Karen Black’s bumpy road from stardom

Karen Black

by Seth Rogovoy

(NORTH ADAMS, Mass., December 10, 2003) – In the late 1960s and ‘70s, Karen Black acted in several movies now widely acknowledged to be all-time classics of a classic era in film, including “Five Easy Pieces,” “Easy Rider” and “Nashville.”

But when asked if she has a favorite role she played during that time, she has a surprising answer.

“I did a movie once called ‘The Pyx,’ and I liked that character, a heroin addict and a prostitute,” said Black, in a recent phone interview from her home in California. “She was very negative. I usually play very positive people. I am positive -- foolishly so – so that was a good balance.”

“The Pyx” is not out on DVD or video – I checked – so save yourself the trip to the video store. But Karen Black is appearing at a theater near you – live at Mass MoCA’s Club B-10 tonight at 8 in her one-woman show, “Karen Black: A View of the Heart.”

The show is sold-out.

As much as Black was a ubiquitous presence in the most critically-acclaimed, culturally relevant films of the ‘70s – she also appeared in 1974’s “The Great Gatsby” and Alfred Hitchcock’s final film, “Family Plot,” and garnered several Golden Globe and New York Film Critics Circle awards, as well as Oscar and Grammy nominations, along the way -- she has been something less since – a ubiquitous presence in schlocky B-movies, horror flicks and made-for-TV movies.

A run of films in the 1980s and ‘90s, including roles in “The Squeeze,” “Can She Bake a Cherry Pie?” and “Invaders from Mars” provoked film critic Leonard Maltin to write, “It seems inexplicable that an actress of her obvious talents could be so thoroughly wasted.”

Black’s journey from Lee Strasberg’s Actor’s Studio to Shakespeare in the Park to the zenith of film as countercultural art and subsequently to the nadir of film as disposable trash is one of those quintessential American stories featuring a character not unlike the ones played by Black in her prime. That journey presumably fuels the material in her show, part cabaret and part spoken word, part invention and part autobiography.

“A View of the Heart” had its genesis in the 1980s in conversations with a friend who liked the seemingly contradictory nature of Black’s opera-trained voice and its rough, country feel. “She liked the dichotomy,” said Black.

“We’d go over the songs until they really connected with me, telling an inner tale as I sing rather than just singing a song,” she said. “As time went on, I began to see that so much of what a person feels and thinks has to do with where they live, where they are. Place is just so vital.”

In her show, that emphasis on place extends to the place from where the song is delivered. “Why are people singing about ‘The Dock of the Bay’?,” said Black. “Why don’t they just really be there and then tell me about it? There needs to be a more theatrical sensibility. So I thought about these love songs that should be in the bedroom. To wake up in the morning and be in the bedroom, and the audience will see the actual person singing the song from the place where’d they be.

“Then I move out of the bedroom and we go to the bar. And then there are characters who sing for the bar or work at the bar or are drunk at the bar. And I play all these characters. I turn from one to the other. I also do some readings, from Faulkner and Katherine Ann Porter.”

Some of the songs will be familiar to the audience, and some are original compositions. “I’m very attracted to Delta blues -- that’s a thread that runs through it,” said Black.

As far as what happened to her career in film, Black takes issue with the prevailing notion that anything happened at all.

“I did only fourteen horror movies -- a few that were famous -- but I made a lot of other movies,” she said. “How these associations get made, I don’t know. It has only to do with what’s inside someone’s cranium.

“Besides, I think I’m very unrelated to that kind of movie and probably shouldn’t have done any of them.”

“People weren’t offering me roles, what was I supposed to do, not work?”

In any case, these days things are looking a lot better.

“I’ve done four movies this year,” said Black. “I’m doing a lot of wonderful movies. I work more than anyone I know.”

In spite of the work, Black admits that they don’t make them like they used to back in the day.

“There’s a certain ‘kempt’ – as opposed to unkempt -- quality of films that we exploded in the Seventies,” she said. “If one were to sit down and go over ‘American Beauty’ in plot, take it apart, if he hadn’t done that, if they hadn’t done that, it’s terribly ‘kempt,’ so knit together, so perfect.

“Whereas ‘Five Easy Pieces’ seemed to have a lot of loose ends. Everything had kind of a loose end and it was a lot more improvisational. Actors were just more natural. People were real and more natural. There’s just a shift, and it never shifted back, really.”

[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on December 12, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]

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