Dana Stevens on the Always Compelling, Wonderfully Strange Karen Black

Slate's Culture Blog
Aug. 9 2013 3:24 PM

The Always Compelling, Wonderfully Strange Karen Black, 1939–2013

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Karen Black

Photo by Charley Gallay/Getty Images

There’s a reason a performance-art glam-punk band that formed in the ’90s chose to name themselves The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black (a borrowing that the actress herself, who died of cancer yesterday at age 74, graciously took as an honor): As her filmography attests, she always did have a deep affinity for freaks. Karen Black, who appeared in more than 100 films during the course of a 40-year career, seemed to carry her own atmosphere around with her; when she appeared on a movie or television screen, you knew something fascinating and sexy and probably disturbing was about to happen, and you stuck around to watch. Sometimes—as in the pulpy 1975 made-for-TV horror film Trilogy of Terror (available to watch in its entirety on YouTube)—the Black aura really could be described as one of voluptuous horror; other times, as in this scene from 1974’s The Great Gatsby (in which she played Myrtle Wilson, the sensuous working-class mistress of Gatsby’s rival), it was one of tremulous, doomed hope.

Dana Stevens Dana Stevens

Dana Stevens is Slate's movie critic.

Watch that scene from The Great Gatsby, and you’ll find yourself disappointed when the camera cuts away to Sam Waterston or Bruce Dern, who seem (as did most of the rest of the movie) banal and actorly in comparison. Karen Black’s face was the one you wanted to keep looking at, even off to the side in a small role: her wide, toothy smile and deep-set, slightly crossed eyes, her narrow, sloping cheekbones, her sculptured ski jump of a nose. She was beautiful in a way that leading ladies of her time generally weren’t (at least not American ones; it’s easy to imagine that face in an Antonioni drama or a Dario Argento giallo). There seemed to be something slightly off about her, a possibility of danger and chaos.

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Maybe that was what made Black so well suited to the cult horror roles she sub-specialized in later in her career. She was best known for her early string of roles as a simple but goodhearted proletarian type—Rayette, the needy waitress girlfriend of Jack Nicholson’s upper-class dropout in Five Easy Pieces; Myrtle in The Great Gatsby; a heroin-addicted prostitute in Easy Rider.* But when she went dark and Gothic and preferably low-budget, a whole different energy was unleashed. Possessed by the spirit of an evil Zuni doll in the last chapter of Trilogy of Terror or transformed into a murderous centuries-old woman at the end of Burnt Offerings, she wasn’t campily cute, she was genuinely horrifying. As horror changed, she changed with it, playing the matriarch of a comically disturbed family of killers in Rob Zombie’s self-aware 2003 exploitation flick House of 1000 Corpses.

And Black could sing. In Robert Altman’s Nashville she played a crude, conniving country star—and was nominated for a Grammy for two songs she wrote for her character, “Memphis” and “Rolling Stone.” Later in life she performed, outrageously costumed, with the girl-grunge pioneers L7 and recorded a smoldering version of the come-hither ballad “I Want a Lip” for the soundtrack of her 2001 film Gypsy 83.

To search for Karen Black clips on YouTube is to fall into a deliciously deep and twisty rabbit hole, so I’ll send you there to mourn her in your own way. And leave you with these two moments that touched me. Here’s Black at her home just a few months ago, as magnetic and intense as ever, passionately discussing something she just read about Thomas Hardy’s burial to a clearly outclassed young interviewer from Vice:

And here’s Black in an extraordinary scene with Ben Gazzara from the late ’60s TV series, Run for Your Life, about a dying man who travels around looking to put past mistakes in his life right. In a raw, intimate exchange about what death means to each of them, her character confesses, “I think what I fear most is extinction.” As long as Karen Black’s movies are around, she won’t have to worry about that.

* Correction, Aug. 9, 2013: This post originally referred to Rayette as a part Black played in Easy Rider. That was her character in Five Easy Pieces.