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.
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.
Rest in peace.