Karen Black has died. She was 74. Her death is news that has truly saddened me, as she was one of my favorite actresses. Black could take the smallest of roles and not only make it her own, but markedly raise its significance in what ever production she found herself acting in. From playing Fran, the kidnapper in Alfred Hitchcock’s last film, “Family Plot”, opposite Bruce Dern, to the ditzy, ever yapping girlfriend of Jack Nicholson in “Five Easy Pieces”, Black had a screen presence you never forgot, and longed to see more of, even if it meant her being removed from the source material.
Black acted so naturally, so believably and so pleasingly in any number of turns, that I could see her characters – no matter how small or supporting they may have been – spun off into more mainstream, even leading capacities. Take her turn as incredibly loquacious girlfriend, Rayette, in “Five Easy Pieces”. In lesser acting hands, the role could have been so annoying, you’d wish she just go away. With Black, there was a sympathetic, even likeable quality which permeated every scene. Her work in the film earned her a Best Supporting Academy Award nomination.
The legendary Bette Davis co-starred opposite Black in the 1977 horror movie, “Burnt Offerings” – also starring Oliver Reed (Gladiator). Dan Curtis of “Dark Shadows” and “Kolchak: The Night Stalker” fame directed the now cult flick. Curtis would also direct Black in his similarly cult favorite, “Trilogy Of Terror”, where Black plays an impressive four roles in three terror tales. In the final story, and the most popular, Black literally morphs into a primeval beast of rage – courtesy of a ‘Zuni Fetish Doll’. The spooky TV flick was so well received, a sequel was launched years later, starring British actress Lysette Anthony.
Of the dozens of fine performances Black gave over the years, perhaps my single favorite is her playing the dissatisfied auto mechanic’s wife in “The Great Gatsby” – starring Robert Redford, Scott Wilson (The Walking Dead) and Mia Farrow. Her supporting performance is so raw, so harrowing, so pathetically slutty, yet again, somehow Black manages to make it sympathetic. Her haunting fate lingers with you far after the main story concludes.
Karen Black was one of those rare performers who made you stop channel surfing and take a chance on a movie or TV show, despite its overall production quality. It’s said that a good actor or actress can’t make a bad script good, but actresses like Karen Black can always elevate material to a point where it was at least more watchable, or even enjoyable.