guest, Eugene Levy & Co. This is Spinal Tap, Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show, A Mighty Wind, and my personal favorite, For Your Consideration, rank, in my estimation, among the best American comedies ever made. 
Catherine O'Hara as Marilyn Hack:  32-year veteran actress
Harry Shearer as Victor Allan Miller: 40-years in the business, still works for scale
Eugene Levy as Morley Orfkin: Worst Agent in the World
Parker Posey as Callie Webb: "I don't act for trophies."
Christopher Guest as Jay Berman: Alleged Film Director

Ascribable perhaps to its departure from the usual “mockumentary” format they’re known for, For Your Consideration is regarded by some devotees of the Guest/Levy films to be one of their weaker efforts. For me, it's the total opposite. While I wouldn't go so far as to insist any of these films is better than the other (each manages to be uproarious in its own unique way), I can say that due to its satirical targets being topics near and dear to my heart (movies, Hollywood, The Academy Awards, fame culture), For Your Consideration is the film I relate to the most. I get all the inside jokes, I understand the characters, I recognize the absurd world depicted. For Your Consideration achieves the impossible in creating a flawless and riotously funny satire of an industry that increasingly teeters on the brink  of becoming a satire of itself.
John Michael Higgins as Corey Taft (alias Jo-Jo): Movie Publicist
For Your Consideration tells the story of what happens when three otherwise rational actors in an inconsequential little independent film allow themselves to get swept up in the frenzy surrounding the self-propigating hype of the Academy Awards. Following Christopher Guest’s usual mode of commenting on the large by focusing on the small; Hollywood and the film industry is savagely lampooned when we're allowed behind the scenes in the making of Home for Purim— a by-all-appearances dreadful family drama (think Lifetime or Hallmark Channel caliber) in the southern gothic tradition of Eugene O’Neill. Minus the talent. 
The amusingly overwrought Home for Purim chronicles the domestic travails surrounding a family reunion in the Pisher household in 1940s Georgia (pisher being Yiddish slang for just what it sounds like…pisser). From its team of hack writers, dedicated cast of never-quite-made-its, and barely-up-to-the-task production crew, Home for Purim is journeyman filmmaking in every department. But because it's an independent feature, cast and crew indulge themselves in the delusion that what they are making is art.
Once The Academy starts knocking, principles and pretensions are put to the test. In depicting the many (hilarious) ways in which Hollywood types are willing to quickly sell out when fame and fortune comes calling makes For Your Consideration a laugh-a-minute look at a world where high-flown pretensions of “art”commingle uneasily with standard-operational workday mediocrity.
Bob Balaban (I love that guy) as Phillip Koontz (not Kuntz) and Michael McKean as Lane Iverson.
The conjointly-disregarded writers of  Home for Purim

As was the case with the delusional regional theater thespians of Waiting for Guffman, For Your Consideration mines its (occasionally poignant) comedy from the big-time dreams and ambitions of the talent-challenged. But since it takes place in Hollywood, the absurdity ante is considerably upped, because, as we all know, being absolutely terrible at one’s job has never been an obstacle to success in the movie business. Hope springs eternal in an industry where individuals of no discernible talent (Kristen Stewart, Vin Diesel) can rake in the millions, or truly abominable, full-on crap directors like Michael Bay and Dennis Dugan (IMDB him, if you dare) never cease to be employed.
Wake Up, L.A.!
For Your Consideration's television spoofs are so off-the-chart deranged, they don't look like spoofs at all.
For Your Consideration shows what happens when career actors for whom working in the movies has always meant earning a living and not being on the A-List, are given a last-gasp shot at a ride on the red carpet of fame.

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
Hollywood satires are as old as the industry itself (the 1937 Leslie Howard comedy Stand-In is a good example). But too often they’re either kid-gloved jabs at the easy targets of greed, egomania, and artifice (i.e., Jerry Lewis’ The Patsy, Walter Matthau’s Movers and Shakers, Mel Brooks’ Silent Movie, Singin’ in the Rain); or embittered, not-very-funny, revenge-fueled vendettas by tarnished Golden Boys no longer at the top of the heap (Blake Edwards’ S.O.B., Joe Eszterhas’ Burn, Hollywood, Burn). The flaw of the former is the toothlessness of the satire; the flaw of the latter: the convenient way the filmmakers tend to posit their onscreen surrogates as the principled victims of a morally corrupt industry (an industry you sense they'd sell their mother for to get a chance to again be a major player in).
Jennifer Coolidge as producer Whitney Taylor Brown & Jordan Black as production assistant Lincoln.
Not a functioning brain cell between them. 

In the end, the biggest lie of these satires is their being rooted in the questionable notion that somehow the movie industry is this monolith of empty values and avarice operating independently of the individuals it employs. If the movie industry is creepy, it's because of the Brett Ratners and Charlie Sheens it attracts, not its profit-based corporate structure.

