With those off-kilter features and that bold, confident carriage, she might have stepped out of Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon: Karen Black was one of the most striking and strange character actresses of the 1970s, though she became relegated to lesser roles—and, sometimes, uncharitable jokes about her failed career—in the years after. But Black at her best was really too idiosyncratic to be a huge star. Instead, the actress, who died in August after a battle with cancer, came to represent the kind of oddball beauty and cubist grace that could find a home in American movies of the ’70s. No one else looked or acted like Karen Black; no one could if they tried.
It’s time to reconsider Black, and BAMcinématek’s eight-film retrospective, which runs October 18 to 24, is a good place to start. The series includes some of the pictures for which Black was best known, like Dennis Hopper’s 1969 Easy Rider, in which she plays an acid-tripping prostitute, as well as Bob Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces (1970): Her depiction of Rayette, the waitress girlfriend of oil-rig worker Jack Nicholson, earned her an Academy Award nomination.
Even when Black wasn’t flashy, she was memorable, and arguably, she gave even better performances in less acclaimed movies. In Bill L. Norton’s marvelous Cisco Pike (1972), Black plays the self-possessed hippie girlfriend of Kris Kristofferson’s down-and-out drug-dealing Venice Beach musician; she hits the perfect balance between spaciness and shrewdness, two qualities you almost wouldn’t believe could exist in one character.
But Robert Altman may have known how to use her best. In Nashville, she plays a megastar country singer with shellacked hair and an equally lacquered demeanor. (Black also wrote and performed her own numbers for the movie.) Black’s features could look hard or soft depending on the role or the moment. In Nashville, as Connie White, she tilts heavily toward an angular, almost masculine determination, despite her sultry, country-sexy gowns. Connie doesn’t seduce her audience; she takes charge of them. When she performs at the Grand Ole Opry, she beams down at some eager little boys who have gathered at the front of the stage, bathing them in her klieg-light sex appeal. “What’s your name, honey?” she asks one of them with sugary faux benevolence. It’s as if she’s about to change them into gingerbread boys.
Altman gave Black an even more challenging role in 1982’s Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, his film version of Ed Graczyk’s play. Altman had directed the play on Broadway earlier that year, but it failed miserably. Thankfully, he committed it to film, even though it wilted at the box office, too, and in the years since its release, has been difficult to track down in any format. (BAM will be bringing a restored 35mm print, courtesy of the UCLA Film & Television Archive.)
The material is stiff and stagey. But what Altman’s actresses, Black in particular, do with it is remarkable. Five members of the James Dean fan club—played by Black, Sandy Dennis, Cher, Kathy Bates, and Marta Heflin—reunite at a Texas Woolworth’s 20 years after Dean’s death, each bringing along emotional baggage that apparently has grown heavier with each passing year. Black’s character, the tall, cool, sophisticated Joanne, may carry the most pain of all. She drives into town in a sleek sports car, and stalks into the diner in a look-but-don’t-touch white suit, appraising her old friends before she’ll allow herself to warm up to them.
As it turns out, Joanne used to be Joe, a sweet, fragile kid who hung out with the girls and who was as in love with James Dean as they were (in addition to being in a kind of love with one of them). Altman’s casting of Black is perfect, considering the somewhat androgynous angles of her face. But it’s Joanne’s vulnerability that Black brings to the fore. This is a character who left her small town because she had to; there was no possibility of acceptance there. Now, she’s imperious and aloof, like an Amazon from a tony cigarette ad. But when she confronts her friends and begins reeling out the story of what happened to her before she fully became Joanne, she reveals all the bruises beneath that marble surface, without overplaying a millisecond. Graczyk’s dialogue is overwrought, but Black wills it into submission with the skill of a snake charmer. Like the demoiselles in the painting, she appears to be all hard edges and angles; unlike them, she’s soft where it counts.
Credit: Images courtesy bam.org
Cutline: 1. Burnt Offerings; 2. Five Easy Pieces; 3. The Outfit