R.I.P. Karen Black

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And …..

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She helped define for me what good acting was, what good acting looked like. I remember when I found out that she had written the songs she performed in Nashville. The whole cast wrote their own songs. I think I was in college when this information came down to me, and I was studying acting, and it just made me think about process/imagination/guts in a whole new way. It was a revelation. A reminder that acting is not a passive process. It is active. (One of my great acting teachers at the Actors Studio used to say, “Remember that the name of the job is ACT-or. It’s not FEEL-er.” Ha.) Karen Black is so good in Nashville, and that was her own active creation. Altman encouraged it, pushed for it, let her go. Like I said, it made me think about acting in a whole new way. She is in a couple of my favorite movies ever made. And while Trilogy of Terror is not on that list, she is terrifying in it, and that was another movie that helped ruin my childhood. The premise sounds so stupid, doesn’t it? But it scares the shit out of me. Only in the 1970s could she have gotten the roles that she did, found herself at the top of the casting-list of the great directors of the day. This is a critique of how Hollywood normally operates. She was never less than totally interesting, her unique face eloquent and mysterious at the same time.

Time to pop in Five Easy Pieces, Nashville, Burnt Offerings, Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean. But maybe not Trilogy of Terror. That thing still gives me nightmares.

And don’t miss my friend Dan Callahan’s wonderful obituary.

Dan writes:

If that period in American film was storied and liberated and golden, it might be said that Black was the “what the hell?” emblem of the American New Wave, its most extreme, improvisational player, its most unusual, unaccountable, unstable presence.

Yes.

Rest in peace.

Karen Black

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8 Responses to R.I.P. Karen Black

  1. Kent says:

    She defined femininity in the late ’60s and ’70s, a living example of possibility and beauty. I was SO young, pre-hormonal and almost totally ignorant of the tension between men and women when I first saw her in Easy Rider. Somehow, I grasped the possibility of her presence, that perhaps in the future I might, could possibly… just maybe, meet a messed up girl tripping at the Mardi Gras, and if I was lucky it would be someone who could be the thrill of a lifetime, like Karen Black. It was not the fantasy of this scenario that was exciting to young ignorant me, it was just the previously unknown possibility that she represented. The discovery and actual knowledge of the character she embodied was a system overload all on its own.

    In time, I would come to realize what a naturally fine actress she was through the versatility of the roles she embodied. Even later, that her personal presence was almost totally unlike her characters. In every way, she was a revelation. She was also a very great star, blessed and richly talented, her work a forever joy to discover.

  2. Thanks for the link to Dan’s piece. I always thought she was one of the lost treasures who didn’t get to work nearly enough at the level she was capable of (though, of course, we should always be grateful for what we do have)….One of the mainstream obits I read actually said she “wasn’t conventionally attractive.” Gee, I’d like for somebody to look at the pix here and at the link and then point me to some convention where she ain’t “attractive.” False narratives give me ulcers sometimes!

    • sheila says:

      Oh yes. Ignore the false narratives!

      Like Norma Shearer, she had a cast in one of her eyes, which made them uneven. Symmetry is rare in human beings anyway – people always have “good sides”, “bad sides”.

      It’s hard to picture her being a movie star in the 50s – or, conversely – the 90s. She happened to come up at the perfect time, and was surrounded by people who recognized her gifts. She got leading roles, not just wacky character parts. Thank goodness. I need to re-watch NASHVILLE. One of my favorite movies ever!

  3. Steven O says:

    I connected to her onscreen so strongly. She oozed vulnerability. Even as a jewel thief in Family Plot (remember the forgotten trope of the jewel thief?), she gave that character an unspoken depth — a nervous energy. I remember her wonderful turn in a small film, Red Dirt, as an ailing Southern aunt. It was like she stepped out of a Tennessee Williams play; it made me wish she could have played Blanche Dubois. Can you imagine?

    She was one of the greats.

    • sheila says:

      She would have been amazing in Tennessee Williams. She was brave, bold, and imaginative. A big kid, playing make-believe. I think that’s why she seemed so authentic onscreen.

  4. Ana Roland says:

    I had the pleasure of meeting her at the Texas Frightmare convention. Those eyes were mesmerizing! I loved her in Gatsby.

    • sheila says:

      // Texas Frightmare convention //

      How fun!! I’m envious. I’m assuming they showed Trilogy of Terror at some point?

      I love her face.

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