Where For Your Consideration shines (and why I find it so hilarious) is that it presents Hollywood as an industry that is only as empty-headed and superficial as the people who seek to make their living in it. The humor comes out of the character flaws of individuals who willingly subject themselves to its rejections and petty humiliations; who delude and flatter themselves that they are absolutely NOT a part of the system; and who, pitiably, are so fueled by longing and vulnerable to temptation that they readily sell out every last principle and ideal they have when an opportunity for fame and fortune presents itself.

 For Your Consideration finds both the humor and humanity in people of unexceptional gifts harboring the dream of being extraordinary.
There's not a movie made that couldn't be made better with the casting of Parker Posey.
Rachael Harris as Debbie Gilchrist: "Dying is easy. Playing a lesbian is hard!"

PERFORMANCES
As is always the case with Christopher Guest’s ensemble comedies, the entire cast is absolutely brilliant, making it impossible to point out one favored bit without leaving out a dozen more. Suffice it to say there’s not a single character in the film I wouldn't have enjoyed seeing more of. Even after multiple viewings, I keep catching new bits of business and finding more layers in the marvelously comic characterizations. They are all just great.
Ensemble members Rachael Harris, Ed-Begley, Jim-Pidddock, and Deborah-Theaker 

Of course, special mention must be made of Catherine O’Hara, who just shines as Marilyn Hack. Her performance here is doubly notable because it inspired real life to imitate art (O'Hara garnered considerable Academy buzz for the film. A buzz that never materialized in an Oscar nod). 
There’s no way that I can watch her sympathetic portrayal of an actress who so humiliatingly loses her grip at the thought of being nominated for an Oscar without thinking of Sally Kirkland. For those unfamiliar with the name, Sally Kirkland is an actress who’d been appearing in films since the 60s without making much of an impact when, in 1987, a Best Actress Oscar nomination for Anna, thrust her into the limelight. And she ran with it.
Serious Actress                                      Movie  Star
Catherine O'Hara's transformation from dedicated professional to potential Oscar-nominee is nothing short of chilling in perfectly capturing that "perpetually startled"  look of the face-lift set. Amazingly, there are no special makeup effects involved. She's just using her facial muscles! 

Determined to reverse decades of obscurity, Kirkland (who in Anna beautifully portrayed an unglamorous, middle-aged stage actress) launched herself into an exhaustive campaign of self-promotion memorable for its shamelessness. Almost unrecognizably glammed-out, wearing perilously short skirts that enhanced her always-on-display, recently-enhanced breasts; the 46-year-old veteran actress carried on like a giggly starlet on a string of nighttime talk showsmost frequently The Arsenio Hall Show. A sad coda to her tale is while she continues to work in films, her Oscar nomination never did result in stardom. In addition, Kirkland suffered so many serious health issues as a result of her breast implants that she had to have them removed and later became an advocate for the banning of the surgical procedure.
Don Lake & Michael Hitchcock as the squabbling Siskel/Ebert-like TV film critics

THE STUFF OF FANTASY
A few of my favorite bits of dialogue.

Victor Allen Miller: "It’s just a bit silly about the Oscar stuff, don’t you think?"
Sandy Lane : Silly? It’s the Backbone of this industry!"
Victor Allen Miller: "An industry noted for not having a backbone."

Corey Taft: “In every actor there lives a tiger, a pig, an ass, and a nightingale. You never know which one’s going to show up.”

Simon Whitset (cameraman): "Do you know how tight my aperture is right now? Have you any idea?”
Jay Berman (director): “If you’re being a smart-ass, you know what I'm gonna do? I’m gonna put you across my knee.”
Variety Headlines
Pointing Guy Scores Big  / "Let's Shoot The Puppy" Gets Axed: Studio Pulls Plug
Lane Iverson: “You can't throw the baby out with the bathwater because then all you have is a wet, critically injured baby. And I don’t think that’s what you want to put your name on.”

Debbie Gilchrest: "I feel like it's ambiguous. I don't think it's clear that I'm gay. I mean, I got the look, but I think that we're pussyfooting around the subject."
Brian Chubb: "That made you sound gay..."
Sandra Oh & Richard Kind as the marketing directors for Home For Purim

THE STUFF OF DREAMS
Christopher Guest and Eugene Levy make comedies about dreamers, and as such, their humor always has a touch of wistfulness to it. Being a huge film fan and a dreamer myself, perhaps that's why For Your Consideration is my favorite of their films. Or maybe it's just that I get a kick out of a movie that takes a bit of the air out of the kind of people who go around saying things like: "It's all about the work," "It's important to hone one's craft," or refer to their voices and bodies as "My instrument." 
Copyright © Ken Anderson

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: