Friday, July 01, 2016

The Voluptuous Pathos of Karen Black

When Karen Black first saunters onto screen in Easy Rider (1969), playing a prostitute hired to give an evening's pleasure to the drug-dealing hippies played by Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda, she brings with her an intelligent wariness that immediately enriches the movie's emotional texture. She's paired with Toni Basil, and the two actresses make a striking contrast, Basil clearly playing the more experienced, hipper of the pair. Where Basil immediately settles down next to Fonda with an air of weary bemusement, Black keeps her distance from her prospective john, her entire body held in a defensive, slightly adversarial posture. Even when she sits down with Hopper and makes inelegant small talk, she makes her character's anxiety palpable, moving her foot up and down in a neurotic gesture that signals she's trying and failing to get a bead on the spastic long-hair. Black's only in the movie for about ten minutes, in a scene that culminates with an acid freakout in a graveyard, but in those minutes, she's more revealing and vulnerable than either the taciturn Fonda or the buffoonish Hopper are for the whole movie– both men remain, by design, archetypes with no past and no future, while Black writes her character's entire biography with a nervous smile and big, wide, sad eyes that remain ever alert to the menace and generosity of strange men lurking in stranger places.


Karen Black was the right actress for the wrong time, a distressingly real, jittery performer who expressed the pathos of being a woman with a larger-than-life personality in a series of movies that were mostly about the bleak romance of male angst and its inevitable causalities. The great 70s cinema of the movie brat generation represented, among other things, a masculinaztion of American movies - a decisive shift away from the Susan Hayward vehicles and Sirkian melodramas that had been the bread and butter of studio filmmaking during the classical era in favor of cinema largely about men's power and the often cataclysmic consequences of their desires. Great, charismatic, terrifically idiosyncratic actresses were too often reduced to taking the role of the dutiful wife, the girlfriend, the sexpot, etc. With her big, frizzy hair; big, bee-stung lips; and big, sad, slightly-crossed eyes, Black fit the broken bombshell mode all too well, and her career path epitomized the limitations the era placed upon actresses, but even if she remained largely marginalized, she never went unnoticed – she was too weird and seductively unsettling for that. Black had a way of creating space and meaning for the casualties of the new man's world of 1970s cinema, making audiences uncomfortably aware of the dangers of the masculine bombast and swagger that underscored the best American movies of the era.

She had the method actor's habit of theatricalizing anxiety and fantasy into a parade of tell-tale nervous tics, extemporaneous gestures that made the audience hyper-aware of her body and the fears it concealed. She also had the gift of making such inherently expressionist effects read as bracingly natural, the signs of a mind that had known travesty and grace first-hand and far beyond anything stated in the words of the script or the images on screen. This talent made her an unstable screen presence, someone who could bring a measure of balance to excessively macho movies or correct points of view that would have otherwise been chauvinistically one-sided, so that anyone who watches her instead of Jack Nicholson in Bob Rafelson's Five Easy Pieces (1970) may find it hard to imagine how the movie could ever be misread, as it commonly is (thanks largely to the oft-excerpted-out-of-context diner scene), as a celebration of Nicholson's punk rebel persona. The first time we see her in the movie, perched on a sink, dressed in a short-skirted pink waitress outfit and putting on too much eye-liner, she's already playing the sexpot as a self-conscious way of attaining leverage over a man she regards with a mixture of awe and terror. Those big, accented eyes register every offense and wounding remark, letting the audience see that whatever her character lacks in the way of her paramour's education, she more that makes up for in her appreciation of concealed intentions and feelings. She's simultaneously a reminder that Nicholson's character is a lout and the main reason we stick with him and root for him until the end – we sense some latent integrity in him largely because Black plays everything in reaction to Nicholson's bravado, and her sensitivity to his rhythms and postures humanizes his performance, creating a sympathetic context for a turn that otherwise tends toward isolated (though impressive) grandstanding.

In a blissfully efficient genre effort like The Outfit (1973), Black created an impression of an ongoing human catastrophe that renders the cartoon violence that permeates the picture into something lethal, giving weight and darkness to a movie that might have otherwise floated away into gun-toting whimsy. Not that she couldn't have fun with her roles, as proven by her turn in Hitchcock's final film, Family Plot (1976), where she takes to the femme fatale role with a disarming camp enthusiasm. And she's one of the many performers in Altman's “Nashville” who brings a feeling of palpable desperation to her performance, taking seriously the values of a musical culture that the movie risks treating as mere shtick.

Her last appearance in a film that evoked the real weird American splendor of the best movies of New American Cinema came in Robert Altman's blatantly theatrical Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1982) (in an exclusively female-centered film from one of the few superstar 70s directors to demonstrate a sustained interest in the inner-lives of women), in which she played a transgender woman who returns, after a 20 year absence, to the small Texas town that once ostracized her. Black attacked the role with a mixture of anxiety and delighted self-possession, giving integrity and feeling to conceits that otherwise threaten to come across as too facile and contrived. It's a satisfying and surprising coda to a decade mostly spent embodying feminine angst at its most dazzled and desperate.

Her big spotlight moment, however, came not in the movies, but in a detour to television, in Dan Curtis's crudely effective horror anthology shocker, Trilogy of Terror (1975), a ham-fistedly directed collection of Richard Matheson adaptations, featuring Karen Black in four different roles, that makes an impression thanks both to the elemental strength of the source material and to Black's myriad evocations of gleefully malevolent and neurotic femininity. In the most famous segment, Black battles for her life against a Zuni Fetish Doll, and while neither Curtis nor the special-effects team give her any help in making that threat appear credible on screen, as she screeches and screams across an attractively decorated high-rise apartment, she brings a miraculous integrity to the role – you believe that she believes that a stiffly mobile six-inch doll is out to fuck her up. Though the results never rise far above camp, it's at least supremely memorable (and hilarious) camp, and for all the frankly ridiculous scenes that precede it, the finale retains the power to genuinely unnerve thanks to a final image that was purportedly conceived by Black herself, and which she executed with an enthusiastic, sadistic menace that suggested a kind of disturbingly joyous liberation for an actress stuck for too long playing the victim of masculine pathologies. 

Black's final decades found her mostly starring in straight-to-video genre vehicles like Children of the Night (1991) and Auntie Lee's Meat Pies (1992), content to assume the role of cult movie royalty in films that lacked the complexity of her best work but which nevertheless offered periodic glimpses of the demonic grandeur attained in Trilogy of Terror. American cinema needed more of her eccentric intelligence, but in her all-too-brief heyday, she made the marvel of New Hollywood Cinema a messier, stranger, and more heartbreaking experience.

Originally published in 2013 at the now defunct

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