Spunky, leggy Karen Black was one of an exciting band of sharp and gutsy broads to storm the New Hollywood of the Seventies. Her casting as an acid-dropping hooker in Easy Rider (1969) launched her on a trip through some of the best cinema of the next decade, although sadly the quality of her films dipped in later years. “People were opting for the real in the Seventies. People wanted to see the human heart and soul right in front of them,” she once remarked.
Always snappy on camera, her close-set eyes and occasionally manic energy made her a whiz at playing neurotics and straight-talkers. Whether brash or vulnerable, she was always arresting, and frequently bewitching. “In my early television work I used to get distressed at this sweetness that was coming through on the screen,” she once commented. Although her early Hollywood career allowed her to explore a tougher range of emotions, as she matured she realised that “in fact, never mind people killing each other, what really has the most impact on the screen isn’t aggression, it’s a look of love between two people.”
She was born in 1939 into a creative family in the Chicago suburbs: her mother Elsie was an award-winning writer of socially aware children’s books, while her paternal grandfather Arthur was first violinist in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and a noted musicologist. She inherited obvious gifts from both sides of the family: she was nominated for a Grammy for her contributions to the score of Nashville (1975) while her linguistic smartness not only led her to write four screenplays, but also taught Hitchcock not to underestimate her when he directed her in Family Plot (1976). “You seem very perspicacious today Miss Black,” he remarked on set. “Oh, you mean keenly perceptive?” she retorted.
She left school at 15 and spent two years at Northwestern University before studying in New York under Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio (acquiring the name Black along the way from her first marriage). She made her Broadway debut triple-understudying in the comedy Take Her, She’s Mine in 1961 at the Biltmore Theatre. She was already clocking up screen credits by the time of her first big splash on the stage, in Mary Drayton’s queasy thriller The Playroom (1965). Unfolding like a frightening re-imagining of The Parent Trap, the play was hardly festive cheer, and its quixotic December opening did for it, though Black wowed the critics as the sadistic teenager who cajoles her siblings into kidnapping their new stepsister as revenge for their father’s remarriage.
The camera loved her more than she loved the stage however, and she started as she meant to go on in Francis Ford Coppola’s $800,000 master’s thesis at UCLA Film School, You’re a Big Boy Now (1965). The spirited saga of the sexual initiation of a wide-eyed innocent was rather unlucky in winning a cinema release but then being delayed until after The Graduate had appeared and stolen its thunder. All the same, it got Black noticed, and after plenty of practice in television series came Easy Rider.
Her look and her style were now in (countercultural) fashion, and she certainly made hay while the sun shone. Off the back of Easy Rider came another road movie, Bob Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces (1970), reuniting her with Jack Nicholson. Black was nominated for a best supporting actress Oscar for her affecting performance as Rayette, an uncomplicated, daydreaming waitress picked up and tossed aside by Nicholson’s dropout, at one point confessing to him: “I’ll go out with you, or I’ll stay in with you, or I’ll do anything that you’d like for me to do if you would tell me that you loved me.”
She was easily the best thing in Ernest Lehman’s botched attempt at Philip Roth’s naughty novel Portnoy’s Complaint (1972), playing the nimble and nubile Monkey, was a vivid Myrtle Wilson in The Great Gatsby (1974), a performance which won her a Golden Globe, and an eerie and seductive starlet in John Schlesinger’s Day of the Locust (1975), purring “you’re very kind and clever, but I could only ever let a really rich man love me.”
She satisfied her curiosity at playing a “dyed-in-the-wool, straight-laced heroine” in Airport (1975), but even in mainstream fare she was refreshingly quirky. The hugely enjoyable Capricorn One (1978) cast her as a steely reporter hotly pursued by an inept Elliott Gould. Director Peter Hyams fabulously exploited those scene-stealing eyes in a two shot as Gould sits beside her, rendered foolish by lust. Black stares straight in our direction throughout, her eyes pained and perplexed. When Gould gives up with “I’m glad I’m not like you” she finishes him off with “I have better legs.”
Working with Robert Altman on Nashville (1975) meant taking naturalism to new heights, as he allowed his cast a freedom she had never experienced before, improvising and even writing her own songs. A satire on the country-and-western music industry, it was everything that was great about the new style and also one of the final examples of it; Jaws (1975) was about to usher in the age of the blockbuster.
Black never stopped working, but the pace slowed, something she attributed in part to her own decisions. In 1974 she appeared in a well-remembered portmanteau horror film, Trilogy of Terror, in which she played lead roles in all three segments, most memorably as a woman menaced by a fetish doll. This was followed by Burnt Offerings (1976) and a dozen more horror films. She was a reluctant scream queen, but in her mind the label stuck. “My career was derailed,” she said.
In truth Black was, like so many other bold, earthy and unconventional actresses, someone Hollywood was rarely sure what to do with. Thankfully one decade when they did has left us with a dazzling list of fine films she never failed to deliver the goods in.
Karen Blanche Ziegler, actress, writer, singer-songwriter: born Park Ridge, Illinois, 1 July 1939; married four times, thrice dissolved, married Stephen Eckelberry 1987 (one son, one daughter); died Santa Monica, California 8 August 2013