In Memoriam: Karen Black (1939-2013)

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indexOnce again, late night Facebook friend posts informed me of tragedy: the all too soon passing of actress Karen Black, who quietly battled cancer over the past three years before her death on Thursday at age 74, the only word being the updates provided via social media by her surviving husband Stephen Eckelberry. It was not a particularly large tribute, just enough to make me go and confirm it for myself, commemorating her for her performances in the Children of the Corn and It’s Alive franchises. While heartfelt tributes to celebrities are always welcome, the thought that their performances gave people so many memories, it’s often easy to forget that prolific actress Karen Black (who has 194 movies to her credit) was more than just another horror movie scream queen, who lent her likeness to B-movies like Invaders from Mars and Dinosaur Valley Girls in her later years.

Much of the actors and actresses who defined Hollywood’s Golden Age of the 1930s and ’40s are no longer with us, their likenesses being a distant memory. But Karen Black was of an era that was different and in many ways more daring, the age of Hollywood rebels, also known as the Movie Brat era that began in the late 1960s before reaching its peak in the mid-’70s, the first time in ages when independent filmmakers largely ran the studios, when legendary directors like Peter Bogdanovich, John Carpenter, Steven Spielberg, and Robert Altman enjoyed their new found freedom like a much needed breath of fresh air. For perhaps the first time since the dawning of cinemas, unique and heartfelt stories came to life onscreen in innovative ways. Karen’s passing means that we have lost yet another link to that era.

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Rebel director Robert Altman (far right), poses with actresses (from far left) Karen Black, Sandy Dennis and Cher.
Rebel director Robert Altman (far right), poses with actresses (from far left) Karen Black, Sandy Dennis and Cher.

It wasn’t just directors armed with a background of film school know-how that called the shots and brought their own brand of genius by itself, it was also the concept of method acting. While performers still continue to bring their own persona into the characters they play, (the way the Duke always played the Duke), more and more came the concept of an actor who got lost inside the head of their character, to become that person onscreen, a skill mastered most notably in the Movie Brat Era by Al Pacino (in Dog Day Afternoon) or Robert DeNiro (in Taxi Driver). Karen Black too was a method actor in the same tradition, one of the few women who have been given this distinction.

To her, all that was on set and stage was life – a trait that shined through her iconic roles – roles that were often a far cry from the glint and glamour that Tinseltown used to be all about. In Easy Rider, she played an acid-dropping prostitute. In Five Easy Pieces, a woman who finds herself trapped in a destructive relationship. Perhaps most memorably she lives on in my favorite movie Nashville, as Connie White, the country music singer (rumored to be based on Tammy Wynette) who has always come in second to her rival Barbara Jean (played by Black’s real-life friend, Ronee Blakeley.)

As part of director Robert Altman’s requirement to the cast, Karen Black composed and sang her own songs for the film, a so-called musical which uses the Grand Ole Opry music scene to tell a story of human dreams and aspirations. Through Connie White, she channels the ruthless desire to forge ahead with not talent, but raw ambition – that there is immortality to be found in stardom through billboards and posters and associations with famous people. Indeed, she is the first recorded voice heard as the film begins. When the glamorous Julie Christie makes a cameo as herself in the film, Connie dismisses her with the one-liner: “She can’t even brush her hair” – a line that Karen Black later admitted to improvising on the spot, drawing gasps from fellow cast members. There’s much more to Karen Black that will give her recognition beyond her cult status – characters with a soul only she could give them.