Thursday, November 1, 2012

The Voluptuous Beauty of Karen Black

Karen Black's 1986 ad that appeared in "Variety" touting the four films she had made that year
I found this interview on YouTube where Karen Black appears to be at some sort of motion picture-oriented trade show in Las Vegas, c. 1990, and is being interviewed by a local TV station.  The guy interviewing her has a sincere, likeable quality and gets a warm, relaxed interview out of Black.  She discusses a movie she just finished called "Tuesday Never Comes," which you can find here on YouTube.  I've seen it and, unfortunately, despite Ms. Black's professionalism and complete commitment to the part, it's terrible.  But when Black discusses it, compliments the film and the director, and gives indication that she's pleased with her role (as a drug addicted singer connected to the mob who gets raped and ultimately killed) she comes across as so genuine and sincere, you ultimately believe that she believes in the movie.  It reminds me of a wonderful documentary about Karen Black made in the late 1990s called "Karen Black: Actress at Work."


In the documentary, Black is depicted in the course of about a year working continuously in one low-budget movie after another.  She approaches each production, which are all far cries from the quality of films she was working on in her 1970s heyday, with the same level of enthusiasm as if she were still working with Robert Altman, Alfred Hitchcock, and Jack Nicholson.  There is never a "This is not good enough for me" attitude that you sometimes get with other actresses.  At the same time, in the documentary, you never get the feeling that Black has deluded herself into believing that these films are of a higher quality than what they are.  The beauty of the documentary and, ultimately, of Karen Black, is that she proves herself to be the consummate professional.  It's clear that she enjoys acting and doesn't denigrate the material she has been given, even if it is obvious that she deserves much better than what she is getting.

Karen Black as country singer Connie White in Robert Altman's "Nashville" (1975)
In the 1980s, Black's career went in an unexpected direction.  After making some of the finest American films in the 1970s, Black found herself in a position where she was cast in many low-budget films that frequently went straight-to-video.  There were dozens and dozens of these movies.  I saw as many of them as I could because I was fascinated at her unwavering professionalism under challenging circumstances.  She appeared in action films such as 1987's "Hostage"; a period comedy drama set after WWII co-starring Hoyt Axton and Tina Louise called "Dixie Lanes" (1988); a TV miniseries for Italian television about the life of Ernest Hemingway; a couple of silly comedies such as "Club Fed" (1990) with Judy Landers and the self-explanatory "The Invisible Kid" (1988), and several horror films (too numerous to list here).  As someone who greatly admired Black's career, I liked how she never stopped working in films.  Nevertheless, I still hoped that she would be able to bounce back and return to the quality of work she once enjoyed.

Black sings her own composition "I Don't Know if I Found it in You" in "Nashville" (1975)
In the mid-1990s, Black's career took a significant turn for the better.  She started working with young, ambitious filmmakers who admired her 1970s filmwork and wanted to have her contribute in a substantial manner to their debut features.  Even though the films were still low-budget, the roles she was offered improved because she was again working with directors who had vision and ambition.  Many of these movies mainly played at film festivals or on cable and art-house venues, but at least she no longer had to do films with titles like "Auntie Lee's Meat Pies" (1993) to make a living.  She was ultimately rewarded with a wonderful dual role in "Firecracker" (2005), a noir-ish drama about the troubled denizens of a small Kansas town, which was probably her best role since working with Robert Altman in "Come Back to the 5 and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean."  It was heartening to see her play a great role in a great film again.


Despite its ups and downs, I think Karen Black has had one of the most rewarding film careers in the history of cinema.  Even during that period in the 1980s when she was being cast in exploitation fare, the variety and kinds of roles she was being offered were still the sorts of parts that would only be offered to a talented actress.  In the South African action film, "Hostage," Black played a soft-core porn actress who is on an airline flight hijacked by terrorists.  She befriends the ill little boy on the flight and even agrees to sleep with one of the terrorists in exchange for the boy's freedom.  Black later has a nicely-written and beautifully acted monologue where she explains to the little boy's mother that she once acted as a surrogate mother for her childless sister and her husband so that they could have a baby of their own.  She was grieving over the fact that her sister, brother-in-law, and the boy that she gave birth to had recently died, and this motivated her decision to help the sick child on the flight as a way to make amends for the son she never got to know.  It's a scene that could have been maudlin, but Black evoked real feeling and depth in order to make you believe in this character.  Black's talent and professionalism in this instance confirms that there are no small parts, just small actors. 

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the tribute to Karen Black.

    I always loved Coppola's early "You're a Big Boy Now" (1966), her earliest major film, in which she played a mousy role which remains memorable despite having to compete with considerable scenery-chewing by Geraldine Page's mother-from-hell, Elizabeth Hartman's bitch-sadist, and Julie Harris' marvelously-named Miss Thing.

    She made a vivid impression in "Nashville," one of my five favorite films, in a subtle performance enhanced by her singing. Poor Connie White, who could stand-in-for but never replace the ethereal Barbara Jean.

    In the '80's, she tried to capitalize on her musical abilities by performing a cabaret act which I saw at Les Mouches in NYC (http://www.nytimes.com/1982/09/29/arts/pop-many-voices-of-karen-black.html). I saw it and must confess that it was heartfelt but not very good. What a terrible shame that Hollywood couldn't find any better use for her in her later career.

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