On the back of her appearances in the road movies Easy Rider (1969) and Five Easy Pieces (1970), Karen Black became one of the quintessential actresses in what is now regarded as a golden age in Hollywood cinema.
With lips often described as "full" and intense eyes that seemed just a little off-kilter, Black was no classic Hollywood beauty. But she excelled at playing both ordinary and extraordinary people. Rarely the star of a film, she was one of the foremost character actresses of the era, playing waitresses, prostitutes, dreamers and even a woman who used to be a man in Robert Altman's Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1982).
The film critic and historian Leonard Maltin put his finger on the secret of her success: "She came along at just the right time, as American cinema was changing. She didn't have a lacquered Hollywood look. She seemed like a real person, and that was exactly what the young film-makers whose careers were blossoming were looking for."
Black had her first significant film role in Francis Ford Coppola's You're a Big Boy Now (1966). But it was Easy Rider and Five Easy Pieces that really defined her, just as they defined the era. In Easy Rider she was a hooker who dropped acid with Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper in a New Orleans cemetery. In Five Easy Pieces she was the waitress romanced, made pregnant and dumped by Jack Nicholson.
Black often played losers. She was the ill-fated adulteress Myrtle Wilson, whose death sets off the final tragic cycle of events, in The Great Gatsby (1974), and Faye Greener, the talentless actress who dreams of stardom in The Day of the Locust (1975).
Black did play the heroine in Airport 1975, the stewardess who takes over the stricken aircraft after the pilot, co-pilot and most of the other crew are killed or incapacitated. It was a very silly film. She also had a rare lead role in Alfred Hitchcock's final film, Family Plot (1976).
Black continued making films until fairly recently, amassing almost 200 film and television credits, though the quality dipped in later years and she was often to be found in horror, including Rob Zombie's House of 1000 Corpses (2003). She reckoned that horror directors liked to cast her because her name was Black.
Karen Black seemed almost ubiquitous in Hollywood movies in the 1970s, appearing in around 30 in the course of the decade, including Drive, He Said (1971), Nicholson's directorial debut, Portnoy's Complaint (1971), Robert Altman's classic Nashville (1975), in which she played a country singer and for which she wrote several songs.
Black died of cancer on August 8, aged 74.
- © Fairfax NZ News