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Monday, August 12, 2013

Karen Black 1939-2013

"There aren't any more movie stars, which is terrific with me, it's very healthy. A lot of love now occurs in the business, people helping each other to do good work, getting high on each other's success. Isn't that great?"

She rose to prominence as part of a new wave of "actor's actors" changing Hollywood in the late 1960s and 1970s, but would later redefine herself as what is often referred to as a "scream queen". Yet that simple term unfairly reduces the contributions she made, both to mainstream film and the horror genre, over the course of her 45-year career. Karen Black was a one of a kind, and has inspired a devoted following which was saddened to learn that she had lost her three-year battle with ampullary cancer last Thursday at the age of 74.

Born Karen Blanche Ziegler in Park Ridge, Illinois, she took her stage name from first husband Charles Black, whom she married at the tender age of 16. The marriage would last only seven years, but she would keep the name for the rest of her career. And she was advanced for her age in more ways than this, as at the time of her marriage she was already a student at Northwestern University. However, she was bitten by the acting bug early, and dropped out of college to head to New York and Lee Strasberg's world famous acting studio at age 17.

She started appearing in a number of off-Broadway roles in her late teens and early twenties, and even had her first bit part on screen in 1959 in the exploitation flick The Prime Time, at the age of 20. By 1965, she had debuted on Broadway to acclaim in the short-lived critical darling The Playroom. The following year, she got her first major screen role in the early Francis Ford Coppola film, You're a Big Boy Now.

By the latter part of the 1960s, Black had begun to establish herself amongst a new generation of young and hungry actors, born of the Stanislavsky method and eager to turn Hollywood on its ear--actors like Dennis Hopper, Jack Nicholson, Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman and others. It would in fact be her 1969 appearance alongside Hopper, Nicholson and Peter Fonda in the groundbreaking biker opus Easy Rider that would truly introduce her to the world as a major star.

Black turned her heads with her self-named role, and followed it up the next year with another turn co-starring with Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces. This time, she earned an Oscar nomination, and the first of two Golden Globe awards she would receive in her career. Karen Black had become one of the most buzzworthy actresses of the new decade--a decade in which she would participate in changing the face of American film.

At the apex of her career in the 1970s, Karen Black got to star in Coppola's adaptation of The Great Gatsby alongside Robert Redford; The Day of the Locust with Donald Sutherland and Burgess Meredith; and Airport 1975, in which she became the infamous "stewardess flying the plane" that would inspire the title and theme of Ron Hogan's excellent book on '70s cinema.

She would also begin to dabble in the horror genre, beginning with the horror-tinged thriller The Pyx in 1973, but starting in earnest in late 1974, when she took a major role in the TV movie Trilogy of Terror--mainly because her second husband, Robert Burton, had landed a part. The two would be divorced by the time the movie aired, but Black's sojourn into the realm of the dark and bizarre had begun. She followed it up in 1976 with starring roles in Dan Curtis' Burnt Offerings with Bette Davis, and in Family Plot, the final film of Alfred Hitchcock.

Karen Black's career would never again reach the heights it did during the 1970s. And although she once again turned heads in 1982 with an appearance in Robert Altman's Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, by this point she had embarked on a different stage of her career--one that would wind up defining her for the next quarter century. Karen Black had become a so-called "scream queen"--yet her acting chops and legit training helped her stand out from the pack of '80s horror starlets. In truth, she was a cut above.

Her resume during the 1980s would include such movies as Tobe Hooper's Invaders from Mars remake and It's Alive III: Island of the Alive. By the 1990s, she had settled firmly into B-horror shlock territory--her films of that era include the likes of Children of the Corn: The Gathering and other obscure direct-to-video fare. It was a far cry from starring roles in Francis Ford Coppola and Robert Altman pictures, but she continued to work steadily and had found a niche for herself which endeared her to legions of fans like never before.

Black's most memorable role of the new century, and perhaps the part for which she is most known to younger horror fans, would come in 2003 thanks to horror aficionado Rob Zombie. A fan of the genre--particularly the '70s and '80s era of splatter and exploitation, Zombie had been a big fan of Black's work and decided to thrust her back into the horror mainstream along with other cult favorites in his debut picture, House of 1,000 Corpses. As the unforgettable Mother Firefly, Black was the best thing about the film, and it instantly reminded fans of just what a talent and a gift to the genre she truly was.

Nevertheless, House of 1,000 Corpses didn't quite lead to the full career resurgence fans of Black had been hoping for, and she continued to ply her trade in B cinema for the remainder of the decade, most notably in the 2011 underground horror comedy Some Guy Who Kills People.

However, by that point, Black had already been forced to curtail her career thanks to a diagnosis of ampullary cancer in 2010. Through surgery and treatment, she was able to beat it within months, but it returned aggressively last year, and on August 8, 2013, with fourth husband Stephen Eckelberry by her side, it claimed her life.

Although her career trajectory did not follow the same path as many of her compatriots from those exciting game-changing days of the late '60s and early '70s, in her own way Karen Black left a mark that will never be forgotten. She found a niche and a formula that worked, keeping her working and beloved by fans of horror and B-movies for decades.

All in all--a legacy most actors would kill for.


teddy crescendo said...

She was a gorgeous bird when she was younger.

Tonya said...

Nice piece. She was truly one of a kind. Rest in peace Ms. Black.

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